The 13th Floor

Slashback! THE DUMB WAITER Packs a Feature’s Worth of Suspense Into 16 Minutes

I’m going to try something a little different for this week’s column, and bring your attention to an almost-forgotten 1979 short film from UK writer-director Robert Bierman. I’m going to argue that this short sums up everything that works in slasher cinema — without resorting to attention-grabbing techniques like graphic violence, sleazy exploitation or a short-attention-span editing style.

My first encounter with THE DUMB WAITER was in the early ‘80s, the glory days of subscription movie channels, when many of these networks ran interstitial material between feature films — including music videos (Michael Jackson’s THRILLER made frequent appearances) and short subjects. If the network’s programmers were smart, they would often select creepy short films to fill airtime before a late-night horror movie premiere… and some of these would turn out to be more frightening than the feature presentation itself… like the infamous RECORDED LIVE, which we featured in an earlier article:

RECORDED LIVE was intended to be a spoof of horror movies, but scared the hell out of me. Even creepier is the simple but effective stalk-and-slash tale THE DUMMY, which I found particularly unnerving (especially given my severe childhood automatonophobiaas detailed in my earlier column about the TV spot for MAGIC).

Here’s THE DUMMY, just in case your childhood nightmares need refueling…

Most folks raised on ‘80s cable TV remember those two shorts… but I’d wager almost no one remembers THE DUMB WAITER. I’m hoping to correct that deficit with today’s column.

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Not much is known about its origins, but DUMB WAITER one of the earliest films from Bierman, who developed a bit of a cult following around the 1988 comedy VAMPIRE’S KISS (one of the earliest sources for the “Raging Nicolas Cage” meme), after which he went on to a successful career in British television. It’s unfortunate he never returned to the horror/thriller format, since WAITER (along with his 1986 feature APOLOGY) demonstrates his mastery in building and maintaining cinematic tension.

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DUMB WAITER accomplishes this without once spoon-feeding information to the audience: the dialogue alone — conveyed almost entirely through telephone conversations — reveals that a woman named Sally (Geraldine James) is being menaced by an nameless, faceless, black-gloved stalker (John White), who is determined to gain access to her seemingly-secure London apartment.

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That’s really all there is to it… the beauty of the piece is in the way the stalker’s scheme plays out, and in how the viewer perceives the extent of the danger to Sally long before she does. As Alfred Hitchcock so elegantly explained, suspense comes not from the shock of a bomb going off — but from the audience becoming aware of the bomb before the characters do. We know exactly how the stalker will gain access to the woman’s residence (it’s in the damn title, after all), so we spend nearly the entire 16 minutes wondering when and how it’s going to happen.

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I’m sure I’m going to catch hell from people expecting something more shocking and overtly scary, but that’s not what THE DUMB WAITER is about. Sure, our anticipation has been dulled by decades of slasher tropes in every possible permutation… but remember, this film was made in 1979, before many of those clichés existed. The closest a film had approached this kind of stalker scenario was Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS in 1974 — which also introduced its unseen villain through a series of nightmarish phone calls.

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Aiding the suspense immensely is Bierman’s predatory camera — which prowls streets and corridors and seems to spy on the protagonist at every turn — and the dark, brooding score by Colin Towns, which combines chilling synths with touches of flute (something he also used to more somber effect in his brilliant score to THE HAUNTING OF JULIA).

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I know some of you are going to watch the film and say, “Is that it?” But you’re not this film’s target audience. Frankly, as jaded as horror viewers have become, I’m wondering if that kind of audience even exists anymore… besides myself, that is. Still, I hope I’m wrong.

[I wish I had a higher-quality version to show you, but this VHS rip — no doubt sourced form a cable broadcast of the film in the early ‘80s — is the only existing copy I’m aware of.]

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