When did TV movies become bastions for battered housewives and other domestic tribulations? There was a time (in the 70s, mainly) when cable network original films were as worthwhile for horror fans as whatever genre offering was playing at their local theater. It was network television that introduced us to the Zuni Fetish Doll and Larry Drake in scarecrow attire. Now all that remains is cheating husbands on the Lifetime Network.
The first time I saw When Michael Calls, I was roughly seven or eight years old. Since it was a rerun of an old 70s movie, my parents thought nothing of letting me watch it by myself (usually my dad would watch these things with me – though more out of curiosity than any real need to ‘protect’ me, I’ve long suspected). Early on in the film, Elizabeth Ashley receives a phone call from her long dead nephew asking her to come pick him up and that was it. I was terrified.
And that’s largely the premise: Michael has been long thought dead, but has he somehow survived? Without question, the best reason to seek this one out is for the still spooky phone calls. It’s hard not to feel a chill when the little kid’s voice on the other end of the phone asks whether or not he’s dead. Because of this, the narrative is strongest in the first third, keeping viewers wondering whether or not Ashley is absolutely wacked out of her mind, or if there’s a supernatural element at play here. As it unfolds, a mounting series of ‘accidental’ deaths deepen the mystery while keeping the pace steady and the action reasonably interesting. For an early 70’s TV film, it’s reasonably fast moving, and equipped with a solid string of surprises.
The teleplay tosses in all the elements: a ghostly child’s silhouette is spied on a foggy night, a school for troubled children not too far from our protagonist’s place and, best of all, a red herring gardener who spends the majority of his screen time making sinister faces in tight close-ups. It makes a good go at keeping the viewer guessing, but you sort of know where this will end up before it gets there. James Bridges’ teleplay telegraphs the twist ending by having one too many characters draw our attention to a particular plot point, making it easy to connect the dots from there. But it also does an amiable job of fleshing out the main characters, making them a sympathetic group. I’m curious to know if the John Farris (The Fury) source novel explored the subject matter in further depth, however, as there are some unanswered questions lingering at the end (like why did Michael go missing all those years ago).
While predictable, it’s not without some spooky moments. Michael’s phone calls don’t pack quite the same eerie punch for me that they once did, but remain effective all the same. Director Philip Leacock piles on the ‘old, dark house’ atmosphere whenever Michael calls, making you wish the story had progressed with its focus entirely on these calls and their effect on our main character. Sadly, both elements fall by the wayside in the final third, resulting in a disappointingly straightforward conclusion.
When Michael Calls is probably best enjoyed on a slow and rainy afternoon and those most susceptible to its charms are likely those who were terrified by it back in the day. However, it’s surprisingly fast-paced considering the era from which it came, and does offer a slight, but enjoyable, mystery to go along with the scares. It’s hard to imagine me revisiting it again anytime soon, but it makes me yearn for a day where legitimately creepy genre material will once again return to TV. You’d think the Sci-Fi channel could stop producing CGI Monster Attack! long enough to focus on something seriously scary. Then I’d tune in.
In the meantime, we have films like this that remind us that it’s possible – even if it’s not quite as good as I remembered.
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