976-EVIL II Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.

This week: 976-EVIL II

If there’s an emerging truism to be found within Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, it is that Jim Wynorski probably directed the second part of pretty much every cut-rate feature film franchise. And as we may someday see, he also came late to series like Ghoulies and Body Chemistry. Asked about his predilection for directing sequels, he said it was always about the experience and the pay day. But he also had a rule. “I always wanted to make a sequel only if the previous film was bad,” he once explained to former film fansite operator Justin Bozung. “There wasn’t much point to a sequel if the previous release was really great. I wanted to make a sequel that was better than the first one.” This philosophy would lead to a string of sequels in the 1980s including Deathstalker II, one of our all-time favorite cheesy movies, the almost legitimately good Big Bad Mama II, The Return of Swamp Thing, Sorority House Massacre II, and this weekend’s cheesy movie, 976-EVIL II.

The plot concerns Robin (Debbie James), a student at a community college griped by fear. Several young women have been found murdered, leaving the town to believe a serial killer is on the loose. Meanwhile, Spike (Pat O’Bryan) from the first film is confronted by the 976-EVIL horoscope phone line at a “live nude” bar near town and starts putting the pieces together when he sees a television news report about the killings.

At the police station, Robin discovers they made an arrest. Thanks to an eye witness to the most recent killing, Mr. Grubeck (Rene Assa), an assistant dean at the college, is charged with the crimes. Robin happens to work for him, and when he sees her in the police station elevator, he grabs her hand, shocking her and giving her a vision of his latest murder. She also finds a 976-EVIL ad in a magazine.

Spike arrives in town and immediately meets Robin. When she leaves behind the 976-EVIL ad, his suspicious are confirmed. He also breaks into Grubeck’s house — which the police have not yet examined — where he finds phone records indicating Grubeck’s dependence on 976-EVIL and demonic forces ready to use frozen foods as projectile weapons.

So a word about 976-EVIL and 976 numbers. In the mid-1980s, the 976 phone exchange was used to set up pay-per call lines. For a certain price per minute, callers could get sports scores, the joke of the day, their horoscope, or phone sex. They were the direct antecedent of 1-900 numbers and the scourge of just about everyone’s phone bill. The first 976-EVIL (Robert Englund’s directorial debut) made the logical conclusion that 976 numbers were operated by Satan. While the line was said to be a horoscope reading, Satan could also entice souls in need of aid to become his willing supplicants. Spike’s cousin became the Prince of Darkness’s minion in the first film and though 976-EVIL II never says it outright, Grubeck is also in league with Lucifer.

When Grubeck gets his one phone call, he dials 976-EVIL to remind the voice on the other end about their deal. Always a stickler for the wording of his deals, Satan gives Grubeck the power of astral projection, which allows him to kill the witness to his murder — an unusually sober Buck Flower — and the prosecuting attorney (Wynorski mainstay Monique Gabrielle). Robin continues to have visions about Grubeck’s dealings, but no none on the force will listen to her. And when Grubeck uses his powers to kill Robin’s best friend by pulling her into a TV switching between Night of the Living Dead and It’s A Wonderful Life, she suddenly looks good for all the murders following Grubeck’s arrest. Oh, and she and Spike become an item along the way.

And if this all sounds like a collection of ideas loosely strung together by a sub-Nightmare on Elm Street premise, that’s part of the charm. Wynorski was never fond of the script and you can see that throughout the first half. He tries to stick to the script, but it gives him very little to work with. None of the characters are developed and the scenes leading up to death scenes work extra hard to get to the set pieces. The murders are well executed. Well, they look good for the money available, with the car chase and explosion ending Gabrielle’s cameo serving as the highlight of the first half.

Then something magical happens. Spike goes to an occult bookshop to lean about astral projection. The proprietor is played by Brigitte Nielsen, who offers the best performance of her career. She agreed to the cameo because she lost a game of pool to Wynorski at some party. According to the director, she did not prepare for the scene. The result is an oddly fresh and playful performance. She and O’Bryan flirt as she tells him some bullshit about mystic arts. They both pepper the exposition with quips no doubt provided by Chopping Mall writer R.J. Robertson (who receives a thank you credit in the film) and the whole scene just feels more like a Wynorski movie than anything preceding it.

It breathes life into the picture and leads immediately to its best moment: the TV murder. Owing some inspiration to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Grubeck appears on the screen as a salesman selling a universal remote. He then uses it to bring Robin’s friend Paula (Leslie Ryan) into the final scene of It’s A Wonderful Life. Wynorski’s team recreates the entrance to the Bailey home and integrates a couple of moments the Frank Capra classic with a surprising level of competence when you remember how cheaply this movie was made. The scene changes, though, into the climax from Night of the Living Dead. Since both films are in black & white, Paula’s murder also lacks color. The special effects team also treated the footage to give it some of the washed out look both films had during rebroadcasts in the 80s. It is a truly remarkable sequence in an otherwise uninspired horror movie sequel.

But that lack of inspiration allows Wynorski to inject the cheese into the proceedings. Even when he plays it straight with the earlier murders — which include a dummy of Buck Flower shattering on impact with a semi and the fairly decent car explosion from Gabrielle’s cameo — there’s still something uniquely cheesy going on. The lighting is too bright. The sets are too obvious. The first murder victim in the movie starts screaming before Grubeck can be identified as a threat, making her attempts to flee the college gym funnier than it should be. All of it speaks to Wynorski having fun with a bad script. Then come the moments clearly sprung from his imagination, which are just pure gold. All of it is wrapped up in another killer soundtrack by Chuck Cirrino, whose western tinged synth work should be inappropriate, but totally completes the mood. Also, the film features three songs written and performed by Vincent D’Onofrio. If we ever learn more about this, we’ll be sure to update this Weekend Cheesy Movie entry. In the meantime, though, 976-EVIL II is a completely worthy slice of cheesy ready to share with friends and loved ones. As long as you go in expecting something silly, you will not be disappointed.

976-EVIL II is currently available for streaming with an Amazon Prime account.

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