TV didn’t always upend the horror formula (truthfully, it’s something they shied away from); but when they would add a couple of different colors to the mix, the result was usually at least interesting. Such is the case with Deadly Messages (1985), which throws the whole palette at the screen for a very messy, but entertaining distraction.
Originally broadcast February 21st as part of The ABC Thursday Night Movie, the telefilm could not have picked a worse night to premiere: in addition to CBS’ solid lineup of Magnum, P.I. and Simon & Simon, NBC had the biggest block on the air – The Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court. Oh well. For the six other people not watching that, they were left with a goofy and breezy murder mystery come Ouija board spookfest.
Let’s pull apart our sun kissed faux TV GUIDE and see what the spirits have to say:
DEADLY MESSAGES (Thursday, 8pm, ABC)
A woman being stalked by a killer begins to question her own sanity. Kathleen Beller, Michael Brandon star.
Laura (Beller – The Sword and the Sorcerer) and her lawyer boyfriend Michael (Brandon – Four Flies on Grey Velvet) are heading out for the night, with Laura’s roommate Cindy (Sherri Stoner – Casper) left behind to play with Laura’s recently discovered Ouija board. A little conjuring brings bad juju, because as Laura is coming back from her dinner, she witnesses Cindy being murdered by a dark haired man wearing sunglasses and black gloves. When she brings the police back, including Detective Lucas (Dennis Franz – Blow Out), they find Cindy gone and no sign of any struggle.
As Laura starts to see the gloved killer everywhere without any witnesses, the police and Michael begin to question her sanity and in fact, some facts from her past come to bear on the present. Is Laura crazy or is someone from her past out to get her?
It’s rare to have to tiptoe around plot points with TV horror; if you’re talking about vampires, vampires are what you usually get. Abduction? Check. Same goes for werewolves, cults, Amway salesmen, etc. Deadly Messages starts with stalking, turns to possible gaslighting, turns towards possible supernatural elements, possible amnesia, possible everything. It’s a lot, but because it never really takes itself too seriously, its convolutions act as a crazy quilt of tropes that hang together like a warm blanket.
If you’re looking for the ridiculous, this is the port to pull your boat into. The film plays its hand right from the start with the introduction of the Ouija board and Cindy’s connection with something; when her body isn’t found, we start to wonder if Laura is losing her marbles, or if the board is working some evil on its own. And the film keeps circling back to this insidious conceit, even though further events that unfold make the kid’s game seem rational by comparison.
The script by William Bleich (The Midnight Hour) leads Laura (and the audience) from one improbable moment to the next, and by its own cockeyed logic it works; just don’t think about it too much after. Director Jack Bender (also The Midnight Hour) delivers a slick looking piece that isn’t afraid to open up the box and let his camera move around; seeing as how Laura has to go on a journey to solve her mystery, opportunities are afforded Bender that he wisely uses to his advantage. Deadly Messages has a scope that many TV horror films do not.
This isn’t to say the film is perfect; some of the characters are simply stock and our stalker looks about as menacing as a middle-aged man with a sports car crisis. (Come to think of it, nowadays…) But there’s just so much going on in Deadly Messages that the whams outweigh the whiffs by a considerable margin.
Beller is wonderful as the confused yet headstrong heroine, coming across as Brooke Adams’ long lost sister, open faced and determined to find the truth. Brandon is solid as her occasionally trusting boyfriend, and Franz does Franz as the nicotine deprived detective. These are the characters that get most of the screen time, and come off the best (can’t forget the always welcome George Wyner as Laura’s boss, who’s great).
It’s always a treat when TV horror takes chances, or at least mixes it up a bit; yes, Deadly Messages uses a throw everything at the screen approach, but I’d rather have a messy lot than a tidy less any day of the viewing week.Next: It Came From The Tube: BAFFLED! (1973)