Listen. I don’t know if you’re ready for this, but Alberto De Martino’s L’assassino… è al telefono aka The Killer is on the Phone (1972) is one of the single most batshit giallo films in the history of the genre. With the trio I’m about to mention—and by mention, I mean sob hysterically with joy over—this film should have at least been a minor cult classic, but instead remains a somewhat forgotten curio. And, as I said, it is batshit. First of all, it has a wonderful score from the great composer Stelvio Cipriani (Bay of Blood, Death Walks on High Heels, Baron Blood, and dozens of other films everyone should love). Let’s have a moment of silence for him, as he passed away just a few days ago, on October 1st. He lived a long, amazing life and is one of those composers who is so often unfairly forgotten in the shadow of more famous names like Ennio Morricone, Claudio Simonetti, or Fabio Frizzi. But his score for Femina ridens (1969) will change your life.
It also has key contributions from two of my favorite people in the entire world, Joe D’Amato and Telly Savalas. I gave myself the vapors just typing that. D’Amato provided cinematography under his real name, Aristide Massacessi, during a really fascinating time in his career. The ridiculously (almost offensively) productive D’Amato kicked off his own directorial career in 1972 with films like More Sexy Canterbury Tales (1972) and the wildly underrated Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973), while continuing to shoot films from other directors: not only The Killer is on the Phone, but cult favorites like What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). Simply put, I love Joe D’Amato and while his output may have varied, his workman like approach to cinematography is generally always reliable and results in some strange, dreamy sequences here.
And—drumroll please—last but not least is Telly Savalas in a costarring role. I know it’s insane, but thanks to reruns of Kojak, he was one of my first childhood crushes and I can’t quite explain my love for him. Just know that it is real. This film predates Kojak, which began the following year in 1973, and he was fresh off some of his best roles in theatrical productions: classics like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), but also a number of cult favorites, including Horror Express (1972) and soon to be Lisa and the Devil (1973). His performance in The Killer is on the Phone is utterly delightful, and as with Lisa and the Devil, he hovers somewhere between menacing and amused.
Brace yourself for spoilers, as I can’t really discuss the film without giving a few things away. It might soften the blow to know that this movie makes no fucking sense whatsoever and even if I revealed the full plot, blow by blow, it wouldn’t spoil the insane impact of The Killer is on the Phone. The film follows Eleanor (Anne Heywood), an actress preparing for a new role in Belgium, who crosses paths with a hitman (Savalas, of course) and faints in shock. She wakes in the hospital with amnesia and can’t remember the events of the past few years—forgetting that her husband died in an accident and that she has since remarried. Between the amnesia and a drug administered at the hospital to attempt to help her remember, Eleanor wanders in a haze, convinced her first husband, Peter (Roger van Hool), is still alive and everyone is trying to keep him from her. She becomes increasingly paranoid and is certain that the killer she spotted is on her trail… but she can’t quite remember why.
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 in the grip of fantasy and imagination, or whether she is remembering actual events. In one effective scene, Savalas’ character ties her to the entrance way of what looks like crumbling ruins, so that he can rip off her blouse and drag a knife down her chest, threatening to stab her.
Where is my fainting couch?
Even though I love him more than life itself, I have to acknowledge that Savalas’ presence in the film is sort of confusing. Unlike the calculated whimsy and surrealism of Lisa and the Devil, events here simply don’t make sense a lot of the time, as though there was some sort of “whisper down the lane” game played on the script, a problem no doubt impact by the five different writers who worked on the film. Savalas’s killer, the sinisterly-named Ranko Drasovic, is a hired hit man sent to kill a businessman, but interrupts the murder because he is distracted by Eleanor—and we don’t really find out why. And he is not, in fact, ever on the phone, making this one of the genre’s more inane, baffling titles. The writing is certainly the most convoluted element of the film—unless I missed something, we never do figure out why Savalas’ appearance made Eleanor faint dead away and gave her amnesia (aside from the fact that he’s hot), but the twist at the end is pleasantly sassy.
Though not quite as wacky as some other giallo films from this period—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, and adds a surreal quality. Though the early dreamlike elements fade as the running time wears on, 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 (I told you it was batshit). 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, but no one can compete with Vincent Price) and is something of a precursor to Stagefright (1987), where another tormented actress faces off against the madman trying to kill her.
Interestingly, Anne Heywood, in her early forties at the time, is considerably older than the typical giallo heroine. An English actress best known for films like Ninety Degrees in the Shade (1965) and The Fox (1967), Heywood she also took part in some bizarre Eurocult films like The Nun and the Devil (1973) and Ring of Darkness (1979). She adds a certain gravity to the film and seems to have a lot of fun flexing her acting chops—not only during the scene where she terrifies the dwarf, but also during a nice moment where she (accidentally?) recites Lady Macbeth’s most famous speech during a rehearsal for a role as Lady Godiva.
Like the majority of films I love, The Killer on the Phone is not for everyone, but I think everyone giallo fan should watch it at least once, if only to see a shirtless Telly Savalas issuing saucy orders to a maid in his hotel room. 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 films/thrillers set in Belgium (along with the superior Daughters of Darkness and The Crimes of the Black Cat), giving it something of a unique visual angle. This is long overdue for a Blu-ray release, though it is relatively easy to track down online, but one day I need to see the restored sadomasochistic fantasy sequence in all its glory. Someone please make that happen. I’m begging you.