Plot: struggling British model is haunted by malefic spirits of the dead.
By the late 1980s the Italian exploitation industry was on the verge of extinction. What little still sold internationally was anything coasting on the dying embers of genres previously profitable, mainly daft action, soft erotic dross and horror. The latter two converged in Minaccia d'amore (or Threat Of Love, for some reason released in the Anglo-Saxon world under the semi Hitchcock-ian title Dial: Help), a self-professed erotic thriller from Tinto Brass producer Giovanni Bertolucci that’s largely in line with what was popular at the time. That means that in effect it’s more of a supernatural horror. If it’s remembered for anything, it’s for Charlotte Lewis and if it has attained any sort of longevity that was thanks to Silvio Berlusconi infamously buying it for his Mediaset where it found a second life on Italian television where it was regularly broadcast.
Deodato learned his craft under Roberto Rossellini and Sergio Corbucci. Under Corbucci he assistant directed the peplum The Slave (1962) and the spaghetti western Django (1966). From there he went on to assistant direct another peplum under Antonio Margheriti. Having accumulated the necessary experience and expertise he ventured out on his with a now long forgotten fumetti. Everything would change in 1968. That year he was chosen to direct the sequel to Gungala, Virgin of the Jungle (1967) (that had made a star out of Kitty Swan). A trio of comedies that nobody really remembers followed and soon Ruggero was heeding the call of the burgeoning television market. It was only after 1973 that Deodato returned to the big screen with the giallo Waves Of Lust (1975) and the poliziottesco Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976). Apparently somebody had taken notice of Deodato’s Gungala sequel as the German distributors offered him to direct what would become Last Cannibal World (1977), a spiritual and thematic follow-up to Man From Deep River (1972) that Lenzi had declined. Two years later Deodato would catapult himself to global infamy with Cannibal Holocaust (1980), an unsurpassed exercise in nihilism that remains just as shocking 40 years later.
That Cannibal Holocaust (1980) would cast a shadow over anything Deodato would do after was expected. The House On the Edge Of the Park (1980) was a senseless The Last House on the Left (1972) knock-off redeemed for the most part thanks to an all-star cast that included former Jean Rollin belle Annie Belle, Lorraine De Selle, and Brigitte Petronio as well as David Hess and Giovanni Lombardo Radice. For the sci-fi/post-nuke diversion Raiders Of Atlantis (1983) he dialed up the silliness to Luigi Cozzi levels and the entire thing felt almost Bruno Mattei-ish in how many different American properties it ripped off in just 90 minutes. Almost a decade later the reputation and legacy of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was both inescapable and inarguable. Its shadow still loomed long and ominously over anything Deodato would lend his name to afterwards.
Compared to the American style slasher Body Count (1986) and the more slasher-ific giallo An Uncommon Crime (1987) (with Edwige Fenech and Michael York) from the year before Dial: Help is far more subdued and surprisingly atmospheric when it gets its ducks in a row. If comparisons must be made Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby (1982) and Aenigma (1987) come close. Franco Ferrini had written a screenplay called Turno di note that he shopped around but “that no one wanted.” In 1983 Dario Argento "showed a certain interest" in it but not enough to attach himself to directing it thus landing it on Deodato’s desk. He liked the supernatural and fantasy element and set to filming it, with or without a decent budget. Ferrini would later write Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987) for Argento as well as Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986) for Lamberto Bava and The Church (1989) for Michele Soavi, all of which Argento helped either writing or producing. The average moviegoer probably remembers him for co-writing Sergio Leone's nearly 4-hour crime epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
Jenny Cooper (Charlotte Lewis) is a British model struggling to make a living in the bustling, fast-moving city of Rome. Lovelorn and heartbroken she’s desperately trying to get a hold of an unnamed, unseen suitor. One night Jenny mistakenly dials the wrong number at a payphone reaching a closed down dating agency (“Loneliness does not exist, trust your heart to us!” screams a banner in the derelict office building). There Jenny’s desire awakens a diabolic force that has lain dormant all these years in the collected tape recordings of all the lonely hearts that called the agency. The force takes a liking to Jenny and soon starts to kill anybody and everybody that gets in its way. Nobody, especially not the police and law enforcement, puts any stock in Jenny’s stories. Not even her friend Carmen (Carola Stagnaro). Nobody believes her – except her shy, introverted, and considerate university student neighbor Riccardo (Marcello Modugno). She never noticed him until now because she was too self-absorbed and preoccupied. At a swank party Jenny is stressed out and her good musician friend Mole (Mattia Sbragia) offers to install a new phone in her apartment, check and adjust the switchboards accordingly, and locate the source of her distress by any means necessary. When people start dying mysterious and unexplained deaths her case eventually attracts the attention of Prof. Irving Klein (William Berger). Will Jenny be able to exorcise the demons before she too will fall victim to their malefic powers?
Charlotte Lewis was a British actress of Chilean-Iraqi descent who shot to superstardom virtually overnight by appearing in two widely-publicized productions, the first of which was Roman Polanski’s Academy Award-nominated swashbuckler Pirates (1986) and followed that with the Eddie Murphy fantasy comedy The Golden Child (1986). You’d imagine that a beginning like that would be a guarantee for a long and prosperous career in the A-list. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lewis too strangely got caught up in the tendrils of late-stage Italian exploitation just like Jennifer Connelly and Josie Bissett before her. Instead of following her Italian detour up with prestigious Hollywood projects instead she ended up in the Dolph Lundgren actioner Men of War (1994) and the Alyssa Milano erotic potboiler Embrace of the Vampire (1995). In truth, Lewis has far more renowned for her high-profile romantic liaisons moreso than her movies. Over the years she has been romantically linked with everybody from Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Charlie Sheen to classical dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and American rock/blues singer-songwriter Eric Clapton. She fell head over heels for Polanski but was rebuffed and almost instantly was romantically linked to famous ladies’ man Warren Beatty upon their introduction. At 21 miss Lewis was at the height of desirability and Deodato ensures everybody knows. Especially in the third act when Charlotte can be seen in skimpy lingerie and a brief bath scene. As far as 80s babes go miss Lewis bears some semblance to France’s Florence Guérin, a young Jennifer Connelly and Emmanuelle Béart circa Manon de Sources (1986).
Of all the Italian exploitation grandmasters perhaps Ruggero Deodato had the most peculiar career trajectory. Over the span of some six decades he only directed a modest twenty-something features the majority of which aren’t horror. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an uncontested classic and the original found footage flick. That it requires an iron stomach and that you’d like a shower afterwards is something that comes with the experience. We, personally, tend to gravitate more towards his Last Cannibal World (1977).
Lucio Fulci made gialli and zombie movies but never partook in the cannibal cycle. Ruggero Deodato was otherwise occupied in the South Asian jungles when the giallo exploded in popularity during the 1970s and neither did he contribute to the gothic horror revival during that time. He likewise sat out the domestic zombie craze in the following decade. Not that Deodato was sitting on his hands doing nothing. He continued churning out horrors of various stripe and across budgets. He wasn’t as versatile as, say, Sergio Martino or Giuseppe Vari nor did he specialize in action like Antonio Margheriti or produce late-stage domestic classics the way Lamberto Bava did. It’s no surprise then that Deodato turned to television once Italian exploitation had run its course. That he remains active to this day is to be applauded and something of a minor miracle when you think about it. Dial: Help might not look like it but it generates enough electricity to prove that old Ruggero hadn’t lost his touch.