If you’re a voracious reader of mystery novels, especially if you grew up in the ‘80s, chances are you may have read at least one of the prolific Stuart M. Kaminsky’s 60-plus novels concerning the adventures of the ‘40s film noir-styled gumshoe Toby Peters, Moscow Police Inspector Rostnikov, and grizzled Chicago police officer Abe Lieberman.
However, when it came time to adapt Kaminsky’s best sellers to the big screen, it was his two standalone non-series novels, 1983’s When the Dark Man Calls and 1985’s Exercise in Terror, which made the transition. While Exercise in Terror became the 1993 USA Network TV movie Hidden Fears starring Meg Foster (John Carpenter’s They Live, Stepfather 2, Deep Family Secrets) and Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now, The Rose, One from the Heart), When the Dark Man Calls was first adapted into the 1988 French thriller Fréquence Meurtre (aka Frequency Death, Frequent Death) starring Catherine Deneuve.
In this inferior, homogenized English language version shot on-the-cheap in Toronto as a USA Network original movie (in the days before the channel was usurped by the NBC Network to run all-day Law and Order marathons), TV actress Joan Van Ark—who’s no Catherine Deneuve in the thespian department—stars as Julianne Kaiser, the stalked Chicago talk radio psychologist.
Yes, you guess it: As with any stalked radio psychologist, Julianne has her own closet of repressed memories and tormented skeletons: Twenty-five years ago, when she was a ten, she discovered her parents murdered in their bed. It was her testimony that put away the killer, Mr. Parmenter (Tango & Cash; Clint Eastwood stock player Geoffrey Lewis), a border who lived in the back room of their home—and he always claimed his innocence. Now that Parmenter has been released, he begins making threatening calls to her show. Then, when he turns up dead and the calls don’t stop, the whodunit red herrings start flipping and flopping.
Who killed Julianne’s parents? Who killed Parmenter? Who’s stalking her and harassing her 14-year-old daughter?
Is it her vengeful, soon-to-be ex-husband Max (familiar TV actor Barry Flatman; The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken; still acting on ION Network’s Private Eyes)? Is it her doting, construction company-owning brother Lloyd (Chris Sarandon from Fright Night) with his own closet of secrets? And there’s Michael (genial TV actor James Read; ‘80s TV series Remington Steele; still acting on the U.S soaps Days of Our Lives and General Hospital), her ex-boyfriend cop bumbling about, still carrying a torch for Julianne.
While the quality in casting, acting, and direction in a ‘90s-era USA Network original movie is certainly a step above a present-day Lifetime original flick and raises the violence bar (just a smidgen), When the Dark Man Calls is still a thriller with no thrills or suspense—ironically, just like a Lifetime movie. And that’s a shame when considering the great critical reviews for Kaminsky’s 1983 novel. (Because of the radio angle, I read it back in the ‘80s and it is a page turner. Kaminsky’s works should not only be better known, but subject to more film adaptations.)
Yes, Joan Van Ark is certainly gorgeous and she looks fantastic on screen (and still acting on a wide array of films and series). But so is Catherine Deneuve. While Ark is affable enough in an ensemble cast of a hit nighttime TV drama, in her case, Dallas and Knots Landing, carrying an entire picture as the put upon damsel-in-distress isn’t her forte; under her tutelage the on-the-edge-of-your-seat plot twists of Kaminsky’s novel fall flatter than a dead herring.
Sure, we get the always awesome Geoffrey Lewis as the revengeful convict and Chris Sarandon’s harboring-dark-secrets brother as part of the bargain (if not for them both, I wouldn’t have stuck with this one to the end) and they deliver the goods, but they’re not in the film long enough to make a lasting impact.
On the plus side: The set design is solid and the radio station looks pretty legit for a low-budget set build. But who built it, Irwin Allen? Yep, it’s more budget conscious, ambiguous dark voids to nowhere. (In all my years in the business I never, ever worked in a studio so dark.) And those dumbbell faux call letters of WRAP (talk, “rap,” really?). And the total lack of a 7-second audio delay in the studio. And the fact that no radio station would ever risk FCC fines or license loss by putting live calls on the air from a serial stalker—even with an audio delay—for the sake of “ratings” or to “catch a killer.” Another problem: Joan’s age. If we abide by the flashbacks and flash forwards, Julianne Kaiser is 35—a very hard 35: Van Ark was already in her 50s—again, she looks great—when she shot this flick. All of it stretches the limits of screenwriting credulity.
Unfortunately, the Catherine Deneuve version isn’t available online for a comparison—and it was never released on stateside video. However, When the Dark Man Calls was released by Paramount as a VHS in the states and overseas. There are no official online streams available, so you’ll have to settle for this VHS rip posted on You Tube.
If you’d like to watch Kaminsky’s Hidden Fears, it is also available on You Tube.