Alberto De Martino, 1972
Starring: Telly Savalas, Anne Heywood, Rossella Falk
Eleanor, an actress preparing for a new role in Belgium, crosses paths with a hit man and faints in shock. She wakes in the hospital with amnesia and can’t remember the events of the past few years – and forgets that her husband, Peter, died in an accident and that she has since remarried. Between the amnesia and a drug administered by the doctor to help her remember, Eleanor wanders in a haze, convinced Peter is still alive and the others are keeping him from her, and certain that the killer she spotted is on her trail… but why?
With a score from giallo-regular Stelvio Cipriani (Bay of Blood), cinematography from director Joe D’Amato (Beyond the Darkness, Death Smiles on a Murderer), and a starring role from pre-Kojak Telly Savalas. At that time, he was fresh off On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Kelly’s Heroes and had appeared in a number of cult films, including Horror Express and Lisa and the Devil. With this trio, The Killer is on the Phone should have been a minor classic, but instead remains a somewhat forgotten curio, a flawed but entertaining film that is mostly worth watching for Savalas’ performance that hovers somewhere between menacing and amused.
Unlike most giallo films and thrillers, the core problem is not whodunit – as it is obvious that Savalas is an assassin on assignment to kill Eleanor – but focuses more on why he is after her and the mystery of what happened to her late husband. I know it’s fairly common to say a film is dreamlike when the proceedings really just don’t make any sense, but in the case of The Killer is on the Phone, Eleanor’s experience with amnesia and a “truth serum” blur the lines between past and present, fiction and reality, and it’s often difficult to tell whether she is imagining or remembering events. In one effective seen, Savalas’ character ties her to a doorway in what looks like ruins, so that he can rip off her blouse and drag a knife down her chest, threatening to stab her.
Savalas’ presence in general is confusing. He is a hired hit man sent to kill a businessman, but interrupts the murder because he is distracted by Eleanor for some reason. And he is not, in fact, ever on the phone, making this one of the giallo genre’s more inane, baffling titles. The writing is certainly the weakest element – unless I missed something, we never do figure out why Savalas’ appearance made Eleanor faint dead away and gave her amnesia – but the twist at the end is pleasantly sassy. Director Alberto De Martino (The Man with the Icy Eyes and 1974’s The Antichrist) uses atmosphere effectively and this is one of few European horror/suspense films set in Belgium (along with the superior Daughters of Darkness and The Crimes of the Black Cat), giving it something of a unique angle.
Though not quite as wacky as some other giallo films from this period – Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles on a Murderer for one – there are plenty of bizarre quirks. The film is curiously light on dialogue, which is refreshing compared to many of the talk-heavy giallo entries. Though the early dreamlike qualities fade, De Martino mocks the giallo genre by providing trick scenes such as one where Eleanor is attacked, but it turns out to be a flashback to a stage performance, and another where the assassin finally reaches her, but realizes that he has accidentally killed her stand in. There’s even a strange scene where Eleanor faces off with a dwarf wearing a jester’s costume. The finale, which includes an entertaining scene in the theater Eleanor has been rehearsing in, is similar to the following year’s Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price (if not as spectacular) and is something of a precursor to Stagefright (1987), where another tormented actress faces off against the madman trying to kill her.
Speaking of actresses, Anne Heywood is good in the role, though not great, and is somewhat older than the typical giallo heroine. Heywood is an English actress best known for films like Ninety Degrees in the Shade (1965) and The Fox (1967), though she also took part in some bizarre Eurocult films like The Killer is on the Phone and The Nun and the Devil (1973). She does have a nice moment where she (accidentally?) recites Lady Macbeth’s most famous speech during a rehearsal for her role as Lady Godiva.
I can’t recommend The Killer is on the Phone for giallo newcomers, though fans of the genre – or anyone mad about Telly Savalas and his shiny pate, as I am – will definitely enjoy it. It doesn’t seem to be available on region one DVD, but it’s easy to find on Youtube. Hopefully someone will put out a cleaned up version soon – my money’s on Raro.