Look Back: Ruggero Deodato's Dial: Help (1988)

Cinema history is littered with movies and storylines that take suspension of disbelief way beyond breaking point and into a realm of strangeness from which it can never return. (And who doesn't love that?) Cinema is inherently dreamlike. It’s always worth bearing that in mind. And also that some film-dreams are crazier than others.

Ruggero Deodato is infamous for works such as Cannibal Holocaust (1979) and The House on the Edge of the Park (1980). There is something inherently sleazy about his films and a sadistic streak is prevalent, too. He’s very much a director appealing to humankind’s baser instincts. Pictures laced with mighty doses of cynicism and po-faced sensation, Ruggero's filmography is both fascinating and repellent. (That’s actually a compliment.) He has worked in a host of genres throughout his long career but without a doubt the horror titles struck the loudest chord. 

His 1988 fantasy shocker, Dial: Help (Italian title: Minaccia d’amore), featured a most peculiar narrative scenario: a possessed telephone that terrorised victims out of misplaced affection. Released theatrically in Italy, the movie went direct-to-video just about everywhere else in the world and under a variety of titles.

Most likely to be assigned and labelled in the annals of horror as ‘trash cinema’, Deodato’s film is actually far too aesthetically polished to deserve such a dubious honour. It's not at all terrible. Completely insane, yes. Mind-crushingly incompetent and terrible? Not a chance. There is even a hint of subtext to be gleaned in the form of a cautionary tale for our techno-savvy age. We love our phones but what if they ever loved us back and tried to kill us? 

Yes, Dial: Help is an entertaining picture (which is not entirely unexpected given the sheer what-the-fuckness of its plot). However, filing it under ‘So bad, it’s good’, feels like a cheat. The glossy-magazine photography is visually coherent and well stylised, and the set-pieces an absolute hoot. Deodato is a strong and skillful craftsman, if anything. No matter how odd the project and no matter how outrageously presented, plenty of Italian directors would manage to inject a certain level of panache into the material, elevating the project to way past what it deserved. 

Deodato’s gnocchi horror picture show is centred on a possessed, lovesick telephone forming an unhealthy attachment to a young British woman living in Rome. The damsel in distress is played by Charlotte Lewis (Pirates, The Golden Child). Further adding to the lunatic flavour of the piece Deodato and his co-writers, Joseph and Mary Cavara, attempt to - and fair play to them - explain the cause of all the angst. They didn't leave the movie hanging on an irrational hook. Here it is: a Samaritans helpline somehow turned recorded messages of angst and loneliness into a volatile and malevolent force. So no need for an ‘origins story’ prequel, there. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Oh, wait, this wasn’t a hit movie in wont of a follow-up. 

In a scene towards the end of the second act, an academic character, who of course studies occult and weirdy beardy stuff, named Professor Klein, and played by Spaghetti Western regular William Berger, announces: “The energies of love and hate circulate throughout the universe. Under certain conditions they condense and concentrate themselves. These deposits of energy seek a way out. They can be so powerful as to magnetise and seduce the person who liberated them.” 

Dial: Help also provides a quintessential example of how Italian exploitation cinema would riff on established and trendy genres and photographic styles. One gets the feeling that Deodato watched Adrian Lyne and Tony Scott promo reels and films available to him at the time, as research. There is also a top-shelf porno magazine 'look' present and S&M imagery. The film’s poster featured Lewis in a négligée wrapped with recording tape. Jenny in one scene, under soft-focus softcore lighting, withers about in the grasp of orgasmic delight, in a bathtub. At the film’s ‘climax’ she is tied up with recording tape as the telephone traps her in the office of the Samaritans. (I can't help but feel this is a VHS nostalgia freak's ultimate sex-play scenario. The safe word: 'Memorex.') 

In a 1999 interview with Italian critic Gian Luca Castoldi for the book Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato (FAB Press, 1999), the director admitted he’s rather fond of Dial: Help calling it a ‘delicious film’ and went on to say: ‘It’s a fantasy film and this is the reason why I like it. This is the type of fantasy film I like. Zombie films don’t interest me, a telephone which falls in love, yes.’

As noted, the major theme in Dial: Help is one of ill communication. Jenny Cooper starts off trying to make a call to her boyfriend Marco and finds the number constantly engaged. You’d think this would be portent for Jenny alone, but no. Neither does she think to go round his flat and tell him in person that she loves him. Instead, Jenny finds herself incorrectly ringing a desolate former office of the Samaritans and a psychic force attaches itself to the poor girl and proceeds to torment her with abandon. 

Is Dial: Help an anti-technology piece? Today we e-mail, instant message, Facebook and tweet with obsessive focus. Face-to-face communication is becoming a thing of the past. (That’s so #20thcentury.) We now live in a world where people sat next to each other are likely to be tweeting or texting away than enjoying a conversation. So is the film then a conservative – even reactionary – piece of film-making, or just a wild fantasy that takes suspension of disbelief interstellar and through a 2001-like star field?

Dial: Help is clearly in a league of its own when it comes to movie scenarios, for sure, but it is closely modeled on the slasher flick, a sub-genre at that time pretty much dead, buried and waiting for Wes Craven to resurrect it with Scream (1996). 

Deodato (for reasons known only to him) included a traditional slasher stalking scene, but from a telephone’s POV. Yes, an inanimate object is given a point-of-view moment, as it closes in on a person getting in the way of his relationship with Jenny. In the history of cinematic oddities and bizarro scenes, this is definitely Top Ten territory.

There is also a chase sequence on the grotty Rome underground, in which the monstrous energy chases poor Jenny and whips up an electrical shitstorm, via manipulated phone lines and power cables. Other set-pieces include: a payphone shooting out coins at a person’s head; a fish tank boiling of its own accord, and a scientist’s pacemaker exploding in an airport lounge just as he’s delivered salient information to our heroine. 

The moral of the story (if we can read it as such) is this: if you want to communicate a message to somebody, why not speak to them in person? Waiting around for that telephone call can fray the nerves. (Kraftwerk even wrote a tune about this very theme.) Plus, if you dial a wrong number and get through to a crazy phone line that wants to kill you out of obsessive adoration, things will just go to hell pretty darn quickly.