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Hipster Holy Grail: 1-900 (1996)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover a hidden treasure. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

1-900 is an amateurish production in all senses of the word.  I don't want to come down too harshly on it mainly because it's clearly a labor of love from somebody who was starting out with film, but if I was going to rate this on any honest scale, I'd have to tank it.  I'll give it slightly better than awful since it at least had an understandable plot, and that's more than I can say for a lot of the schlocky, underproduced things I watch.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Part About Those BCI Eclipse DVD Sets

Yup, this week I'm dipping back into the infamous DVDs that spawned this weekly feature.  The only reason I bother to mention it this time, however, is that it's not the right movie.

Y'see, the box set and DVD itself both led me to believe that this week I'd be reviewing Hangmen, an (alleged) action thriller starring a novice Sandra Bullock.  So, imagine my surprise when the disc loaded up a screen titled 1-900 instead.  And not even the decently-rated sex comedy 1-900 - no, this is the 1-900 from 1996, a low-budget erotic (?) thriller (?) about a murderous sex chat operator.

Don't you just hate that?  You get yourself all cued up for an action film and you end up watching crappy pseudo-softcore instead?  And you don't have enough time to change directions, so you have to commit to it?  Sigh.  This is my life.

And Now, A Brief Rant

Ah, crap.  It's shot on video.

When I settle in to critique a movie, I do honestly try not to jump to conclusions or make swift judgments.  But video is just... ugh.  It tells you so much so quickly.  You immediately know that you're in for a cheap slog.

It's not that a low budget movie can't work.  It's just that I have yet to see a VHS movie that isn't A) filled with dead air, B) too long for its own good, and C) about fucking cops.

I know you guys think that a cop movie is a clever formula to shoot on the cheap and immediately raise your stakes, but making cops look convincing takes a hell of a lot more money.  You can't just point a camcorder at the cleanest corner of your living room, shove a desk and wall calendar in there, and make your friend wear a tie.

Is there anyone out there who thought to shoot a movie on video that tried to set the bar a little higher?  The best of the bunch I've seen so far is Revenge Quest, and that oughta tell you something.

Anyway.  Do you even care about the plot now?  Really?

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

This is a movie about a 900 number sex chat operator who is implicated in a string of murders.  I'll have to get back to the idea of 900 numbers later, but all you need to know for now is that 900 numbers are dirty, filthy, horrible things that thrive on human misery.

Anyway.  So, the operator in question is Paula, a blonde bombshell(ish) who spends roughly a third of her screen time nude.  (Mistake number one about sex chat operators.)  The movie opens with Paula hanging out in a dark alley with a sleazy-looking dude.  They begin to have some gross alley sex, and then a gunshot rings out.  The man slumps over, dead, and Paula gets a sort of orgasmic look on her face and leaves.

We cut from this thrilling opening to... a guy shaving.

This is our introduction to Detective John Sally, the film's protagonist.  Despite having a pretty close-shaven face already, John shaves for quite a long time.  You get to see him apply the shaving cream to one hand.  Then you get to see him spread it on his chin a little bit.  Then he picks up a razor and drags it against his cheek.  Then he looks at the mirror a bit and considers whether or not to continue.  Then he does.

Eventually the exciting shaving action is interrupted by an obnoxious knock at the door.  The intruder?  John's partner, Paul.  Paul is here to give John a ride to the station, and he apparently arrived early today only so John and Paul can stand around having a boring argument/conversation (argusation?) about how annoying it is that he came to John's house so early.

They spend most of their time together having argusations, so in one sense, I guess it's a good scene because it establishes the tone and character interplay.  But in a more accurate sense, it's fucking tedious.

By the time they finally leave John's house and go to work, the movie's already 15 minutes in - that's a ridiculously inefficient use of time.  The only real payoff to this scene is you realize John is supposed to be the straight-laced, by-the-book, emotionally stable cop, and Paul is the wacky, impulsive, say-whatever-comes-to-mind cop.  But considering that you can establish this dynamic in literally any scene, you have to wonder why the director settled on "a guy tries to shave and gets interrupted."

What were the other versions of this scene before they arrived here?  "Guy tries to cut toenails and gets interrupted?"  "Guy tries to wash dishes and gets interrupted?"  Maybe even - be still my heart - "Guy tries to tie shoes and gets interrupted?"

And then, to top it all off, for the next two scenes John and Paul dress and speak virtually identically, so it doesn't even consistently keep their characters separate.  Just look at this:

That's bullshit, guys.  I know you have a low budget for wardrobe and all and maybe you were excited for the BOGO sale at Men's Wearhouse, but if Paul is really such a carefree dude, why not put him in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt?  Or at least a different colored suit jacket?


Anyway, y'all remember that guy who died?  John and Paul are investigating.

Their first stop is to the Medical Examiner's office, where they have a long and awkward discussion with the ME about vaginal secretions, erections, and a notable lack of semen on the victim's hands.  It plays out like a proto-CSI moment where I think we're supposed to be shocked and appalled by the frank discussion of anatomy and sex - but since I've been looking at the internet for twenty years now, it ends up just being stilted and flat.

