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976-Evil (1988)

Director: Robert Englund
Starring: Stephen Geoffreys, Patrick O'Bryan, Sandy Dennis, Lezley Deane
Rated R

With the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise at the height of its popularity, Robert England (SLASHED DREAMS; EATEN ALIVE) was able to parlay his success as wise-cracking, child-murdering Freddy Kruger into a directing gig for New Line Cinema. The result was this mostly forgettable 80's cheesefest that plays like Freddy lite.

Stephen Geofferies (FRIGHT NIGHT) stars as a character named Hoax (Why? Who knows....). He's a nerdy little dude who is being bullied by a group of not-very-scary jerks at school. He doesn't find any comfort at home, where he lives with his loony, religious nut Aunt (Sandy Dennis) and a horde of cats. The only people who are nice to him are his cousin and protector, Spike, and Spike's girlfriend (Lezley Dean). Hoax's world changes for the better when he starts calling a 976 number that gives unusally prescient horoscopes. He becomes obsessed with calling the number, and soon begins to acquire supernatural powers. Hoax seeks revenge against his tormentors, and a large pit that leads to hell appears in his backyard. Spike and Lezley must act to save Hoax from the force on the other end of the phone: the devil himself.

976-EVIL is representative of the kind of watered down and thoroughly sanitized horror that began rearing its ugly head in the late 80's. It was a great decade that featured some truly incredible and ballsy movies (RE-ANIMATOR, STREET TRASH, MANIAC, and NEKROMANTIK, among others), but one that ended on a sad note. With MPAA pressure to deliver “R” ratings, coupled with the financial success of the mega-franchises like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13th, and the aforementioned NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, the major studios took safe route by rehashing the same formula over and over, but a little weaker each time. Huge multiplexes began crowding out the smaller independent theaters, which meant that smaller, edgier, and more interesting films went unseen, while expensive, quickly produced studio dreck flooded every venue in America. In time, home video would become the great equalizer, but before that happened, what began passing for mainstream “horror” was fluffy, sterile, and hopelessly dull.

Robert England's first directorial effort has all of those unfortunate characteristics. It's not scary (nor does it attempt to be), it has a killer that always has a one-liner at the ready, it relies on special effects (by the great Kevin Yagher), and is devoid of gore, sex, or anything fun at all. The most notable aspect of the movie is the completely whacked-out performace of Sandy Dennis as the loony Aunt. Wearing an atrocious wig and staggering around like a mental patient, Dennis gives a performance that is more fun than anything else in the movie. Aside from her, there's little of interest here. The story, which comes off like a less entertaining rehash of EVILSPEAK, is really nothing more than a device to showcase a few effects set-pieces, accompanied by cringeworthy jokes from the very annoying Geoffries. It isn't a bad movie. The problem is it isn't much of anything at all.

You get the sense that New Line was hoping 976-EVIL would be the beginning of a new franchise they could milk for another decade. It was not to be, though a sequel, 976-EVIL 2 (directed by Jim Wynorski), appeared on video store shelves a few years later. Meanwhile, Stephen Geoffries went on to a rewarding career in the gay porn industry, and Robert Englund's career as a director stalled out shortly thereafter. He would re-emerge with 2007's execrable KILLER PAD, a movie that made 976-EVIL look a whole lot better.