Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr.
Written by Patrick Stibbs
Starring Lin Shaye, Chester Rushing, Erin Andrews, Tobin Bell
As you can read HERE in our illuminating conversation with legendary actress and star of The Call, Lin Shaye (Insidious), this is not the first collaboration between director Timothy Woodward Jr. and the genre icon. The two previously worked on 2018’s solid MacGuffin mystery The Final Wish, but there’s one thing that their new project has that the last one lacked: Tobin Bell. Having Shaye and Bell together on screen for the first time combines both powerhouses from the Saw and Insidious franchises, and although their scenes together are admittedly short, the fact that both legacy actors received top billing is probably reason enough to dial up this surprisingly dark revenge tale.
Set in Small Town, USA midway through the high school year of 1987, new kid Chris (Rushing) just happens to meet Tonya (Sanders), the coolest girl on campus on his very first day. Once she has Chris firmly in her grasp, he’s put through an initiation of sorts when he’s coerced into throwing rocks through the house window of Edith and Edward Cranston (Shaye and Bell, respectively) – an aging couple under constant bombardment from Tonya’s uncaring vandalism that’s supposedly some kind of justice for the death of her younger sister. Was Edith to blame for this tragic death or not? Early on, a confrontation between Tonya, Chris, her sometimes boyfriend Zach and his brother Brett with Edith shows just how battered she’s become. Shaye immediately relays the pain she’s been under by being accused and abused giving Edith a real pathos. Once the kids are called back to the house after Edith hangs herself, Tobin Bell angrily reveals that his broken wife has written these bullies into her will. All they have to do is answer a call from Edith from the other side and stay on the paranormal hotline for sixty seconds.
A rotary antique in a golden spotlight, the phone itself is a little bit of a magic MacGuffin as well, transporting each teenager (according to their billing) into Edith’s underworld where she is finally in control. Ghost Edith is now the arbiter of her own fear and she uses the dark secrets of her new victims to slowly drive them nuts until they’re forever trapped in the phantom zone.
First up is Zach the jock in a classic case of Psychology 101 where he becomes the bully because his father beat him growing up. Reminiscent of Alice Cooper in Freddy’s Dead, the father haunts the son but, this time, Zach doesn’t turn the table like young Freddy did. His fate is sealed, then the same sequence is basically repeated when Zach’s brother Brett bolts down the phone line only to relive his older bro’s beatings from under the bed. It’s a twist on POV, but these first two vignettes feel more like padding even though they do introduce us to Edith’s spirit world modus operandi. But really, the story is just stalling a little until we get to the big reveals discovered in Chris and Tonya’s torrid tales.
Chester Rushing and Erin Sanders both shine in bursts of legit star power and they make their moments count, but it is hard to go toe-to-toe with the emotional intensity of a fully committed Lin Shaye, especially when she’s covered in blood mud and ectoplasm. Her face contortions alone are enough to make you cringe and if you listen closely, you can hear her jaw creaking just like the twisting wallet sound when Reagan spins her head around in The Exorcist. Edith is in total control of this world and she is now the grand tormentor and Shaye’s performance is tortured as well. She’s one of the few actresses that still makes it look fun to be in that much pain.
By the way, the Elm Street comparison earlier wasn’t a random reference. Not only has Shaye appeared in the original and New Nightmare, Edith’s ghost world mirrors Freddy’s dream world where the same kind of unescapable paralysis bears down on unsuspecting teens. They can’t wake up in one world and can’t hang up in this one. You can check in but you can’t check out! In Dread Central’s interview with The Call composer Samuel Joseph Smythe found HERE, he talks about the ’80s synth inspiration in the score and once you hear the music stabs in some scenes, the sounds of Charles Bernstein and Angelo Badalamenti definitely spring to mind.
Director Timothy Woodward, Jr. wrestles with some tonal issues here and a feeling sometimes that this is really two mismatched movies in one but, overall, the twist on a ghost story and the performances come through loud enough to overcome any interference. And sure, that’s a little bit of a Gene Shalit cheeseball line but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The Call is set in the eighties but it isn’t going for nostalgia, it has synth and stand up video game cabinets but the setting feels more like a design element rather than a necessity. Homaging the 1980’s is great but, at times, it feels more like a template because, in execution, The Call is really a much darker movie and stylistically moves into more J-horror territory. Using modern scare tactics like ghastly glottal screams and contortionist quick edits generally associated with J-horror and the newer trend of possession movies is all fine and good. It just doesn’t always gel within a throwback framework where the violence overpowers the vibe.
The Call is now in select theaters and drive-ins!
Having Shaye and Bell together on screen for the first time combines both powerhouses from the Saw and Insidious franchises, and although their scenes together are admittedly short, the fact that both legacy actors received top billing is probably reason enough to dial up this surprisingly dark revenge tale.