In a film you can’t just allow your characters to simply pick up a phone and call for help – especially in a horror a film!
You have a crazed killer on the loose. Characters, who we’re hoping will escape danger, are on the run. Of course they have to make bad choices, such as running further into the house, hide in closets with no way out, managing to corner themselves for the killer, but that’s a whole other horror cliché.
But there is one vital lifeline at their disposable that must be eliminated – calling for help on the telephone.
The telephone is their potential salvation. They must find a phone, dial that sucker and tell someone that they’re in big trouble and beg for a rescue. However, In a horror film (or any film for that matter really) you can’t just allow your characters to simply pick up a phone and call for help. That’s just too easy an out and not very satisfying for audiences to see. So, the reliable movie cliché is pulled out where there must be a problem with the telephone.
This movie cliché has been around for ages. Thanks to Alexander Graham Bell the telephone was a revolutionary tool of communication that changed the world. However, with all the positives it brought, it would also become a hurdle for films to get around this useful device for the sake of suspenseful scenes. Watching characters unable to contact others and taking the good old ‘Ameche’ out of the equation became would become a challenge.
You have got to isolate the characters in order for them to be alone and force them to be self reliant for whatever danger is headed their way. Back in the landline days…oh wait maybe I should explain. See kids, telephones (we called them telephones) were anchored communication devices. Meaning they were plugged into a stationary spots. You couldn’t just walk around with them in your pocket.
If you were in a horror movie and had a killer chasing you and you needed to call for help, you would need to find a cabin, a store or a phone booth or somewhere that that had a telephone to call the cops. This became a standard scenes in the 1980s horror genre.
If the phone wasn’t out of order, or if you had the change to pay for its use (that’s just too complicated a concept to go into for younger folks) you could make a panicked call to authorities.
While you were on the phone trying to convince them this wasn’t a prank that a masked killer was looking to gut you with a butcher knife, you would forget to worry that the killer could stop your call for help quite easily. All they needed to do was cut the telephone wires, yank out the cord, or even something as simple as run to attack you making you leave your one salvation for help.
If you were in your own home the killer could simply pick up one phone in the house, leave it off the hook and remove the possibility of you calling out with any other phone in the house! What a simple, uncomplicated way to take out a whole host of house phones huh?
The phone could actually become a distraction for our hero. While frantically dialing or hysterically persuading a pesky operator to connect you with your party, it gives the killer the opportunity to slowly walk up behind their potential victim for an audience screeching moment. Remember, you had to be where the phone was to talk with someone. If you had to run for your life you would be incommunicado with anyone. Well, aside from any folks within earshot who might hear your yelling pleas for help.
You want an example of this….wow…there are tons! Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th‘s, just take your pick! Go ahead, name a few!
Some movies have flipped the phone from being a lifeline tool to an instrument of terror itself.
Killers calling a potential victim. Threatening, terrorizing and helping amp up the tension with creepy vocal acrobatics. The tension builds and gets so intense from their ominous voice, their spine tingling whisper or the creepy heavy breathing the audience is brought to the edge of their seats in anticipation of who might be lurking nearby. The ringing of the phone itself becomes a sound of horror!
The opening of Wes Craven’s 1995 horror film Scream is a tour de force scene that revolves around Drew Barrymore on the telephone with the killer. “The call is coming from inside the house!” is a classic scream worthy moment from the 1978 film When A Stranger Calls. And how can I not mention Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Dial M For Murder where the telephone is a vital part of a plan for murder. Those are just a few off the top of my head.
Phone booths themselves might have become a nostalgic relic from a bygone era, but once they were ever present boxes for public communication. All you needed to do was to step into one, close the door, plunk a dime into the slot and you could connect with your party – and hope you didn’t encounter an uncooperative operator. You might even be treated to getting your dime back after you finished your call if you were lucky!
Telephone booths that were treated to innocuous silly fads of seeing how many people you could stuff into one, were also endlessly used as stages for dramatic and suspenseful moments in movies.
Phone booths were a terrific prop to stage a scene in. They were essentially mini-glassed boxes. You could have your character talk to someone and not worry about any solid walls getting in the way of blocking their faces. The more creative the filmmakers could be, the more they could utilize them. Placing characters in, creating memorable moments and using them in countless ways.
