When A Killer Calls (2006)

When A Killer CallsStarring Rebekah Kochan, Robert Buckley, Mark Irvingsen, Sarah Hall

Directed by Peter Mervis

A movie called When A Killer Calls about a babysitter being tormented by phone calls that are coming from inside the house – who could ever possibly consider this anything but a blatant rip-off of last month’s When A Stranger Calls remake? Coming across the impending DVD release of that film led me to write a rather snide article (but rather well deserved if you ask me and probably most of the people that read it) about this and the recent films releases from genre indie The Asylum. One of the people that read it just happens to be a director working for The Asylum, and he fired off an e-mail to me taking issue with what I wrote. Aside from a few snide comments his own, the e-mail was fairly civil, albeit incredibly short-sighted, especially when dealing with yours truly. I sent him a reply explaining myself but, well… Let me quote something he wrote in that email since it applies to this review:

“You reference our “Hillside Cannibals” film in relationship to “The Hills Have Eyes” remake, but do not point out the fact that there is no good reason for that studio film to be made. Ditto “When a Stranger Calls”, “The Amityville Horror”, “The Fog”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, etc. The studios are almost exclusively making sequels and remakes. I mean, do we really need a “Final Destination 3″? Let’s face it, this is what the marketplace demands. Audiences are not paying to see original films. What you hit on in your article about us is that we are simply making a good business decision in the current marketplace. Your website covers these studio films with rabid detail, waiting for permission for an interview or set visit like a child waiting to open Christmas presents, never questioning the integrity or creative merits of these films. It is rather disingenous to open a can a whip ass on the little guy while serving the studio master under the guise of protecting the horror genre”

The irony here is that he says this directed at me. Of all the people on this website he could accuse of cow-towing to the Hollywood studios, I don’t think too many regular readers of this site or its message board would ever accuse me of being too soft on the Hollywood crap factory. This is like firing off a telegram to Adolph Hitler accusing him of going too soft on the Jews. I’m usually the one being accused by others of being too cynical and too negative towards many studio films. My continued annoyance with many theatrical releases is one of the main reasons why most of the films I do articles about and reviews of are generally ones that fly well below Hollywood’s radar. It’s doubtful that anything from The Asylum would have ever even been covered on Dread Central if it wasn’t for me. And continuing the cycle of irony, myself and Johnny Butane attempted to contact The Asylum numerous times throughout last year looking for anything from movie info, production stills, screeners, etc only to never even receive as much as email reply saying “no thanks.” How can I rabidly serve The Asylum master if they can’t even be bothered to give me a Christmas present containing as little as a lump of coal?

Adding to my annoyance was this next quote from his email: “Perhaps you should applaud an independent company with a small crew of dedicated filmmakers (with an average age of 30) who have found a way to consistantly make films and make a profit doing it.”

Really? I should applaud The Asylum instead of opening up a can of well deserved whoop ass? Hmm…

“Considering the increasing quality of The Asylum’s film releases, I am really looking forward to this one.” – The Foywonder, Dread Central article about The Asylum’s then upcoming Beast of Bray Road, July 2005.

“If you’re a fan of B-cinema and you’ve never heard of The Asylum then I think it’s about time to familiarize yourself with them because they are unquestionably the fastest rising producers of quality B-movies out there. Think back to the glory days of Full Moon Cinema and then imagine what it would have been like if they had made better films with better production values that weren’t primarily about miniaturized killers. That’s what the films coming out of The Asylum have been like. Even at their worst, their films tend to be better than 99% of the b-movies cluttering video store shelves right now.” – The Foywonder, my own blog, August 2005.