Puzzled by the apparent lack of motive and the lascivious circumstances of the guy's death, they decide to interview his ex-wife.  But before we get to that thrilling scene, we cut back to Paula having some markedly unsexy phone chat with a new victim.  She tells him to call her on a "secret number" and then gives him instructions on where to meet her in person.  Cue spooky music.

Back to the cops.  They're at the house of Ms. Chapman, ex-wife of the original victim.  She opens the conversation by stating that she hated her ex-husband because he was sleazy and cheated on her a lot.  Then one of the Detectives asks why she got divorced, to which she answers... that her husband was sleazy and cheated on her a lot.  Great.  Glad we took the time for that.

Ms. Chapman also starts railing against her ex-husband's frequent spending on 900 numbers, which opens up the first of many, many scenes in which the characters discuss 900 numbers as if they are a new and terrifying moral plague on our society.  This comprises a substantial portion of the film, almost as if it was a Message Movie produced by anti-sex chat zealots.  Speaking of which, I haven't checked to see if Kirk Cameron had a production credit.

The cops leave and then we cut back to Paula, who's getting ready for a night on the town with her next victim.  This scene introduced another through-line that you can turn into a drinking game if you hate yourself: the music.  As it turns out, the song that plays here is actually okay.  It's really calm and mellow and has a charming mid-90s bluesy / indie vibe.  But it's just the one song, and that's the problem: it keeps coming back.

My guess is that the budget was divided equally in three parts: paying Paula's actress to show off her breasts as much as she does, paying for the license to that one song, and everything else.  Since they paid good money for those first two, they had to cram them into the movie as much as possible.  Often at the same time.

Anyway, Paula's date is murdered.  Same situation as before where you hear a gunshot without seeing the gun, then you see the guy laying dead.  Paula makes her moan face and leaves.

Now, last time we saw a murder, we cut to John shaving.  So what do we cut to this time?  Guess.  Go ahead.  Just guess what thrilling follow-up they deemed to cut to.

If you guessed "John watches TV in a spate of insomnia," you win.  And everybody who has to actually watch it loses.

Again, it's just an inefficient use of time.  There's two reasons why they have this scene: 1) To establish that John is lonely, and 2) To establish that he wants to investigate a particular 900 number (Paula's), which the original victim had called a lot.  You can do both of those things in any number of ways.  You can even keep the insomnia scene if you want - just do it more quickly.  As it is, the movie has gone out of its way to choose the dullest and longest possible solution.

So, we're about halfway through the movie now and there's zero energy.  Time to introduce a couple of cartoon characters.

John and Paul go to the headquarters of the 900 number to meet with the man who runs the company.  Here we meet his Valley Girl secretary, who, in a matter of seconds, proves to be the best actress in the entire film.  She plays up the airhead ditz angle as broadly as possible and it actually works.  It's such a breath of fresh air against the dead silence and stilted melodrama of everyone else.

Next we get to meet the head of the company himself, who is playing an equally broad caricature with an outrageous accent.  And again, in a matter of seconds, we find out he's the best actor in the movie.  He actually looks like he has a soul.  Why couldn't this guy be the wacky cop?

This is the only good scene in the movie, but unfortunately, it's also one of the shortest.  All that really happens is he explains how sex chat works and gives Paula's address to the cops.  If you're going to practice economy of screen time, why do it with the only two actors who are interesting to watch?

Okay.  So.  Finally, the cops meet Paula.  It took almost the whole damn movie, but now we can get into some actual conflict.  They ask her about the first victim, but she plays dumb and doesn't give them any good info.  John and Paul both suspect she's lying to them, so they decide to tail her for a few days.  (The stakeout scenes include a couple of pretty decent tracking shots, which are worth noting because they stand out against the otherwise flat cinematography.)

Eventually John realizes he's crushing on her pretty badly and Paul's getting kinda pissed off about it because it's a major conflict of interest - not to mention illegal.  They haul her into the station to interrogate her, which still doesn't produce any useful information but does solidify John's attraction to her and further drives a wedge between the cops.

This is about half an hour from the end of the movie and it's only now that you realize the movie was trying to be a low-rate Basic Instinct.  Why only now?  Why wait so long to make this the crux of your film?  If your central conflict is that the protagonist really wants to sleep with the person he's supposed to be investigating, why not get to it in the very first act and use that to build some actual tension?


Anyway, in rapid succession we get a series of reveals explaining the murders.  Turns out Ms. Chapman was a former sex chat operator who met and fell in love with Paula, and has formed the dominant half of a BDSM relationship with her.  Chapman has been manipulating Paula into luring men into vulnerable places so she can shoot them and get an erotic charge out of their deaths.  Paula is not directly responsible for any murders, but it ends up being kind of immaterial because Chapman kills her for having brought the cops too close to the truth.

Except... oh, God, this is where it gets really stupid.

Except that Chapman is also in a dom-sub relationship with Paul, who kills John at Chapman's request, and who is also killed by Chapman to tie up all the loose ends so she can escape.

