“976-EVIL” (citywide) is a stylish, imaginative variation on “Carrie” that marks the promising directorial debut of actor Robert Englund, famed as Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. The horror picture is also sparked by the presence of Sandy Dennis in an amusingly flamboyant pivotal role.
Dennis plays the blowsy Bible-banging mother of a repressed, bullied high-school student nicknamed Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), who gets his grisly revenge on his many tormentors when he dials a “Horrorscope” service which seems to be run by Satan himself.
If writers Rhet Topham and Brian Helgeland don’t provide much in the way of fresh scares for Englund, they do develop the psychology of their people to a greater extent than is usual for such genre fare. As a result, for all its gory forays into the supernatural, “976-EVIL” is of most interest for its wry portrait of seedy small-town America, a place where the kids are dangerously bored, where “a guy can’t make a buck anymore” but where the local Foursquare Church still announces a sermon on how “Jesus Loved the Devil Out of Me.” The irony here is that the strictly raised Hoax is far more vulnerable to the temptations of the Devil than his older cousin Spike (Patrick O’Bryan), a good-looking, likable dude with a bright girlfriend (Lezlie Deane).
Clearly, Englund has put his experience in front of the camera to good use behind it. He draws performances more varied and dimensional than is usual for horror pictures, and his controlled direction of Dennis is especially adroit. Dennis appears only briefly throughout the film, just enough to be appropriately vivid and fun but not long enough to seem over the top or merely campy.
“976-EVIL” is essentially a mood piece with a film-noir look created by cameraman Paul Elliot and art director David Brian Miller. The drab, cluttered settings created by Miller and set decorator Nancy Booth are meticulous in their apt details, and “976-EVIL” has a better look than many far more expensive pictures. The violence is standard Grand Guignol, but is of a sufficiently brooding and graphic nature that the film’s R-rating--given also for language and sex--should be observed in regard to children.