Jeez, what a prick I was constantly bashing The Asylum every chance I got. So what changed? How about a very noticeable decline in the quality of The Asylum’s original features, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only online critic that’s taken notice of this decline in quality. Last summer, I was growing increasingly convinced that The Asylum had the potential to be something special even when I wasn’t fully satisfied with their films; I still came away with a sense that they were improving with each new production. Then came one uninspired, unimaginative rush job after another; plus The Asylum’s trend of producing movies that were clearly designed to capitalize on big studio films. His e-mail also included a defense of this practice, astutely pointing out that we never would have gotten movies like Critters or Ghoulies if it hadn’t been for producers ripping-off Gremlins. Ahem…

“Do you wanna know what one of my all-time favorite aspects of B-filmdom is? I love it when low budget genre filmmakers try to cash in on a big budget Hollywood blockbuster by making their own slightly similar version. It truly is a time honored tradition that we just don’t see enough of these days; perhaps due to the high cost of even DTV filmmaking or because there really haven’t been too many Hollywood blockbusters of late worthy of being mimicked.” – The Foywonder, Dread Central article about The Asylum’s then upcoming King of the Lost World release, August 2005.

Mimicking is one thing; making a blatant rip-off is another, especially one with little imagination of its own. Ditto releasing a film the day before Peter Jackson’s King Kong called King of the Lost World with a giant ape on the DVD cover, marketed around that giant ape, and yet said giant ape plays only a very minor role in the film and not including it would have had almost no bearing on the plot. That’s a very cynical, very deceptive marketing ploy. Gremlins inspired the likes of Critters, Ghoulies, Spookies, Munchies, and Hobgoblins, but all of those films at least attempted to establish their own voice and not just be a total carbon copy. What The Asylum has been doing in comparable to making a movie called Goblins about a dad that acquires a seemingly harmless creature from an old Chinese curio shop, gives it to his son, and warns him of the three rules regarding the creature he must follow or else, or making a movie called King of the Monsters that’s marketed around a giant reptile with atomic breath but is actually about shipwreck survivors on an island in the Pacific having to battle jungle creatures mutated by radiation with the Godzilla clone not appearing until the last 10 minutes and not really contributing much of anything to the film. Just because a movie is a knock-off of a successful Hollywood production doesn’t mean that the knock-off shouldn’t strive to establish its own voice. If you’ve seen Gremlins, you haven’t seen Critters. If you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you haven’t seen Carnosaur. If you’ve seen Jaws, you haven’t seen Alligator. If you’ve seen The Karate Kid, you haven’t seen No Retreat, No Surrender. The best knock-offs take a formula that lead to a successful Hollywood blockbuster and give it their own spin, enough to differentiate itself from the film its derivative of. The worst just copy the formula, doing as little as possible to give the movie enough to establish its own identity.

That brings me (Finally!) to When A Killer Calls. I swear I just saw this movie at the theater a few weeks ago, and it sucked then, too. While Simon West’s When A Stranger Calls remake was a pathetic, sub-Goosebumps level attempt at tweener terror starring a lead actress so weak she couldn’t carry a movie even if she had 10,000 Hebrew slaves helping her and directed by a guy that substituted a constant barrage of loud noises designed to startle the audience in place of genuine scares or anything even remotely resembling suspense, The Asylum’s When A Killer Calls is just a really flat production lacking any real suspense, but I’d still have to give it the edge simply because it knows what kind of film it wants to be and the lead actress, while still not quite strong enough to carry a film on her own as this type of plot requires, at least tries and demonstrates more range than Stranger’s Camille “one expression” Belle.

When A Killer Calls is about 18 going on 25 Tricia, one of the least responsible babysitters you could ever hire. The parents tell her not to let their young daughter Molly have any ice cream before bed and she turns right around and lets her have ice cream. When Molly asks if Tricia wants to play hide & seek, Tricia says no because it will get Molly too worked up before bed; video games, which one would think would get her just as if not even more worked up, are acceptable. Tricia allows her boyfriend and his stoner friends in the house where the stoner couple drinks alcohol and smokes weed before roaming freely about the house looking for a spot to have sex while Tricia herself gets it on with her boyfriend right there on the living room sofa in plain view if innocent young Molly were to come downstairs. If the killer doesn’t kill Tricia the parents surely will when they get home. Good thing for Tricia the killer kills the parents too.

Also, the house must be soundproof or most of the cast is deaf because nobody else inside the place can hear either the screaming or the loud sounds of limbs being shattered with a steel pipe from just a few rooms away.

