After a former student is killed answering a ringing payphone in a subway, uber-liberal professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) discovers that she was just an unlucky victim, at the wrong place at the wrong time. The bigger picture is that there’s a disgruntled former phone company employee on the loose, hellbent on revenge against his employers. And the phone company itself—still a giant monopoly prior to the government dissolution of “Ma Bell”—is covering the man’s tracks, lest the rest of the world discover that it’s their technology, funded by the Defense Department (naturally), that’s responsible for creating this monster. So the last thing they need is some nosy former-hippie on their asses, screwing everything up in the name of “Truth and Justice”. Doesn’t he know there’s a war on? Or will be eventually?
Bells is another of those great VHS gems long forgotten in the digital age. Logan’s Run director Michael Anderson took the reins of the Canadian tax shelter film, and despite the relatively simple story, he’s working with a script authored by three screenwriters (Michael Butler (Pale Rider), Dennis Shryack (Turner and Hooch), John Kent Harrison (Shock Waves and the director of A Wrinkle in Time) built on a “Story’ by no-less than four scenarists (James Whiton (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and George Armondo(his only credit, which implies he stopped by the office one day and said “The killer could use a rotary phone too!”). Surprisingly, the result is less incoherent than you might expect and moves along at a pretty decent clip. And with Chamberlain and Orson Welles’ buddy John Houseman heading the cast, the performances are above par, to say the least (one exception being Gary Reineke as a cop who seems to think that he has to shout every line—insert early ‘80s phone reception joke here). The oppressive atmosphere is aided by a better-than-average John Barry score.
Most revelatory of Bells is its unabashed bashing of corporate culture. Though early in the Me-Generation “Greed is Good” ‘80s, we have our do-gooder Democrat as one of the sole Jedi Knights of honor up against the faceless companies hell-bent on ruling the world. Anderson makes great use of towering skyscrapers to remind us all that we’re all under the monolithic thumb of Big Business. While this is nothing new of today’s world—between the paranoia of Yahoo! News message board posters, movies like Eagle Eye and The International reminding us just who’s in charge, and let us not forget the Supreme Court granting sentience and human rights to corporate entities—in the early ‘80s, this was still the stuff of the conspiracy-minded, who saw a Watergate-like scandal behind every brand-name. Which, of course, turned out to be nauseatingly prescient. Of course, Bells isn’t the first movie to tie the phone company juggernaut in with the shadowy forces of the government (1967’s satirical The President’s Analyst comes immediately to mind), it doesn’t make the implications any less chilling. And now we’re all-too aware that no industry has any of our best interests in mind beyond their bottom line, it’s depressing that this message was delivered—and ignored—by an ostensibly disposable horror/thriller: “We can’t let the public know one of our former employees is murdering people using “safe” technology—think of our stockholders!” It’s actually surprising that Hollywood hasn’t already remade this film for present day, capitalizing on the throwaway line that “there will be 1.4 trillion phones in the world by the year 2000”, incorporating ubiquitous cell-phones, skyping, blue-tooth and the like, and we’d have a game-changing paranoid genocidal nightmare making Luddites of us all.
During its initial release, Bells didn’t fare too well at the box office. Released in the U.S. under the title Murder by Phone, it became a staple of mom-‘n-pop video stores, hidden amongst the teen-slashers, and is mostly forgotten today. But just like its cheesy and misleading box-art, Bells’ cheap veneer hides an unsettling underlayer, dated yet relevant, and deserves to be rediscovered. Not currently available on DVD, and not even that easy to find from your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.