Written by: Erik Anjou, Rick Glassman (story), Brian Helgeland & Rhet Topham (characters)
Directed by: Jim Wynorski
Starring: Debbie James, René Assa and Patrick O'Bryan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Look, Daddy! Every time you hear a bell, a zombie takes us all to hell!"
Answering a telephone is never a good idea in a horror movie, but 976-Evil made it an especially hellish proposition by putting Satan on the other end of the line. While the film is noteworthy for being Robert Englund’s directorial debut, it’s mostly unremarkable--or, should I say, just remarkable enough to warrant a sequel four years later. Of all the random, unexpected sequels we’ve seen, this has to be among the most unexpected; I’m guessing the original must have done gangbusters on video, which paved the way for 976-Evil II to grace store shelves in the early 90s, where it probably already felt like a throwback to the previous decade.
Set vaguely after the events of the first film, this sequel reveals that Spike (Patrick O’Bryan) is still tormented by the memory of tossing his demonically possessed cousin into a pit to hell a few years back. So he drifts from town to town and is unusually skiddish around phones since Satan still likes to bug him, apparently. One day, he happens to ride into a town that’s being terrorized by a string of murders committed by a local college professor (Rene Assa). When he’s not hitting on coeds, he likes to spend his free time stalking them in the locker room and killing them for the dark lord. After being arrested for these crimes, he uses his one phone call to convince the devil to bail him out, and he’s granted supernatural powers that permit him to wreak havoc while incarcerated.
976-Evil II doesn’t really feel like an organic sequel to the original movie; instead, it feels like someone crafted an Elm Street knock-off and decided to wedge Pat O’Bryan and the hotline to hell into the proceedings. In fact, O’Bryan isn’t really the lead since he ends up mostly assisting Debbie James (a Miss USA finalist with the body and acting chops to prove it), who was one of the killer professor’s pupils. Actually, Professor Grubek was a little too close to her and has apparently gone psycho because he’s in love with her, or something. Really, that motivation is just conjecture on my part because 976-Evil II isn’t too concerned with that sort of nuance and just bounces around from one wacky set piece to the next. It even abandons whatever rules the original film set forth since Satan can just call you up and force you to listen to your “horror-scope.” And if you don’t comply, he’ll turn your kitchen into a nightmare and fling frozen pizzas at you.
That’s one of many inspired sequences that actually happen in 976-Evil II; whereas the original riffed on Carrie a bit by having a tormented teen take revenge, this sequel is just a straight, supernatural slasher out of the Nightmare mold, right down to the elaborate and inventive death scenes. It’s sort of funny that 976-Evil was missing a strong, Freddy-style antagonist with Englund behind the lens because this movie gets just that--well, sort of. Assa actually is about as menacing as you’d expect a silver-haired college professor to be, but the movie sure wants him to seem like Freddy, complete with a hideously boiled face and outrageous wise-cracks. Hell, one sequence feels like it was lifted straight from Dream Child when Grubek takes over a girl’s car and teases her through the radio as he leads her to a fiery doom. Even Grubek’s powers are vaguely reminiscent of Freddy, as he’s able to take to the astral plane whenever he falls asleep, giving him a god-like abilities.
This allows Grubek to do all sorts of cool shit; in addition to causing House-style carnage that results in fire-spitting ovens and exploding toilets, he can impale bodies and make them explode like watermelons when they stumble in front of oncoming semi-trucks. There’s an unexpected inventiveness to 976-Evil II, a film that’s loosely strung together by its outlandish horror sequences. One of them is among one of the coolest and memorable you’ll find in an otherwise sub-standard movie; apparently, this is also a spin-off of Stay Tuned (also released in 1992, so it was a good year for Satan at the box office), since Grubek is able to pull an unsuspecting girl into the two movies she’s flipping between on television: Night of the Living Dead and It’s a Wonderful Life, a brilliant mash-up that deserves to be in a better movie. If nothing else, though, this movie did a zombie mash-up years before it became fashionable to do so, and theree’s a good chance you’ll never see the super-saccharine ending of Frank Capra’s classic the same way after you’ve seen it dragged to the depths of hell.
Because of this and other surprises, such as Buck Flower playing a hobo (wait, that’s not surprising) and Brigitte Nielsen appearing as a devilish emissary (perhaps not surprising to Sylvester Stallone), 976-Evil II is more entertaining than its predecessor. Neither are particularly great films and this one is rife with flaws in logic, but infamous director Jim Wynorski takes the reigns from Englund and delivers a film that just doesn’t give a damn to be anything but barely competent whenever there’s downtime between its death sequences. Thankfully, there’s not a whole lot of that, as Wynorski effectively greases the wheels and lets it bomb its way to a weird climax that’s both syrupy and mean-spirited all at once. The way it moves from a corny, fantasy-tinged romance to a grim-faced reality feels like a parody of how these things play out. Then again, what else do you expect from a movie where a guy convinces his newfound love interest to murder her college professor while he’s in jail?
While it’s pretty disconnected from the original 976-Evil, part 2 is a stupidly entertaining follow-up that snuck its way into existence. Comparisons between these two films and the Nightmare on Elm Street series is obvious, but I’m guessing this filled the Freddy-sized void in ‘92 after New Line killed him off the year before. Or maybe not. At any rate, hardcore horror fans’ DVD collections have featured a void since 976-Evil II was never released on the format until recently. And even then, it arrived without fanfare as part of an 8-pack that Lion’s Gate sent directly to Wal-Mart’s $5 bin. Because the release crams 8 movies on two discs, you can’t expect a whole lot, but this sequel actually looks no worse than its predecessor (which admittedly isn't saying much); the transfer is full-frame but is an improvement over your old Vestron VHS tape, and the stereo track is good enough. This is usually the part where I tell you what to do based on the film’s quality, but I already know that anyone looking to watch 976-Evil II is definitely going to buy an 8-pack of 80s and 90s horror flicks for $5. However, if you’re on a super tight budget, you can find this streaming on Netflix too. Dial it up one night. Rent it!
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