Bells aka Murder By Phone (1982) Directed by Michael Anderson. Starring Richard Chamberlain, John Houseman, and Sara Botsford. A college professor tries to stop an angry former telephone company employee, who has developed a deadly sonic weapon that can kill over the phone.
They say the opening scene or page should grab you, and Bells begins with an absurdly endearing bang. After a suspiciously clean-looking subway car lets out into a stop so well maintained that it looks futuristic, an elderly male passenger falls on the platform leading to the escalator. A kindly young woman helps him up and then answers a nearby ringing pay phone.
There’s no one on the other end but a freaky sounding dial tone, which causes the woman to have a seizure and bleed from her orifices.
Then lightning strikes out of the phone and her already dead body is blown backward onto the escalator.
A shocked homeless woman comes upon the corpse and the now flaming telephone.
When I put the original uncut version of the film on, I needed to be sold on this killer phone bit. The first two minutes of the flick sealed the deal.
Edited and inaccurately repackaged in 1982 as a teen slasher film by Roger Corman and released in America under the title “Murder By Phone,” “Bells” is actually the ambitious Canadian horror/sci-fi work of British director Michael Anderson.
We are introduced to our hero, Professor Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain). What kind of professor, you ask? Some sorta environmental science type thing. He’s helping students conduct an electromagnetic experiment early on.
I was hoping he would teach Soundology, a field that would make him uniquely suited to combating homicidal noises.
Soundology is very much a real branch of the sciences. Look it up. One of his lectures includes the following terms:
He’s teaching something, bless his heart. No idea what it is.
Even though he’s an intellectual, we know he’s a bit of a badass, too. He has a thick beard like R.J. MacReady, wears an outdoorsy jacket and drives an Army green jeep.
Bridger visits a farmer who is the father of the subway victim, Sandra Thorner. She was one of Nat’s best students and the Thorner family asks the professor to put his skill set to work in determining whether the girl died from a heart attack at 19 or something more suspicious.
An executive named Gordon Smith gets a phone call in his plush office. A voice says:
“It was mine, Gordon. You stole it from me.”
Before Gordon can even retort, he is blasted by the now familiar death tone. This time, the handset glows with blue energy and blasts Smith and his chair straight out the window of a skyscraper. He plunges dozens of stories before smashing into the employee parking lot below.
It is one of the most entertaining looking cinematic deaths I’ve seen in a good long while.
Bridger calls the police to obtain Sandra’s belongings at the request of the family, who are apparently too lazy to collect her stuff themselves. The cops prove pretty unhelpful, especially since Nat is not a blood relative of the deceased. The lead detective, Lt. Meara, mockingly calls him “Nature Boy” due to Bridger’s environmental studies. Meara thinks Sandra simply died of natural causes and closes the case. Still, our hero acquires the belongings and verbally dresses down the detective.
At the mansion home of a wealthy friend named Stanley, Bridger goes through Sandra’s things. He finds a plastic bag filled with one dollar bills, then has a philosophical argument with Stanley about his past as a social activist.
Nat takes the subway home and gets off at Sandra’s last stop. He is approached by the bag lady who found Sandra’s body. In exchange for money, he wants intel.
“A girl died here about a month ago..”
“On phone. Lightning!”
“No. Heart attack. Did you see-“
“She on phone hit by lightning.”
In broken English, the woman explains that her eyewitness account was dismissed as nonsense. She directs Bridger to the specific bank of phones where the death occurred. He notes that one of the telephones is brand new.
In a suburban home, a teenage boy on roller skates picks up a ringing phone in the living room. His mother admonishes him to go clean up a mess he made, so he places the handset on a table. She picks up the kitchen phone. The man on the other end instructs her to hang up the other phone so the boy cannot hear, and then kills her with the death tone.
This time around, we get an exploding kitchen sink and the screaming woman thrown into a glass hutch. Meh.
The police understandably dismiss Nat’s theory about lightning streaming out of phone lines, so the teacher goes directly to the phone company itself. He wants to know why the pay phone at Sandra’s stop was replaced with a new one, and is introduced to executive John Websole.
It’s pretty clear immediately that John knows exactly why the deaths are happening.
