When you need a suspenseful slasher flick, a neo-giallo or neo-noir thriller competently done on a tight budget, director Fred Walton (April Fool’s Day, The Rosary Murders) is the man to call. His 1979 debut film, the babysitter stalker flick When a Stranger Calls, budgeted at $1.7 million was brought in under budget at $1.5 million in an 18-day shoot. The film subsequently grossed over $21 million and became one of Columbia Studios’ top grossing films for the year.
For reasons unknown, even after the success of those three theatrical films, Walton retreated into low-budget TV work, directing a host of entertaining cable psycho-thrillers: a remake of 1965’s I Saw What You Did (1988), Trapped (1989), Murder in Paradise (1990), The Price She Paid (1992), Homewrecker (1992), the TV sequel to his debut, When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), The Courtyard (1995), and his final film, The Stepford Husbands (1996).
As for the influence of and the respect afforded to When a Stranger Calls: Director Wes Craven paid homage to Walton’s debut by duplicating the film’s 20 minute opening sequence—deemed as one of the scariest openings sequences in a horror film—in the first 10 minutes of his 1996 horror hit, Scream. (If you’ve never seen When a Stranger Calls, it’s highly recommended you do. It’s on You Tube.)
So, with that back story on Walton’s cinema forte—along with this film’s title, its tagline and artwork of the one-sheet—you’ve probably guessed the plot of this film is somewhat similar to the previously reviewed Power 98—with a lone DJ noir-spiraling into a web of murder and deceit driven by a mysterious caller.
And if you’re keeping track of your radio psychos, you know the concept of a killer having a relationship with a radio host dates to Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. And you’ll recall the post-Halloween slasher ‘80s brought us the first of several psycho films concerning a serial killer harassing a radio host, which began with the U.K’s Section 3 video nasty, Don’t Answer the Phone (1980). Others in the cycle include Open House (1987) and Outside Ozona (1998), along with the cable films The Night Caller (1998) starring Tracy Nelson, Requiem for Murder (1999) starring Molly Ringwald, and A Lover’s Revenge (2005) starring Baywatch’s Alexandra Paul.
However, don’t let that familiarity deter you from watching Walton’s take on the radio psycho genre.
Three things make Dead Air work—where other low budget, set-in-radio station flicks fail. First, is the well-researched and intelligent script by David Amann (TV’s The X Files, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, and Castle) that not only knows its noir cues, but allows the radio station employees to sound like real radio station employees. Second, it was shot inside a real radio station—KKHR outside of Bakersfield, Ca. (the film was also shot in Agua Dulce, Ca. also outside of L.A.) Third, Gregory Hines (Cotton Club, Wolfen) did his research; he handles the equipment, along with the grease pencils and razor blades as he splices audio tape, with the skills of a radio pro.
Mark Jannek (Gregory Hines) is an L.A. DJ who specializes in incorporating his love of film noir into his music programs by re-creating old time, nourish radio dramas (remember: Eastwood’s Dave Garver worked his knowledge of poetry into his shows). After the murder of his girlfriend, Kathie, by an “obsessive fan,” Jannek restarts his life under the on-air name of Jim Sheppard at a small station in a dusty oil field town, far from the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles.
As is the case with most DJs suffering from ego issues: “Jim” is back to his old tricks and ends up at a bar after his shift . . . and meets a girl, Judy, for a one-night stand (dude, did you learn nothing from Nick West in Night Rhythms?). The next night Mark’s on the air, the ever-present #1 fan who’s been obsessively calling the show tells him she has Judy—and murders Judy while he’s on the air. Of course, the cops don’t believe him—and there’s no record of the call. Utilizing his knowledge of the noir genre, Mark starts his own gumshoein’ investigation and tracks down Judy—and finds her body. Then the cat and mouse games ensue with the mystery fan making more untraceable phone calls and leaving messages on self-erasing cassette tapes, with Mark twisting in a web that takes him from victim, to witness, to suspect—not only in Judy’s murder, but in Susan’s, his producer at the station, and, the police believe, Kathie’s murder back in Los Angeles.
Is the person who killed Judy and Susan the same person who killed Mark’s girlfriend in Los Angeles? Is it the jealous DJ who got bumped from his shift to make way for Mark? Is it the psychology student (Debrah Farentino, TV’s NYPD Blue, Earth 2), who’s writing a thesis paper on broadcasting? Is it Kathie’s sister, Lara, who discovers she’s also becoming tangled in a web by her sister’s killer? Is it Morton, the station’s dweeby chief engineer?
The ending of Dead Air is a genuine, twisty shocker. Granted, it’s not a “shocker” of the Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct nourish level, this is a direct-to-cable movie after all, but a shocker none-the less and certainly above the “shock ending” of other radio-noirs in its wake.
Look for an early role from John Hawkes as Morton, who got his start in the sci-fi cheapy Future-Kill (1985) and made it all the way to the Golden Globes and the Oscars with nominated roles in Winter’s Bone (2010) and The Sessions (2012). Horror hounds will immediately recognize Beau Starr in his role as Lieutenant Marvin Gallis from his roles in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, as well as his much seen roles (thanks their incessant cable replays) in Goodfellas as Henry Hill’s father (1990), and Speed (1994).