A young woman answers a payphone in a subway station, whereupon an electronic pulse frazzles her brain in blood-splattered fashion. College professor-cum-eco activist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) is friends with her family and promises to look into her mysterious death. The phone killings continue: a businessman fries before his body gets flung off the top of ten story building, a bank teller is electrified in front of her horrified son. Aided by his elderly mentor Professor Stanley Markowitz (John Houseman), artist Ridley Taylor (Sara Botsford), and surly cop Lieutenant Meara (Gary Reineke), Bridger discovers the murders are the work of a madman with close ties to the telecommunications industry.
In the sublime satirical spy comedy The President’s Analyst (1967), suave psychiatrist James Coburn discovers the Phone Company are behind a sinister conspiracy bent on world domination. Bells or Murder By Phone or The Calling as it is alternately known, doesn’t quite go that far but weaves an intriguing line in anti-corporate rhetoric amidst an array of gruesomely gory deaths. This Canadian made horror shares an outlandish premise with Don Siegel’s Telefon (1977), in which a phone signal reactivates Russian sleeper agents as kill-crazy zombies, but has more in common thematically with the film Agency (1979) wherein mad genius Robert Mitchum attempts to brainwash the population through subliminal advertising.
Bells was roundly dismissed in its day, but fans point to the vehemence of its anti-corporate argument as reasons to revaluate the film. After all, this came out at a time when liberal values were being eroded by an era of unrepentant greed. Co-screenwriters Dennis Schryack and Michael Butler, who penned the nifty killer car movie The Car (1977), underline their point as Nat’s investigation runs into a brick wall of big business bureaucracy and cover-ups spun by sinister men in suits. “Statistics show the do-gooder impulses arise in people who are simply paranoid”, smirks one slimy executive. Working with co-writer John Kent Harrison, Shryack and Butler weave in some wry humour, as when Nat rings the operator to report the theft of a receiver just before he steals it, but the killings take a turn for the silly. Our mystery murderer begins bumping off people who just rub him up the wrong way, including the aforementioned teller and a blonde secretary who keeps him waiting too long.
Richard Chamberlain is charismatic as the two-fisted anti-pollution campaigner, but the dry humour of John Houseman is squandered in a minor supporting role. Sara Botsford makes an odd, atypically aloof love interest and her romance with Bridger adds little. The freak deaths add a layer of camp that undermines some of Michael Anderson’s attempts at suspense and social commentary, but at its best the film exudes a certain clinical unease akin to the film’s of David Cronenberg. However, that the film unmasks its villain as an eccentric madman rather than a corporate conspirator is something of a copout.