It could easily be argued that one of the famous obscene phone calls in film is the opening sequence of Scream, Wes Craven’s meta-masterpiece from 1996. The iconic call leads to one of the most genuinely shocking deaths in a slasher, but there’s more to it than just that burst of violence. The first question that Ghostface asks – “do you like scary movies?” – is casual, almost flirtatious. That flirtatiousness is what makes the obscene phone call so perversely compelling.
Even before it takes a turn towards the abusive and violent, there’s a particular kind of tension in the conversation between Ghostface and Casey (Drew Barrymore); all lingering silences, uncertainty, and heavy breathing. The tension feels more sexual than it does violent, with the uncertainty of where the conversation might go making it all the more thrilling, and makes the climax even more sharp and effective for the audience. The potential in these calls is loaded with a danger that can make them genuinely erotic, or shockingly violent. Or both.
On the more erotic side of this cinematic spectrum is Alice, the protagonist of the experimental 1971 sexploitation film The Telephone Book, and the only film made by director Nelson Lyon. Alice (played by Sarah Kennedy) thinks she’s found the perfect man. He doesn’t talk down to her or manipulate her and, more importantly than that, he seems to match her sexual appetite in a way that offers her both pleasure and intimacy. Alice’s first encounter with her dream man is a perverts meet-cute for the ages: he walks into a phone booth, dials her number, and wants to “talk to [her] very seriously for a moment, about [her] beautiful tits.”
This is just the first obscene conversation that we hear in The Telephone Book. As it goes on, Lyon makes it clear that these conversations are about more than just phone sex. There’s a romantic intimacy to them, with the film cutting out sound as it zeroes in on the more explicit details of Alice’s conversation with her master of dirty talk, the appropriately named John Smith (Norman Rose). These phone calls exist in a unique, intimate space for the two callers before they meet face-to-not-quite-face. It’s the possibilities of obscene phone calls – the fact that they allow for a strange, anonymous intimacy and the performance of different voices and personas – that makes them perversely compelling; as something that can offer liberation…or a slippery slope towards violation and violence.
What makes Telephone Book so fascinating is that – despite the relishing of perversion –it always puts the emotional life of its protagonist first. In a scene where Alice tells a wall street trader a dirty story in order to get enough change to call her way through the phone book, her desire to tell, or stop telling, the story is more important than his increasingly orgasmic reaction. Telephone Book is decently concerned with Alice not just as a sexual being, but as a deeply romantic one as well; it’s her desire for intimacy that’s fulfilled by obscenity, not just the need to get off.
Instead, when she’s in sexual situations that are devoid of intimacy – including an audition for a porn film produced by Holesome Productions, whose would-be-auteur describes his comeback as being like Chaplin or Welles – Alice is unable to feel the same kind of pleasure that she does on the phone. It’s through these semi-anonymous conversations that she comes to understand herself and her desires. As Alice herself puts it when she meets Mr. Smith, obscenity is “all in the mind.”
With obscenity being all in the mind, the idea of what someone thinks of as being obscene becomes a doorway into what obscenity allows them to do; if it’s a gateway to romance, as it is for someone like Alice, or if it opens the door towards something more malicious and violent.
Somewhere in-between these spaces of liberation and violation is Kathleen Turner’s Beverly, the eponymous Serial Mom, from John Waters’ literally brutal excavation of suburban morality. In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, Beverley phones up her beleaguered neighbor, Dottie Hinkle (regular Waters collaborator Mink Stole), to unload a torrent of obscenities at her. Before making the call, however, Mom is like a giddy child; the way she glances around the room before dialing, giddy in the fact that she’s about to transgress.
When Dottie picks up the phone, Serial Mom moves into split-screen, with the increasingly distressed Dottie acting as a blackly comic counterpoint to Beverley as she draws increasing joy from the call. When it’s eventually answered, Beverley’s opening line is “IS THIS THE COCKSUCKER RESIDENCE?” Dottie’s responses never reach this level of vulgarity; even as she curses at Mom it comes from a defensive, uncertain place. As Beverley continues to pile on the verbal abuse, another neighborhood busybody walks in through her unlocked door to ask a favor, only hearing what Beverley says as she opens the bedroom door.
As soon as this happens, Beverley slams the phone down and, flustered, addresses Rosemary. Once the call is over, Beverley is back to the version of herself that most people know: the kind that is prim and proper, and doesn’t use bad language. The latter point is something that Dottie stresses when Beverley calls her under the guise of getting in touch on behalf of the phone company; Dottie insists that she can’t repeat Beverley’s comments because she “doesn’t use bad language,” but once Beverley coaxes it out of her, she reverts to her obscene persona, bellowing “LISTEN TO YOUR FILTHY MOUTH YOU FUCKIN’ WHORE.”
