976-EVIL II (1991): Dial, Dial, My Darling!

Ahead of the first film’s U.K. Blu-ray bow, Matty urges you to revisit Jim Wynorski’s vastly superior sequel. 

Time and hype are fickle mistresses, and it never takes long for the flavour of the month to spoil. 

Look at 976-EVIL (1988).

Co-written by future Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland and produced by Paul Hertzberg’s CineTel Films, back in the day, this supernatural shocker was pimped to oblivion in the pages of Fangoria and just about any other horror rag or fanzine you’d care to mention, it’s rep resting solely on the fact it was the directorial debut of the mighty Robert Englund. Then at the height of Freddy fever thanks to the Nightmare on Elm Street series’ infiltration of pop culture, Englund was the horror genre’s biggest star since Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. And boy oh boy, did the wily pro work his crowd.

“You get your scares, you get your gore, and you get your amputations,” Englund stated with his usual infectious charm in Fangoria #73 [1]. “I hope Fangorians surrender themselves to the movie and go with the story. I want the audience to be disturbed by it… It’s a nasty, profane and evil little movie. It’s an X. It’s almost Grand Guignol.”

Of course, it helped that Englund was talking to the peerless Chas. Balun: a journalist who, for all his brilliance as a writer, could easily be duped into believing a new horror classic was on the horizon if you promised him a shedload of splatter and a pair of tits. What a surprise it must have been, then, when 976-EVIL was released and it turned out to be — yep — a bit of a clunker. Despite boasting some great Kevin Yagher FX — and despite the surprisingly well-regarded cult status it’s accrued in the years since — Englund’s picture is a drab and strangely depressing slog with a pace slacker than a yokel’s jaw. Nevertheless, the film did decent business on video, and CineTel, true to Hertzberg’s ‘cater to the market’ ethos, were keen to get a sequel going. 

Alas, by that point, the damage had been done. Early chatter in Fango et al tarred 976-EVIL’s mooted follow-up with the rather annoying and smug ‘sequels we don’t need’ brush — a school of thought that intensified once Englund stepped aside as director [2]. Enter Jim Wynorski: a helmer for whom shits are not given as far as mainstream acceptance or critical kudos goes. 

Equal parts workhorse and auteur, prior to signing on to 976-EVIL II (1991), Wynorski had carved a niche as Roger Corman’s heir apparent, blasting out a bevy of gloriously giddy B-movies for the king of such fine filmic fodder — the immortal Chopping Mall (1986), and underappreciated gems Not of this Earth (1987) and Transylvania Twist (1989) among ‘em. He was also gaining a reputation as an accomplished purveyor of crackerjack sequels to other peoples’ films, with Deathstalker II (1987), Big Bad Mama II (1987), The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), and Sorority House Massacre II (1990) already to his name when he was offered 976-EVIL II’s reins. An obligatory mention of several subsequent Wynorski joints likewise reveals a wealth of numbers and numerals, the prolific maestro going on to wield the megaphone on Ghoulies IV (1994), Body Chemistry III (1994) and Body Chemistry 4 (1995), as well as scripting Beastmaster 2 (1991) and House IV (1992). But don’t let that fool you: as motivated by his indefatigable love of moviemaking as he is the monetary side of things, Wynorski never accepted any old assignment. As the man himself once remarked, Wynorski would only do a sequel if he felt he could improve on the original film.

And improve he did with 976-EVIL II

Whereas the stodgy first flick was a real chore to sit through, Wynorski’s bottle rocket  is a tour-de-force of energy and imagination. Granted, the spectre of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) still looms over proceedings, but it’s a comparison that’ll always be tough to shake given the fact the first film was shepherded by Englund and clumsily trundled along the same tightrope of jolts n’ japes that so defined the Elm Street saga’s later instalment. Thankfully, it’s a mix that the eternally boisterous Wynorski owns in 976-EVIL II. He conjures a stack of powerful serio-comic scare sequences that both expertly call to mind the dreamscapes of Wes Craven’s magnum opus, and veer close to Lynchian levels of reality-splitting intensity.

The mood is set with a glorious opening gambit; a passage of impeccably orchestrated weirdness that juxtaposes the cool sterility of a swimming pool with a queasy, pastel-tinged colour palette as one of Wynorski’s patented buxom babes (Surrey-born model/actress Karen Mayo-Chandler, who sadly died of breast cancer in 2006) is terrorised by 976-EVIL II’s Krueger-esque bad guy. A zippily assembled chase through a community college’s locker room and drama department auditorium (which, in a move totally in keeping with the film’s central plot, is dressed for a production of Goethe’s Faust — to be directed by Joe Bob Briggs and overseen by a certain ‘Roger Gorman’!) with a nice bloody payoff, it’s shot with genuine pomp and authority, and Wynorski exhibits a robust understanding of how everyday banalities can become frightening with the appropriate visual and aural cues. Englund might have failed, but even a nudge into a wall-mounted telephone oozes malevolence in Wynorski’s style and tempo-driven hands, his fixation on the endless ringing creating a piercing feeling of unease that rivals the device’s more iconic use in Bob Clark’s icy masterpiece, Black Christmas (1974).