He dismisses Bridger’s interest in Sandra’s death and the strangely replaced payphone as paranoid ramblings of a crazed environmentalist. Nat points out that he never even told anyone at the company what his profession was, so where did they get ‘environmentalist’ from? Oh, SNAP!
Before he storms out, Nat asks phone scientist Ridley Taylor out on a dinner date that night. Though neither of them exchanges contact information in any form, they agree to rendezvous.
Damn. That old, smooth environmentalist charm works every time!
Up to his old tricks again, Bridger calls the phone company and reports a payphone stolen from the stop where Sandra died. He then cuts the handset’s cord, pockets the phone and waits to see who repairs them in this part of the city.
The killer approaches a bank that’s closed for the day. He angrily raps on the window with an umbrella and a pretty blonde teller asks him to come back tomorrow.
Looks like the bank is about to get a call.
The repairman eventually shows up to fix the severed phone, and Bridger immediately strikes up a conversation with him. The worker reveals that the damage to the last receiver he fixed at this site was unnatural and that several more burned telephones have turned up at death scenes across the city.
Finally, we’re getting somewhere.
The perky bank employee who turned away the killer comes home from a date to find her apartment phone ringing off the hook. It’s probably one of those telemarketers again. She races through a hideous beige and brown room and tosses her blue trench coat on the floor. Beneath it, she is wearing only lingerie. What kind of a date WAS this? As she picks up the call and seizes, we see the instrument of her doom: a souped-up soundboard with switches, dials, and red lights. Unimpressive!
On his date, Nat puts forth his daring theory that phones are murdering people. Ridley offers blueprints, data and any information he wants. Nearby, a photographer snaps pictures of the pair.
Bridger learns that Lt. Meara is known for pursuing batshit insane leads and had previously cracked a case involving the Deputy Mayor killing a man, despite political pressure and death threats. Nat urges the cop to look for signs of massive electrical shock in Sandra and other victims.
True to her promise, Ridley gives Nat access to company tech files. Later, he confronts the photographer following him around. He turns out to be a phone company lackey, and Bridger beats him across the face with his own camera before being arrested. After his rather swift release from a holding cell, Nat and Stanley take the phone company tour. Bridger breaks off from the pack to snoop around.
In the super duper secret Sound Lab, he witnesses a technician creating an electrically charged sound wave that shatters objects.
Ridley reveals that Websole knows everything about the informal inquiry and that she’s furious with Nat for creating all this ruckus that could endanger her job. He responds by smothering her anger in kisses and having sex with her.
She agrees to help him fight Websole, and they recruit Stanley in their schemes. But is Stan really on their side? About an hour in, a vital piece of information collected from a crime scene ultimately unmasks the killer.
Despite everyone knowing that phones can kill, these dummies sure do pick up the damn things with no hesitation. If I learned that microwaves everywhere were slaughtering people that used them, I probably would refrain from popping my Hungry Man into one. But in this thrill ride, a bunch of people investigating deadly phone calls are like:
“I’m about to put together all the clues related to these phone murders. Lemme just answer this call first.”
There’s a late 70’s TV movie vibe at work here beneath the nutty premise. Big corporations are bad, and the counterculture environmentalist is good. The set design and dressing reeks of the time period, right down to what was considered opulence in the boardrooms and Stanley’s tacky mansion. If you like orange, brown and Earth tone walls, here’s your movie.
Every time someone agrees to help Bridger, we know they’ll be getting a deadly call. And yes, after the first two murders, the killings lose their charge of freshness. I guess lightning can only strike twice. But the central mystery remains compelling throughout and there are a couple well executed close calls. I began to wonder halfway through if the film had been Stephen King’s inspiration for the novel “Cell,” in which an electronic signal turns anyone who picks up the phone into a slavering madman.
Gary Reineke, who plays Lt. Meara, is terrific as the initially skeptical cop who proves a loyal friend later on. Chamberlain carries the film as exactly the sort of studly Al Gore-wannabe who warns everyone about the dangers of pollution, deadly technology, etc. As a character, Nat Bridger is a 1970s hippie hero archetype we’ve seen a hundred times before. The performance itself is fine, but it carries the baggage of stereotypes. It is his grudge against corporate types that is mirrored by the killer.