Beverley’s dial-up obscenity feels like ground zero for her own relationship to violence. Each of her crimes in Serial Mom exists to try and defend her beloved suburban status quo (don’t wear white after labor day around her), and it’s through these obscene phone calls, and the anonymity that they offer her, that she begins to break free from these constraints. The ability to berate those like her, and create a distance between herself and them. But the dark side of obscenity always lingers here; Beverley’s violence is inextricably connected to this behavior – her verbal abuse connected to the physical violence that escalates throughout the film.
Telephone Book and Serial Mom exist on a spectrum of cinematic phone call obscenity; where the former uses obscenity as a vehicle towards offering its characters liberation and agency, while Serial Mom veers more towards the violent end of the spectrum, a space that’s typically occupied by horror films and home invasions. And it’s one of the earliest examples of the modern slasher, 1974’s Black Christmas, that captures this unique brand of cinematic obscenity at its most violent.
The phone calls in Black Christmas begin with a kind of blunt, brutal eroticism – heavy breathing, animalistic noises – and as the call runs longer, the caller’s desire changes, exposing the gendered violence that runs through them; the line from Black Christmas to Scream is about, more than just their shared horror DNA, the relationship that their killers have with women on the other end of their phone calls.
The driving force behind the horror of Black Christmas is the way in which male power – bolstered by the anonymity of the phone call – is used as the first salvo in an escalating attack on female agency, autonomy, and safety. When Jess (Olivia Hussey) answers the phone in her sorority house, she announces to the other girls that “it’s him again: the heavy breather.” He becomes not only a physical presence in the girls’ house through the phone, but also a symbol of something more abstract: the lingering presence and possibility of violence, in this case amplified by the phone, given a direct line to anyone who picks up. The members of the sorority house gather around the phone and listen to the garbled, incoherent obscenities that come from the other end of it.
Not everyone takes it seriously. There are jokes that he’s “expanded his act,” or that it’s “the Mormon tabernacle Choir practicing their annual obscene phone call.” His obscenity is fragmented, almost unsure of itself; between grunts and laughs, he begins sentences like “stick my tongue in your…” but the end of these thoughts is left lingering, uncertain, like a threat. It takes the voice a long time to bring out the curses, but when he does, it’s as if something is unlocked; with animalistic, violent lust, he begs “let me lick it.”
These specific phone calls create a unique space between the caller and the person that picks up the phone; a liminal, performative space. There’s a unique closeness that comes from the anonymous nature of these calls – and it even continues into Telephone Book until the film’s climactic scenes – being able to be yourself but not quite; offering up a version that might not be able to sustain itself in the flesh. This is true for films on all sides of the obscenity spectrum.
Even in The Telephone Book, John Smith admits to not being able to physically perform with someone in the same way that he can on the phone, and wears a pig mask – an image that seems chillingly echoed by the noises of the obscene caller in Black Christmas – that covers up all of his face above the lips. Instead, it’s the characters driven by violence, and the need to exercise power, that find their actions escalating after they hang up, as if the phone calls gave them a kind of permission – a way to say that they could be this way.
One thing all of these films share is the ways in which a phone call – no matter how anonymous or obscene – creates a connection; not just between caller and listener, but between the version of the caller who exists on the phone, and that one that walks away from the phone into the real world. The cinema of obscene phone calls is a conversation and a feedback loop all at once, amplifying the personality traits that are brought out in the callers, as the connection between them and their victims continues to develop.
The climax (in more ways than one) of Telephone Book explores this in a way that offers a happy ending: even as John Smith admits that the only way he can please Alice is through the phone, the film – full of experimental formal flourishes – turns their final conversation into a bizarre, lurid animation, something ripped from the pages of an R. Crumb comic. It offers a kind of gleefully perverse transcendence, and like their first call, details that are too intimate are cut (there are no words in their climactic conversation), instead its visualized in all kinds of strange ways, their connection bringing them together in a way that only the strange, liminal connection of a phone call can.
The fear in these calls comes from fear of the unknown. In Black Christmas and in Scream, the caller remains an unseen force; a disembodied voice – it’s one of the things that gives the calls in Black Christmas a politicized edge – creating a radical empathy with the person on the other end of the call; the way Casey’s curiosity rapidly turns into fear, or the sorority girls in Black Christmas growing increasingly disquieted.
And then there’s Alice in the telephone book. We see and hear her responses even more often than we hear the things being said to her; what she’s being told isn’t as important – to her, to the film, to us – as the way that she responds to it; what it makes her feel.
The idea of what is or isn’t obscene becomes less important the longer that these conversations go on. Instead, they become a kind of revelation, opening the door to strong feelings that seem impossible to articulate when these characters are face-to-face. The emphasis is shifted onto the talking of talking dirty; on to the power of language – whether its verbal or not – to arouse, to surprise, and to violate.