‘Party Line’ (1988): Eighties VHS schlock gets royal treatment

Films like these weren’t made to be remembered. Thankfully, we’re now remembering them.

By Jason Hink

1988’s Party Line, the wild, schlocky, direct-to-video cheese-fest is the type of film I loved to watch as a kid late at night on cable channels I wasn’t supposed to be watching. Re-watching it today in high definition, I’m reminded of why I loved this crap so much. Directed by William Webb (Sunset Strip, The Hit List), Party Line was produced at a time when movies–especially low-budget exploitation fare–was treated like a commodity. It was the golden age of the VHS rental era, and by 1988 nearly everyone had a VCR in their living room and a video store down the street (can we go back to those days? Please?). Like television, these films produced specifically for the rental market were throwaway entertainments–no huge budgets, no focus groups, no sh*ts given. They made them fast and cheap with an exciting, sexy cover from the art department to entice those bored, latenight eighties yuppies disinterested in watching another dreary Cagney and Lacey episode or Vanna White in Goddess of Love. Okay, maybe we did want to catch the Vanna White picture, but on other nights, it was off to the video store to find that newly released motion picture you missed a couple months back at the local theater.

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But that was the problem. Once you got to the video store, you realized you’d already done rented and seen everything released to theaters. And that, my nostalgic friends, is where direct-to-video really came to the rescue. Cheap dramas, knockoff action flicks, steamy thrillers…this stuff filled the racks just waiting to be taken home by the handful (what else could we do over those long, boring weekends before Al Gore created the Internet?). Once we watched them we returned them (AFTER rewinding, of course, or suffer a 25-cent penalty), and forgot about them. Once these films ran their course, the video stores dumped them to make room for more throwaway entertainment to be gobbled up by the masses…cheap-jack films never to be seen again.

Until now.

Thanks to DVD, Blu-ray and streaming, those of us who actually enjoyed these films for more than their toss-in-the-garbage value suggested can now watch them again, and thanks to boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome (apparently run by good people who enjoy this crap just as much as I do), many of these films can be enjoyed in presentations the film’s creators would have never dreamed of back when they were pumping these things out.

But much like video stores and VHS rentals, another pre-Internet, eighties phenomenon filled the boredom gap for those looking for a little more interaction in their entertainment…party lines. Now, I was 12 in 1988, and I never called one of these so-called lines (a loop circuit where multiple callers could join the same conversation, flirt, talk inappropriately, and schedule hook-ups), but Party Line is titled as such because this technology plays a part in the shenanigans that go on in this particular slice-of-80s wild-life.

Starring a list of favorites, including Leif Garrett, Greta Blackburn, Shawn Weatherly, Richard Hatch, and Richard Roundtree, Party Line is a bizarre tale of repressed family drama, serial-killer violence, and primetime TV-style crime drama viewed through the lens of flashy, 80s-centric, uppity Beverly Hills splendor. Think of it like the most violent, bizarre, R-rated episode of Dynasty and you’ll have an idea of what this feels like.

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Brother and sister Seth (Leif Garrett, Shaker Run, TV’s Family) and Angelina (Greta Blackburn, 48 Hrs.) live in a sprawling, secluded, fancy Beverly Hills mansion left to them by their now-dead parents. They have no reason to venture out and make their own way in life; the rent is taken care of, and like many rich kids who inherit wealth, they’re quite bored. But instead of mugging for Instagram and begging for Facebook ‘Likes,’ they opt for analog thrills by haunting those telephonic party lines, setting up dates, and randomly killing lust-filled strangers for kicks!

Meanwhile, Detective Dan (Richard Hatch, Deadman’s Curve: The Story of Jan and Dean, TV’s original Battlestar Galactica) is hot on the trail of some drug runners working out of a fancy, high class dance club called Fantasia, a club I wish I could have djed at back in the day. When the drug bust goes bad, Dan coincidentally stumbles upon another crime happening simultaneously at the club–the murder of a rich patron, found dead in his car with his throat slashed! When Assistant DA Stacy (Miss USA and Miss Universe 1980 Shawn Weatherly, one year before her role on the first season of Baywatch) visits the crime scene, she meets the grizzled, undercover Dan and they become unwilling partners in trying to solve the case of these hideous serial killings.

Like much direct-to-video schlock, Party Line is an exercise in style over substance, and there’s plenty of style here–the film is nicely shot by cinematographer John Huneck (The Terminator). But who needs substance when all you want is some latenight cable exploitation fun? I’m certainly not complaining. Rounding out the main cast are Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, as Captain Barnes, who has a rough time dealing with the (often hilarious) “loose cannon” Detective Dan (to drive home just how “badass” Detective Dan is, they show his Clint Eastwood-as-Dirty Harry poster on the wall during a drunken episode after Dan goes rogue from being relieved of duty). And then there’s Patricia Patts (the voice of Peppermint Patti in many animated Charlie Brown TV specials–seriously!), the 16-year-old babysitter who must help Dan and Stacy solve the crime after she’s unwittingly caught up in it after calling that dreaded party line.

Party Line, “juxtaposing a slasher film setup with police drama and erotic thriller plot points,” as Vinegar Syndrome rightly notes in its marketing of the film, is an interesting look at what could be seen as a transitional point in what was popular for exploitation filmmaking. It straddles the line, drawing from slasher tropes long played out by 1988 while infusing it with early signs of the sexy, erotic thriller that would soon become abundant on video store shelves and latenight cable in the nineties. For that alone, Party Line can at least be seen by skeptical non-genre fans as having some merit from a historical standpoint.

Shawn Weatherly, a personal favorite as a Baywatch fan (I was 13, c’mon…), is gorgeous, pulling off a perfect mix of civic professionalism and eighties-chic in her role as the assistant DA. Richard Hatch is hilarious…you never quite buy him as the grizzled, hardass cop who’s so off-the-cuff that he loses his badge and goes vigilante, but Hatch is game, and he plays it with so much energy you can’t help but smile while watching his over-the-top performance. And speaking of the over the top, Leif Garrett is a hoot as a sexually repressed mama’s boy carrying on an inappropriate relationship with his sister. Garrett seems to relish the chance to play such a bad, bizarre character, one who misses his dead mother so much he even wears her old dress. But for my money, it’s Greta Blackburn who steals the show. Her evil Angelina is an oversexed, cunning femme fatale ripped straight from all those mid-80s soaps we loved so much.

Party Line, to the surprise of those involved, managed to nab a short theatrical run in late 1988 before hitting its rightful place on video store shelves. That and other tasty tidbits are revealed in Party Line Fever, an interview with screenwriter Richard Brandes included as an extra on Vinegar Syndrome’s gorgeous new 4k scan of the film’s original 35mm camera negative. Party Line never looked so good. I truly hope the folks there continue to dip their toes into the untapped well of late 80s and 90s erotic thriller candidates ripe for rediscovery by latenight cable fiends and old-school VHS renters who miss those dark, hazy nights filled with joyful anticipation as we popped in the tape to see just how inaccurate that cool cover art really was.

Can we go back to those days? Please?

Party Line 01

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