Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thriller: Dial a Deadly Number (1976)

Original Air Date: May 1st, 1976

was a British television series comprised of stand alone episodes that ran the length of a film (well, a tele-film, which is about 74 minutes). This show often aired on my local channel when I was growing up, but Dial a Deadly Number is the only one that really stuck with me. I had actually forgotten I’d even seen it until about 10 years ago when I flashbacked to a scene from an unknown movie featuring a sneaking marauder breaking into someone’s bedroom and slicing their wrist while they slept. The wound was just deep enough that it left one gruesome ouchie. The scene chilled me as a kid and it resided somewhere deep inside my rolodex of creepy horror images. At the time I remembered it, I started to recall other scenes, and it took me years to find out that I was actually mashing up this Thriller episode with Scream, Pretty Peggy. Without giving too much away, the last scene of both films are visually similar, only one culprit is male while the other is female. Once I saw Peggy, I was able to separate the distorted images and I finally ID’ed an actor, Gary Collins. Then I had to go back through his filmmography and filter through the titles and descriptions. The second I came across the words Dial a Deadly Number a little bell went off in my head and all that remained was locating a copy.

What one does for their love of the scary stuff.

So here I am, over 30 years after my initial viewing of Number, and it was just a creepy as my haunted childhood memories.

Gary Collins is Dave Adams, a down on his luck out of work actor (is there any other kind?) who turns con-man when someone dials the wrong number. Mistaking him for a psychiatrist, Helen (Gemma Jones) begs the good doctor for help. She is disturbed by vivid dreams that she has committed murder, and she is worried this means she will kill in the future. Adams schmoozes his way into her life, but ends up taking more of an interest in her sister. Ann (Linda Liles) is the older, prettier and more charismatic sibling and she gives clues into Helen’s disturbed past, but he’s more worried about getting into Ann’s pants that he doesn’t realize he might end up paying for his misdeeds with his life.

Dial a Deadly Number is a methodical and exceptional thriller with lots of stark imagery, thanks to Helen’s rather vivid and gruesome “dreams.” The story may feel a tad predictable, but it’s so well acted and paced that the scares remain genuine. Brian Clemens penned the entire series and how he came up with so many unique and suspenseful stories is anyone’s guess.

Despite being shot on video and usually contained within a few sets (and a couple of outdoor shots), Thriller looks and feels great. I always thought the video quality on anything that wasn’t a soap opera or sitcom added something eerie to any movie, and shows like Thriller are obviously attached to that feeling. Gary Collins appeared in three episodes of the series. I’ve seen one other, which is called Only a Scream Away, and he plays a completely different character. He co-stars in that one with my boyfriend, the late David Warbeck, but I think Number did such a, uh, number on me as a kid that it edges its way to the front of my favorite Thriller episodes! Sorry David, I still love you.

Only Season One of Thriller has received a DVD release in America, but you can buy the whole series at the UK Amazon site (just make sure your have a player that accepts Region 2).

Thriller has had a long and complicated history with American television. ABC originally picked up several episodes to air late at night during what they called the Wide World of Mystery. This programming ran inside ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment block which was the network’s attempt to rival the late night popularity of The Tonight Show. Several unrelated projects were run, including In Concert, and a re-cut version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This setup was popular in the beginning (read this Time magazine article featuring some quotes from glowing executive Michael Eisner, who was then Vice President in charge of program development), but it soon fizzled out, and ABC eventually dropped almost everything except the movie programming, which was re-titled ABC Late Night. Other re-runs of popular shows like Fantasy Island also aired, but it petered out pretty quickly and this block of late night programming only ran from 1973 – 1976. While Thriller was often featured in this setup, there were a lot of American productions, many of which remain quite obscure. Nightmare at 43 Hillcrest actually had a VHS release, but it’s probably The Cloning of Clifford Swimmer that I see referenced most often. I think Alien Lover also had a VHS release because I remember once seeing it selling on Ebay for over $100!!! That’s how rare most of the non-Thriller titles are! Aside from a smattering of information at IMDb, there is very little online regarding the series of films. Dial a Deadly Number was apparently not a part of the Wide World of Mystery, so this is what they call a tangent.

If you are interested in learning more about ABC's Wide World of Mystery (and really, who isn't?), check out these links:

ABC Creates The Wide World of Entertainment (from Old TV Tickets)

Marketing Thriller (from Media Gems)

An AV Maniacs message board discussion (with some links to photos of several TV advertisements!)


Darren M said...

just looking at Gary Collins' face I can hear his Voice. Is that weird and what does it say??

Amanda By Night said...

lol Darren! He has such a great voice, it's hard not to think of it when you see him. I mean, he's like the infomerical king!

Sad Nomad said...

I love me some THRILLER. And I was once behind Gary Collins in line at the bank... I was going to tell him that I saw HANGER 18 theatrically...

Brother Bill said...

I too have a fondness for that surreal "shot on video" look from the 70s.. (see also "I Claudius" or "Saphire and Steel")

Crafty C said...

I absolutely love that shot of the knife cutting the wrist!

I have the first season that was released in the US but sadly don't have a region 2 player. Someday!

Great post btw! I've got a major british ghost story movie fixation right now and this isn't a bad fit.

Amanda By Night said...

Sad Nomad, I just picked up Hangar 18. I heard it's not that good. Still, standing near the Collins would be fun! :)

Brother Bill, I don't know Sapphire and Steel. I'm going to look it up. I've come to appreciate the quality of video, but I agree, it was quite surreal as a kid for some reason...

Carol, get a Region 2 player now!

Thomas Duke said...

I looooove this series! I have the whole UK set (45 or so episodes total). Speaking of AVmaniacs, here is a thread where I wrote little capsule reviews for all of the episodes, if you're interested:

S Corbett said...

Hi! Hoping you can help. I watched and loved many Thriller episodes as a kid but, like you, only one stuck. Only I think now I may be combining two episodes… In it, Gary Collins was pretending to be a psychiatrist (I think…pretenign to be someone other than he was, at any rate) and was wooing a women and being generally creepy (to my memory)…sounds like Dial a Deadly Number, right? Only the ending that I remember doesn’t make sense for that episode (unless it’s the twist)…I remember this super horrifying final image of the hero going into a padded cell—possibly in a lunatic asylum, possibly in the basement of a huge British mansion. All we see is the closed, locked door from the outside, as silently (I think) blood gets spattered from the inside onto the little observation window. The trusted man (woman? Doctor?) we were meant to trust until late in the game is infact the lunatic murderer (surprise!). I’m thin on details, obviously, but I remember well the tense, suspenseful pacing...Gary Collins being really creepy…the image of the blood on the window…My recollection was that it was really well-crafted horror story and something about that one in particular episode stayed with me all these years. Can you help me out? Is it “Dial" I am thinking of, or am I mixing episodes? I shall have to buy the series one day again for nostalgia reasons!

Amanda By Night said...

Hi S. Corbett,

I think you may very well be combining two episodes, as I don't recall that ending for Dial a Deadly Number. Collins also appeared in Thriller: Only a Scream Away (and probably others). I'm not sure how that one ends. Maybe try it out?

Also, see Thomas Duke's comment above yours. He has capsule reviews for all of the Thriller episodes. Maybe something will strike a bell!

Good luck and let me know what you find out!

zmbdog said...

Actually "Dial a Deadly Number" did air as a WWOM installment on Nov. 19, 1975