Murder by Phone

(Michael Anderson, Canada, 1982)

BY LAURA KERN | October 31, 2021

This rarity by the director of Logan’s Run and Orca may be one of the silliest slasher films ever made, but it’s also irresistible fun, both well-executed and rapidly paced. Horror’s attempts to create a fear of answering the telephone was a devoted cause in the ’80s, usually with threatening voices on the other end, or with nobody on the line at all… though the closest it came to real terror was the phone transforming into Freddy Krueger’s nasty tongue as he says, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”—after brutally killing hers—in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Released in Canada as Bells, Murder by Phone is the more sensational and explicit U.S. title, relating that telephones are quite literally killing people—with electric jolts coming though the receivers, resulting in body-throwing shocks, bloody eyes, and flames.

Don’t even try to think about the science behind these phone murders—or crazier yet, how it’s later discovered that the transmitted shocks can be redirected back to the caller as a way to stop the madman responsible for the deadly dialings. The first call we witness takes place in a subway station as a young woman answers a ringing pay phone—because that’s what you’d do, right?—and it turns out that she was a student of the film’s hero, ecology professor Nat Bridger, played by the suave, perfectly groomed Richard Chamberlain, his hair and beard so lush and shiny he seems better suited as a wolfman. And because it’s unlikely that a 19-year-old would have died by heart attack, as the police report claimed, Professor Bridger is recruited to do a little investigative digging while at a conference in Toronto. He’s pretty quickly receptive to the only witness’s story that lightning coming from the phone was in fact the culprit, and the film becomes something of a whodunit as more murders take place while he cozies up to Ridley (Sara Botsford), a local artist who helps him out.

Murder by Phone features a rare electronic score by celebrated composer John Barry, as well as a nice visual tour of the phone and answering machine styles of the day, of course now hilariously outdated. If you were alive at the time, though, you will surely recognize some of them, or perhaps even have owned a model or two. And despite being required to deliver some seriously preposterous dialogue, everyone in the cast takes the proceedings in earnest, including supporting player John Houseman. It’s not till the hilarious last line—“I’ll call you,” spoken with a big old grin—that Chamberlain reveals he might be in on the fun. 🩸


is a writer, editor, and horror programmer based in New York. She is the editor of Bloodvine and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Film Comment, and Rolling Stone.

X: @killerkern

How to see Murder by Phone

Never available on DVD in the U.S., the Bells version, which runs 17 minutes longer than the American release, can be found on YouTube in rough VHS quality.
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