Characters being trapped, receiving bad news, making rain soaked pleas of love on the line, desperately looking for change to make an all important phone call before being cut off. They could even be miraculously used as transportation vehicles, have trap doors or be full blown time machines!
How about that cliché we see in thrillers where someone is running for their life, they stop into a phone booth to call for help and suddenly we see a cars headlights in the background and the car speeds towards the booth and our hero has jump out of the phone booth and dive out of its way? We’ve seen that move plenty of times.
Think of Tippi Hedren trapped in a phone booth and having it become her own bird cage in The Birds. A frantic Candy Clark calling for help as The Blob slowly covers the phone booth trapping her. Danny DeVito bouncing from one public phone to another in subsequent bizarre locations in Throw Momma From The Train. Ok,technically he doesn’t use any phone booths, but still it’s a funny visual gag revolving around public phones!
The 2002 film Phone Booth took the approach of having the entire film be set around a character trapped in a phone booth, an idea Alfred Hitchcock once flirted with. And of course, Dr. Who fans are all too familiar with the important phone booth the Dr. uses. Go ahead name some more!
These claustrophobic settings went bye-bye as phone booths were no longer used and became not worth the effort to try to maintain. Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie illustrated their growing extinction with an amusing moment.
Since then phone booths have become virtually nonexistent today. Why have phone booths around when everyone has a phone in their own pocket? I have heard there are a few remaining ones that are still standing, but you’ll be hard pressed to find them. I’m sure some phone enthusiasts know their whereabouts.
By the way, does anyone else get distracted by how many phone numbers in movies start with that ‘555’ prefix? At one point it was a given that when you’d see or hear a phone number in a movie it would start with ‘555’. I wonder if there’s a cinematic phone book that lists how many numbers in movie land begin with those three digits.
These days the technology of cellphones has thrown a bit of wrench in the traditional telephone cliché and has evolved right along with the evolution of communication.
Now that everyone has their own mobile phones and are able to contact anyone anywhere on the planet at any given moment, it has created a new stumbling block for films to get around to get to the required isolation many horror and thriller films require for characters. The telephone cliché has progressed, much the same way stationary rotary phones have transformed into pocket size smart phones.
It’s still similar rules. There’s no better way to dissipate the suspense for an audience than to have them watch 21st century characters trying to scramble for help and see them simply pull out their smart phone to call the cops. We need to have that easy solution eliminated. Now movie characters can carry around their standard cellphones like everyone else.
However, modern day films get around this problem by the simplest and most overused solution to this issue – characters facing the dilemma of not getting a signal to use them, discovering it has a dying battery rendering them useless or just simply dropping and breaking them.
This cliched story device has become so common and overused it’s never a surprise when we see a character learning of this predicament. Seeing a ‘No Signal’ displayed on smartphones have become as standard as hearing those ‘555’ phone numbers.
I suppose the only other way to get around the cellphone problem today and placing characters in the classic isolated setting is by making the film a period piece, a time long before cell phones came into existence. Making it a period setting might raise the films budget though. So, it’s easier and cheaper to just have characters look at their phones and exclaim “I don’t have a signal!”. Problem solved.
Having a dead battery of our beloved devices has become just as scary as having a maniac with a machete outside our doors. It’s a technological terror we can all sympathize with! Oh, no! A dead battery! How am I supposed to play Fruit Ninja?!?!?
How ironic that Alexander Graham Bell spent years working on the creation of the telephone, it was a revolution in communication across vast distances for the first time in human history and movies have had to tackle ways to eliminate it from providing any assistance to characters in their stories.
Here’s the fun part, where we get to point out examples of all this! Name one of your favorite scenes that involve a telephone. Either it being used as a tool of suspense, comedy, terror, ridiculousness, a memorable use of a phone booth that you fondly recall OR the more contemporary tried and true scene of having a worthless cell phone where the characters discover it is of no use at all to their predicament. There is certainly no shortage of them!
This amusing montage of cellular issues in films perfectly encapsulates this overused trope.
They really use it a lot huh?