Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Thriller: Dial a Deadly Number (1976)
Original Air Date: May 1st, 1976
Thriller 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!)