Believe it or not but the dial code 976 was actually a real starter number for premium phone companies in the US back in the 80s when 976-Evil was released in March 1989. The movie arrived without too much fuss and said its merry goodbyes before finding new life on VHS. This low budget horror flick made just over $2m at the box office, which was enough to warrant a sequel which followed four years later. The biggest draw to the movie was that Robert Englund aka Freddy Krueger of the Elm Street movies would be making his directorial debut. Whilst Englund is still dearly loved by the horror faithful, 30 years on, the actor was in the peak of his powers when this movie came out. Indeed the summer before, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master had been a huge success in North America where it took an unprecedented $50m at the box office. Coupled with promos on MTV and the spin off television series Freddy's Nightmares, Englund was being exposured all over the States. One could argue that 976-Evil was given a theatrical release based on Englund's name only.
976 - Evil concerns two cousins with major background differences who live opposite one another. One is cool and popular at school (Patrick O' Bryan who plays Spike) and the other is timid beaten down by the words of his bible bashing mother played by Stephen Geoffrey's who plays Hoax. Before any horror elements Englund gives us a great example if not overused in horror movies of the 80s, which is, nerds will be nerds and the cool guys will always win out in the end. For example it's Spike who finds the call card for his horoscope. Bored one night he dials in and is surprised to find out that the message on the other side connects with how his life is turning out right now. However of course we can as the viewer identity with this to some point. For example go check your horoscope and your mind will inevitably trick you into thinking that there are some similarities. Now Spike becomes curious and dials in again, what will the next message have in store? Whilst Englund should be applauded for making a movie that tries its hardest to have original elements, there are at this point similarities to the infamous Twilight Zone episode, 'Nick of Time'. In this episode, William Shatner becomes addicted to a fortune telling machine that gives him real time updates on how to lead his life, the mysterious voice on the phone does likewise.
Perhaps the most cringe worthy scene for cool v geek is when Spike is hanging out with his girlfriend played by Lezlie Dean (above) when his geeky cousin Hoax drops in and tries to hang out with the two. His closed religious upbringing is opened like a book exposing who he is in a matter of seconds. Indeed it is possible that Dean who plays Suzy gets to know more about Hoax's character in those couple of minutes than she does about her own boyfriend. This is further exposed later in the movie when Spike takes out Suzy on their first date to the theater, only to get distracted and play poker with the projection crew that night. This completely threw wild child Suzy who made it clear that she wasn't going to play second fiddle to his gambling ways. Suzy in effect was stood up at her own date.
The much missed Sandy Dennis was perfectly cast as the over zealous protective mother of Hoax. Indeed this is 976 - Evil's biggest asset- the characters. Except for the ill choices of the detective and school teacher later on in the movie the characters all work so fine that we aren't even searching too much for the horror elements not even halfway through when by all means the movie should have been hitting a lull. The characters delay this until the inevitable final third. Dennis has her religious role and 'Jesus Saves' mentality engraved into her performance. So much so that there is genuine fear of upsetting this woman. The house is riddled with 'Vatican gift shop' items- and it is mentioned and wholeheartedly clear to us that Dennis who played the character of Aunt Lucy buys into fake pastors on a whim, and her house is filled with curiosities. Where too is her husband? We can presume he packed his bags a long time ago. And so Hoax, not the best name you could bespoke on your child is a dysfunctional kid living in a slight functional teenage world, which means that he is a geek, a nerd which in turn means that he's the kid that gets beat up at school.
The gang to avoid at school are led by Marcus played by J. J. Cohen who regularly gives a beating to the wimps including Hoax. Marcus is also the projectionist at the local theater and plays poker when the movies are on in the back room. J.J. Cohen was another inspired choice to play the school bully. A keen eye would have recognized the talented actor who formed part of Biff's gang in the legendary Back to the Future movies.
Just after the hour mark the stakes are raised and it is wimpy Hoax who finds a way out of his situation via the phone call. Here he is suddenly let free to be someone that he could only dream of being. He will never be beaten up again as he metamorphoses. First there is revenge on Spikes girlfriend who he felt rejected by via a creepy scene with spiders. Next the bullies who have harassed him are killed off one by one and his mother inevitably gets the chop too. His claw like fingers are certainly a nod to Englund's own Freddy character but the similarities stop there, this is a possession not seen since Amityville II's eerie effort in the early 80s. Whilst Hoax might be full outside he is empty within and the devil is slowly going to have pay back. 976 - Evil reaches its inevitable climax, where the cool guy wins and the loser, loses. But not without and here is the message, living a little like a hell raiser.
It certainly took some balls for Robert Englund to go behind the camera lens. Back in 1988, all Englund had to do was sit in a chair for four hours and scare the crap out of us as Freddy. But Englund has never been one to rest easy. With 976 - Evil, Englund went down the horror route which was to be expected but he also developed characters throughout the movie and the actors certainly did there best to work with him. Lezlie Dean no doubt after her influence in this movie went on to work alongside Englund twice; first in an episode of Freddy's Nightmares (Cabin Fever- which was also directed by Englund) and then in a more beefier role with 1991's Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.
Whilst 976 - Evil should be regarded as an underrated horror movie it isn't without its faults. One can see that the rookie director in Englund did show in the movie and the story does fall flat in its final third. Namely when Hoax confesses to Spike that he killed Suzy. There is zero impact- why didn't Spike call the cops on Hoax? Why did Spike still feel comfortable to live near Hoax especially after the murders started to top up?
Also some blame has to go to Englund for letting the story get lost- why did we see less and less of Spike as the movie went on, and yet were presented with two lethargic characters in his place- the detective and teacher who added nothing to the movie. And so instead of being a potentially great horror flick, ultimately 976 - Evil ended up being on the scrapheap of 'could do' better. Despite all of this the movie still has much to offer and is far from a failure. The first 60 minutes are still very charming and Englund's camera perfectly captures snippets of late 80s American suburbia, for that Englund should be proud of his first feature movie.