It's such a stupid twist.  If Paul was in on the whole thing from the beginning, why didn't Chapman manipulate him into covering up the evidence of her wrongdoings?  Why did he allow John to get close to anything, let alone Chapman's identity?  In fact, Paul is the primary engine for all of the major breaks in the case - he's even the one who figures out that Chapman used to be a sex chat operator and suggests that they re-interview her.  WHY?!

If you're going to have a stupid twist ending, you can't just dump it in there like that.  It basically means that Paul is either the stupidest corrupt cop in the world or the most short-sighted.

"Gee, my Dom is under scrutiny and I've got evidence that would implicate her.  What do I do?  Oh! A squirrel!  Now, what did I do with that evidence... oh, crap, I just gave it to my partner.  Well, I'm sure he won't follow-up.... Hey!  I think I'll have a shave!"

The Part About Moral Outrage

I don't understand the movie's attitude toward 900 numbers.  They treat the idea of sex chat like it's some kind of dangerous new fad that's threatening teenagers - the same sort of "how depraved!" lunacy you expect from a sheltered mom who just heard the urban legend about Rainbow Parties.

Except that it's neither timely nor accurate.

For one thing, 1-900 was released in 1996.  Even if I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they started the script and pre-production years ahead of time, it's not like 900 numbers would have been a new or crazy thing.  900 numbers have been around since the eighties and they were already becoming a tired punchline by Clinton's first term.  Even when I was a little first grader, I remember hearing jokes about 900 numbers and not understanding why they were supposed to be funny.

If anything, 1-900 should have been about online sex chat because that was the hot new thing with a thin veneer of danger.  Hell, The Net came out in 1995 and was already being torn apart for its plot holes.  Making a movie about the seedy underbelly of 900 numbers in 1996 is kinda like making a movie about the dangers of motorcars in 1955.  ("The human body was not meant to withstand speeds of forty miles an hour!  Your skull will fly out the back of your head, it will!")

But even if it was released much earlier, like in the mid-80s or in 1990, the film's attitude toward the very notion of sex chat is strangely terrified.  Characters say multiple times how disgusting and shocking and weird it is to dirty talk with a stranger for money.  John goes off on a tirade at one point, berating Paul for even suggesting that people give 900 numbers a pass because they're "exploiting" poor young women.

I can't ever remember people having that kind of attitude.  Sure, I know there are folks who disapprove because they just really hate sex, but I don't ever recall anybody being afraid.  As far as I ever knew, people's attitudes toward 900 numbers were usually somewhere between "Wow, you must be a loser if you're paying somebody to talk to you" and "Gee, I hope they don't steal my credit card number."

When and where was the moral outrage that asked for this?

It's telling that in order for the plot to work, they specifically had to ditch the sex chat early on.  The 900 number only exists as a plot device for the murderer to get caught - but in order for anybody to die, Paula has to actually hang up and schedule a date with them.  If anything, the takeaway is that sex chat is better than physical interaction.

The Part About Novice Mistakes

This really looks like a movie I would have made when I was in my early twenties and I still thought I might try to make movies.  Not in terms of content, but just in terms of style.

So much of it is filmed with static camera shots and simple angle / reverse angle / angle cuts.  There's so much dead air, so much time wasted answering questions that nobody's asking.  ("How did that guy get inside the building?  Oh, he walked through the front door?  Good.  Thanks for clearing that up.  I thought maybe he could teleport.")

Everything about it feels like a practice movie, except it was apparently released as a real one.  I hate it when I see stuff like this because I feel bad about trashing it.  It's the same story as My Streets.  Like, I know the director must have worked really hard and exhausted himself producing 1-900, but it's just not a good movie.

And yet, despite its many flaws, there's some actual talent buried under the surface.  Although it's  boring and misguided, the story is actually coherent and communicated clearly.  (With the exception of that one twist.)  There are a few times when the camerawork is interesting, like those tracking shots during the stakeout montage.  And there's a few moments where technical skill is put on display, like a scene where the camera was mounted on the front of a moving car and the actors' dialogue is still clearly audible.

It's the kind of movie where I hope the real life story goes like this: the director made this when he was younger and inexperienced and learned a lot of valuable lessons.  He stuck with his passion and worked on various smaller projects - commercials and music videos and things - and became more proficient.  Now he's still directing small features - TV movies and other workman projects - and he's got enough experience that he might still one day get a big break and move up to something where he could shine.

And when that day comes, I hope he plans a private viewing party for all of his closest friends (personal and professional) to screen 1-900 one more time.  To remind himself not only of how far he's come, but also that it's okay to make mistakes if you can learn from them.

I'm not sure if that's how his story has actually gone.  I could check out his credits on IMDb, but I think I'd rather keep it a mystery.  The fantasy in my head is satisfying enough.

Where You Can Watch

This one's probably harder to find if you don't want to buy it, but I watched 1-900 on my copy of the A Thin Line Between Life & Death DVD box set.  Except, since it was labelled incorrectly, I'm not even sure if the movie is supposed to be in that set.  Who knows?  Maybe if you ever happen to run into the director, he'll give you a copy on tape.

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