Robert Englund is, of course, one of the most iconic figures in horror, being the man beneath the red and green sweater of Freddy Krueger. As an actor, he has more than made his claim as one of the most feared and beloved figures of the horror genre. As a director, that isn't quite the case. With only two features to his name, the directing game hasn't become a big part of Englund's contribution to the genre, particularly when you consider he has appeared in over 100 acting credits. And on the evidence of his 1988 debut, it is not hard to see why.
High Schooler Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys) is something of an outcast. He lives with his fanatically religious mother (Sandy Dennis), is constantly bullied at school, but looks up to his badass cousin, Spike (Patrick O'Bryan). When Hoax finds an advert for a ‘Horrorscope' hotline in Sting's room, he dials it and soon finds himself the victim of Satan himself, as he is granted supernatural abilities, allowing him to wreak havoc on those that have wronged him in the past.
There's plenty about 976-EVIL that should appeal to genre fans. It is the kind of wacky 80's horror that doesn't contain a great amount of logic, but has weird characters, bizarre effects work and a fairly solid concept at its centre. As a film though, it barely holds together, with random character subplots scattered about, with a half baked one involving a Private Investigator who is looking into the origins of the Horrorscope, for reasons? Much is left for you to simply assume, and some scenes cut away awkwardly, leave an air of confusion in their wake.
The story of Hoax, a bullied high school loser gaining evil powers in order to enact gruesome revenge is a fun idea, but it is not one that ends up being used in a very satisfying manner. For one, the character of Hoax isn't particularly sympathetic, with the performance being at a level of odd and creepy before it adds demonic possession into the mix. It doesn't help that Geoffreys is essentially being asked to play his character of Evil Ed again, as seen in 1985's Fright Night. He's pretty good at the creepy nerd schtick, and the film makes no qualms about the fact it's asking him to re-do a cult favourite role (he even stands next to a Fright Night poster at one point), but it robs the film of any chance of crafting a horror figure that stands on its own ideas. The rest of the cast are given paper thin characters, with only Sandy Dennis standing out amongst them all in her few scenes, simply because she absolutely dials it up to 11 when it comes to playing the stereotype of the stifling religious mother.
The film is much more interesting as a curious oddity than it is something that genuinely feels like a well-crafted film. That is particularly when you see some of the names attached to it. Brian Helgeland, the future screenwriter of LA Confidential, has a screenwriting credit, and it features makeup and prosthetics from horror favourites, Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger. But perhaps the most interesting aspect itself is seeing Englund work as a director. While a lot of the images seem very random and somewhat cobbled together, there's no denying that there's some nice design work at play. He creates the sense of a rundown city that the youth have taken over, running poker games above a ramshackle cinema that plays horror movies non-stop (tickets only $1.99!). But, y'know, they still go to class in the daytime, predominantly hanging out in the graffiti-covered bathrooms. It is a bizarre reality as it is, even before Hoax picks up the phone to check in with Hell.
976-EVIL has all the ingredients of a cult classic, and its restoration for a Eureka Classic home video release clearly demonstrates that there is a desire amongst fans to dial in for this curious 80's genre offering. It's a decent restoration, putting the extended VHS version onto disc for the very first time. The film itself muddles its potential as a cathartic revenge tale by having lots of undercooked threads going on at once, as well as showing a tendency for going for narrative shortcuts. It can feel a little shaky in its design but is also capable of producing strange imagery in a world that feels utterly chaotic. Certainly, one I'd recommend to those who enjoy their horrors on the trashy side, as 976-EVIL stands as an example of one of those 80's oddities that has just enough weirdness running through it to maintain your sense of curiosity.
Dir: Robert Englund
Scr: Rhet Topham, Brian Helgeland
DOP: Paul Elliott
Runtime: 105 minutes
976-EVIL is out now on Eureka Classic Blu-Ray.