Further A-grade frissons in this exemplary B-chiller (976-EVIL II’s actual budget was substantially lower than the $5million CineTel claimed in press materials) include a pig head trophy springing to life a la the taxidermy in Evil Dead 2 (1987); the ubiquitous Buck Flower being menaced by a truly unique pairing of an eerie reflection and an exploding toilet, shortly before being mangled in a spectacular death scene that finds Wynorski knowingly tipping his hat to an impressively violent demise in the 1975 Charles Bronson thriller, Breakout; and a justifiably famous vignette in which a TV-watching damsel is sucked into an ungodly mash-up of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Deftly blending footage of George Romero and Frank Capra’s legendary texts with his own careful and lovingly rendered reconstructions, it’s a certified stunner — a creepy, quirky, and inspired ‘moment’ that stands as a highlight of the film and Wynorski’s entire CV at large. Extra  quirk is provided by Wynorski’s typically lively supporting cast, with Flower joined by Rod McCary; Wynorski regulars Ace Mask, Monique Gabrielle, and Deborah Dutch; and Brigitte Nielsen.

“I was at a Hollywood party at some producer’s house and Brigitte was there looking as hot as ever,” the director told Gorehound Mike in 2014. “I was playing pool in the pool room. Brigitte asked if we could have a game and I said “can we make a wager?” She said “what kind of wager?” I win, you do a day for me for scale on my next picture. I lose, and I`ll put on a maid’s outfit and clean your house. And she was up for that. We had a good game — it was close but I won. So Brigitte showed up on 976-EVIL II and did her day… She was working for pretty big bucks at the time and here she was working for scale. She didn’t come in super prepared and we had to go over her lines but in the end she did a great job.”

Best, though, is the sense of swoon that Wynorski laces 976-EVIL II with. Heightened by regular composer Chuck Cirino’s majestic score, 976-EVIL II is a quietly epic tale of good versus evil. Returning from numero uno, greasy but moral biker Spike (played again by Patrick O’Bryan, who quit the biz upon the film’s completion) tear-arsing around the outskirts of sleepy small town Slate River and getting zapped by a divine light in the middle of a dive bar might be a little cheesy, but it establishes 976-EVIL II’s broad yet intimately character-based scope with earnest. He’s a hero we can root for, plain and simple, and it’s clear we can count on Spike to do what’s right. He might grouse and he might grumble but he’s noble, loyal, and brilliantly relatable — a trait shared by the film’s other bastion of virtuousness, its ingenue, Robin (Debbie James, in a role initially intended for Wynorski’s Not of this Earth lead, Traci Lords).

Dissatisfied with Rick Glassman’s original script, Wynorski recruited Erik Anjou to fashion a screenplay in harmony with his own sensibilities. In addition to increasing the spectacle and ‘Jimming-up’ the black humour, Wynorski wanted to build upon the mythology of the first film and place greater emphasis on the allure of the titular demonic horoscope line. To the director’s credit, he succeeds: 976-EVIL II bubbles with a disarming amount of depth as Wynorski probes notions of control and the eponymous handle’s ability to amplify the worst traits of those who come into contact with it — especially if said traits are barely concealed to begin with.

Case in point is the film’s antagonist: an increasingly pizza-faced and unmistakably Krueger-shaded, astral projecting psychopath called Mr. Grubeck (Rene Assa). Originally designed for Phantasm (1979) favourite and fleeting Wynorski stock player Angus Scrimm, Grubeck is the diabolical dial-up’s evil personified; a boogeyman that freely cribs from ‘70s exploiters Psychic Killer (1975) and The Astral Factor (1978) in terms of his plane-drifting gimmick (976-EVIL II even swipes the latter’s moniker for its international subtitle), but a fiend who seems eerily prescient today. Essayed with a firm grasp on memorable villainy by Anjou, presented with formidle wickedness by Wynorski, and performed with lip-smacking relish by the sorely missed Assa (he passed away in 2002), Grubeck is a ghoulish, caricatured embodiment of what we’d now identify as #MeToo themes: a skeevy dean whose lust for power sees him selling his soul to old scratch and transforming into a coercive, toxic and sadistic vessel of depravity. 

Briefly considered for a theatrical run, 976-EVIL II ultimately went straight-to-video in the U.S. and the U.K., landing on British soil on 29th January 1992 via Medusa. Medusa gave it a fairly strong ad campaign, replete with a tie-in promotional phone game. Maddeningly, what meagre reviews 976-EVIL II got ranged from agreeable to contemptuous. But as mentioned above, time and hype is a fickle mistress — which is surely a good enough reason to give this criminally dismissed spookshow the reappraisal it’s desperately in need of. 

[1] ‘976-EVIL: Calls Collect’ by Chas. Balun, Fangoria #73, May 1988
[2] Although Englund and CineTel had fallen out after CineTel elected to distribute their producer’s cut theatrically, they’d buried the hatchet when the film hit tape in Englund’s director’s cut. Happy with their agreement, CineTel started courting Englund for part two. His idea would have involved a cursed crisis line.

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