“Dial: Help” (1988)/Directed By: Ruggero Deodato
“Dial: Help” is a film that I put off watching for quite a while. It’s directed by Ruggero Deodato (“Cannibal Holocaust”, “Bodycount” from just a couple weeks ago here on Fearphile) and I kept seeing it mentioned as a giallo film from the 80’s which certainly isn’t the subgenre’s peak, though I’ve seen quite a few that warrant mention (“Nothing Underneath”, “Delirium”, and “Phantom of Death”). Despite some lukewarm reviews, I finally settled down to watch “Dial: Help” not really knowing anything about it or what to expect.
What I got really isn’t giallo at all. This is Deodato’s take on supernatural horror a la Argento’s “Suspiria” or “Inferno”. At his best, Deodato’s style has always been based on realism. “Cannibal Holocaust”, the original found footage film, is one of the most visceral “holy shit is this really happening right now” films I’ve ever experienced. That movie made me feel physically ill, and “Dial: Help” also made me say “holy shit is this really happening right now” because it’s about A KILLER PHONE! Yes, just like the aforementioned Argento films, “Dial: Help” plays fast and loose with the realm of possibility. It took me a minute to get into the groove as I was expecting a traditional giallo with a black gloved killer, fedora, and loads of pent up sexual frustration…ok, we do get plenty sexual frustration but none of the other tropes.
Jenny is a struggling model in Rome who is currently dealing with the heartbreak brought on by some guy who refuses to call her back. Jenny doesn’t take it well. In her attempts to reach this faceless Lothario, she accidentally dials the wrong number which belongs to a vacant help line office. This awakens “the energy” of the spirits trapped within the recordings from all the depressed, lovelorn, suicidal souls (this isn’t actually explained – this is merely my take away). This energy begins to stalk Jenny through the phone and knock off anyone who might get in its way. The ghost(s?) in this film are hard up for love and it only has eyes for Jenny. Her dorky but cute neighbor, Riccardo, is the only one who believes her wild stories and is all too eager to help out in hopes she winds up in his arms by the time the credits roll. Of course, I won’t spoil whether or not Riccardo gets his wish.
This is a bizarre tale that moves from one odd setpiece to the next as Jenny and Riccardo attempt to solve the mystery and stop the maniacal dial tone stalker. There’s some moments of genuine tension, some nice moments of gooey red stuff, and those who like a slab of sexy female flesh with their horror will be pleased by a couple moments of lunacy when the sexy Charlotte Lewis is practically possessed by the evil energy into using the telephone receiver as her personal vibrator and is hoodwinked into putting on quite the burlesque number for an audience of one rotary dial. To top it all off, the film looks beautiful which is to be expected of an Italian film of this era. There are some scenes during a heavy downpour of rain that equal anything in a flashy Hollywood production. No, the palette isn’t of the candy coated variety like an Argento film and there’s no otherworldly Fuci fog, but “Dial: Help” makes up for all of this with sheer what the fuckery. It might not look like a nightmare come to life but it plays out like one. Surprisingly enough there’s also some interesting subtext here in regards to the negative energy we waste at the end of a relationshion and how it can leave us feeling stuck. We watch the character of Jenny move from a desperate girl clinging to a dead end romance to someone who’s more in charge of her life and sexuality. It’s subtle and never on the nose but it’s there…ya know, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
An elongated scene in the subway truly wracks up the tension as our heroine rushes to find a friend of hers working on the telephone lines while being stalked by a truly rapey-looking creeper is a standout that ends in one of the best bonkers moments in the film. This is where I was truly hooked by the film. I realized what I was watching was completely off the wall ridiculous and I just went with it. Much like the scene in “Inferno” when Argento sends a hot dog cart careening towards one of our characters as a means to their death, you either go along with it or you probably tune out. If you saw that scene and didn’t bat an eye (or if you did bat an eye but said “what the hell, why not?”) then I implore you to seek out Dial: Help. I can’t give this a general recommendation because a lot of viewers are just going to see it as silly and dumb. Personally, it’s a truly underrated film that might not be enjoyed by everyone, but those who like trippy and gonzo Italian horror should certainly seek it out.
“In case of emergency…don’t touch that dial!”
What a terrible trailer.