Tricia starts getting calls on her cellular phone (later on the home phone as well) that starts off as heavy breathing and soon escalates into menacing taunts from someone that can clearly see her. By the way, the killer’s disguised phone voice makes him sound less threatening and more like a pre-op transsexual. The killer eventually starts sending her gory pictures to her picture phone. Tricia is freaked out enough to call the cops even though a part of her believes this may actually be her boyfriend playing a really sick joke. Little does she know that the parents she’s babysitting for already fell victim to the killer not long after leaving her with Molly and the killer is already lurking within the house. Once her boyfriend shows up with friends, When A Killer Calls goes from being a full fledged rip-off of When A Stranger Calls to being a routine slasher flick punctuated by some giallo-level sadism.

This surprisingly unpleasant level of sadism is where Killer deviates from Stranger. Well, this and director Mervis’ frequent and annoying two second spontaneous earthquake technique – you’ll know what I mean if you ever watch the film. The killer’s primary m.o. is slashing throats and stabbing people through the face (nothing new to slasher films) but then there’s also a fetish for torture and degradation that seems a bit excessive for such a trifle production like this. On the one hand, at least Killer is willing to be the type of film it wants to be as opposed to the sanitized Stranger. On the other hand, seeing small children getting bound and gagged and having their throats cut is not really my kind of entertainment.

But no amount of death and degradation can make up for the film’s lack of energy or intensity. The only suspense for me was in what seemed for a short period of time to be the screenwriter’s innate ability to read my mind. At one point Tricia tells the killer on the phone, “This is really getting old.” Amazing, I was thinking the same thing? Moments later, she’s shown watching footage from The Asylum’s Shapeshifter on TV. “This is terrible,” she comments. It’s like she was reading my mind.

Overall, what we have here is a primarily dull thriller made all the more lackluster by the simple reality that if you’ve seen any version of When A Stranger Calls or are in any way familiar with the plot then you already know about 90% of When A Killer Calls’ plot. Heck, there’s even the big scene where a police officer calls her back to inform her that the calls have been traced and they’re coming from inside the house, which doesn’t seem entirely plausible since every indication was that the killer used a cell phone the whole time. Just as the marketing of the big screen remake gave away this plot twist in every single preview for the film, The Asylum gives it away on the DVD box art, and just in case you missed that, in the plot synopsis on the back as well. All that’s left to offer is the slayings and the torture and the killer’s motivations; all stuff perfectly suited to an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” directed by Jess Franco.

The sad truth is this movie exists solely to capitalize on a recent Hollywood film that was awful to begin with – a lousy copy of a remake that was itself a lousy copy of the original. And it doesn’t do enough to establish an identity of its own other than upping the gore factor and offering a few extra lambs to the slaughter.

Come on, Asylum people; you can do better than this and you know it. I look on your website and see listings for potential future productions like Croak about mutant man-eating frogs or The Fouke Monster: The Truth of Boggy Creek and find myself interested in seeing something along those lines, something different from the usual spiel. Those are the kinds of films that help a rising indie genre company establish its own voice. Think about what Charles Band did back in the 90s with Full Moon. A disproportionate number of the films he produced were utter dreck yet many are still memorable to this day simply because he carved out his own niche. When the Black Christmas remake comes out later this year is The Asylum going respond with a film called Dark Noel? After Snakes on a Plane will you give us Spiders on a Blimp? Will Silent Hill inspire Solace Mount? The Asylum’s in-house production over the past six months has consisted almost entirely of knock-off’s piggybacking on studio films and rush jobs that don’t feel as if anyone involved put much thought or care into the film they were making and I know I’m not alone in taking notice of this.

If you Asylum folks want to argue that this is what your investors want and what the marketplace supposedly demands, keep in mind that’s an excuse, not a defense. You have to make some of these to help pay the bills and I accept that, but it’s getting ridiculous and I’m not going to give you a mulligan just because you’re “giving the marketplace what it demands.” I criticize the big guys for this and I’ll tear the little guys a new one too for doing the same thing. I want a company like The Asylum to succeed. The Asylum is an independent studio. You’re supposed to be an alternative to Hollywood’s crap and not just following their lead on a smaller scale. Your cynical business model may be financially sound for now but it isn’t resulting in a particularly worthwhile product of late and unless that changes and soon, eventually, this sort of thing will catch up to you. Give me a reason to root for you guys again.

1 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit