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Retro Review: PARTY LINE (1988)

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PARTY LINE
(US - 1988)

Directed by William Webb. Written by Richard Brandes. Cast: Richard Hatch, Shawn Weatherly, Leif Garrett, Greta Blackburn, Richard Roundtree, James O'Sullivan, Terrence McGovern, Shelli Place, Patricia Patts, Tara Hutchins, Marty Dudek, Karen Mayo Chandler, James Paradise, Angela Gibbs, Ed Corbett, West Buchanan. (R, 90 mins)

An obscurity from the VHS glory days just resurrected on a surprisingly terrific-looking Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome (because physical media is dead), PARTY LINE isn't about to be branded a lost classic, but it's not without its bizarre charms. Released in the fall of 1988 by the short-lived Sony B-movie wing SVS Films (the 1989 Eric Roberts kickboxing actioner BEST OF THE BEST was the closest thing they had to a hit), PARTY LINE arrived at a transitional time as the '80s slasher craze was largely over and the advent of the '90s sax-and-smooth jazz-driven Skinemax unrated erotic thriller era was on the horizon, and it's not lost on Vinegar Syndrome's marketing department that PARTY LINE straddles--no pun intended--both of these iconic exploitation genres. Centered on a Los Angeles-based chat line for phone sex and hookups, this pre-internet, pre-Tinder time capsule has two psycho siblings--Seth Benson (former '70s teen idol Leif Garrett) and his older sister Angelina (Greta Blackburn of 48 HRS and CHAINED HEAT)--luring horny, married men to bed with Angelina, resulting in Seth slashing their throats as part of an ongoing, codependent revenge ritual against their dead movie producer father. Dad was sexually molesting Angelina for years when she was growing up, prompting their actress mother to commit suicide and Seth, already stunted by severe Oedipal issues as a child, to kill their father and stage it as an accident. As the body count rises, disgraced cop Dan Bridges (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Richard Hatch), busted down to vice after repeated allegations of police brutality, illegal searches, and harassing suspects, is kicked back up to homicide by the always-ballbusting Capt. Barnes (Richard Roundtree), and ordered to work the case with D.A. special investigator Stacy Sloan (1980 Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly, a year away from BAYWATCH during its one season on NBC, prior to its pop culture explosion in syndication once Pamela Anderson joined the cast).





PARTY LINE works in a surplus of extraneous subplots, including teenager Jennifer (Patricia Patts), who dials into the party line when she's babysitting for the Simmons family and develops a crush on Seth, while at the same time being consistently made a pre-#MeToo example by Mr. Simmons (Terrence McGovern), who's always pawing at her and trying to seduce her when he drives her home. After checking his phone bill, Simmons discovers the party line and uses it to attempt a hook-up with Jennifer, which sets him up as the perfect Seth/Angelina target. Stacy is constantly being propositioned by the lecherous D.A. (James O'Sullivan), who eventually takes her off the case when she won't sleep with him (in another example of PARTY LINE being a doomsday scenario for the easily outraged, one of Bridges' female colleagues in vice scores some great seats for a Lakers game and makes a soon-to-be cringe-worthy crack about sleeping with Magic Johnson to get them). And Bridges has a casual fling with self-effacing, sexy motorcycle cop Butch (Marty Dudek), who makes the mistake of pulling over a speeding Seth in his red Ferrari and gets her throat slashed in the process, which makes this--you guessed it--personal for Bridges.


Hatch isn't the most convincing plays-by-his-own-rules cop, getting little residual cred from SUDDEN IMPACT poster on his living room wall (though he does dunk a dude's head in a clogged trough urinal at one point), and his Bridges is so perpetually one-step behind that it's surprising he wasn't given the usual movie cop indignity of being busted down to records. One almost wishes Dudek was given more to do, since her brief portrayal of the funny and chipper Butch ("Butch?" Stacy asks. "Yeah, we're old fishing buddies," quips Bridges) supplies PARTY LINE with its one legitimately charming and likable character. The entire detour with Jennifer is mostly fumbled comic relief, especially since she looks all of 14 and still manages to get into a trendy nightclub and send a drink over to an undercover Bridges (again, he's not the smartest cop). The biggest reason PARTY LINE might find a cult 30 years on is for the utterly batshit antics of Seth and Angelina, vividly brought to trashy life by Garrett and Blackburn in a pair of wildly over-the-top performances.






There's some clever misdirection on the part of director William Webb (who helmed other video store staples of the day like 1987's DIRTY LAUNDRY and 1989's THE BANKER) and screenwriter Richard Brandes (the early '90s Cynthia Rothrock actioners MARTIAL LAW and MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER and the 1998 Rose McGowan thriller DEVIL IN THE FLESH) in the way you assume early on the Seth is the driving force behind the mayhem. But it's Seth who's totally under the thumb of the domineering and nasty Angelina, who routinely mocks him by calling him a mama's boy and laughing at him when he indulges in his favorite pastime (other than slashing the throats of married men) of putting on his dead mother's wedding dress and crying uncontrollably. Garrett appeared in several Webb films and without a doubt recognizes PARTY LINE for what it is, and his third-string Norman Bates-as-DRESSED TO KILL L.A.-douchebag-with-a-mullet act (Seth's personalized vanity plate reads "TEMT ME") has some undeniable panache in its execution. Likewise, Blackburn takes this rare almost-lead role and runs with it. With its endless cliches (of course, Bridges is forced to turn in his badge after disobeying an order one too many times, and of course, like any no-rules movie cop, he solves the case while on suspension) and almost soap-opera level acting and production values, PARTY LINE is not a good movie, but it's an entertaining one. You get some gratuitous nudity, a loose cannon cop, Jack Nicholson's then-girlfriend Karen Mayo Chandler as a topless murder victim named "Sugar Lips,", a coasting Richard Roundtree acting like a sedated Frank McRae, no shortage of neck-slashing splatter, late '80s L.A. sleaze, and a cross-dressing Leif Garrett. If that sounds appealing, then check out PARTY LINE. You know you want to.



PARTY LINE opening in Toledo, OH on 10/28/1988




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