Producers: Timothy Woodward Jr., Lauren de Normandie, Jeffrey Reddick, Zebulon Hulling, Gina Rugolo Judd, Lin Shaye, Randy J. Goodwin and Patrick Stibbs Director: Timothy Woodward Jr. Screenplay: Patrick Stibbs Cast: Lin Shaye, Tobin Bell, Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike C. Manning, Sloane Morgan-Siegel, Judd Lormand, Randy J. Goodwin, Brooklyn Miller, Leah Contreras, Toby Leeder, Aidan D. Ortega, Madeleine Wade and Ciara Hanna Distributor: Shudder
This low-budget horror movie by screenwriter Patrick Stibbs and director Timothy Woodward Jr. clearly shows the influence of a couple of episodes of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone”—“Long Distance Call,” in which a toy phone with a link to his dead grandmother lures a boy to suicide, and “Night Call,” is which a line to a cemetery plot serves as a conduit to conversations with a deceased person. But here those connections segue into dream sequences recalling those from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. “The Call” doesn’t measure up to those obvious inspirations, but it has some modestly effective moments even if it doesn’t add up in the end.
The protagonist is Chris (Chester Rushing), a clean-cut kid who’s just moved to a small town with his mom. It’s sometime in the 1980s, and on the first day at his new high school he falls in with Tonya (Erin Sanders), a punkish girl with a penchant for trouble. It’s not long before he’s out at the local carnival with her and her friends, macho Zack (Mike C. Manning) and his dweeby younger brother Brett (Sloane Morgan-Siegel).
Chris reluctantly goes along with the suggestion that they should go and torment Edith Cranston (Lin Shaye), the elderly woman—and, according to Brett, a witch—who’s widely held responsible for the disappearance of Tonya’s younger sister years before. After they issue a few taunts and break some windows, she confronts them and shortly thereafter commits suicide, the result, her husband Edward claims, of their harassment.
A bit later Edward invites the youngsters to his home, offering a promise of profit. He issues a challenge. Each of them is to go to a room upstairs and dial a number on an old phone. If the caller can stay on the line for a minute, he or she will get $100,000 from Edith’s will. If not, the caller will suffer the consequences. The voice on the other end turns out to be the dead woman’s; she recalls a traumatic incident from each kid’s past that morphs into a terrifying re-enactment of it that can prove fatal.
The premise is rather too complicated for comfort, and as written it has a basic flaw in that in the traumas three of the kids suffered they were at least as much victims as villains. Still, it does give the behind-the-scenes craftsmen—particularly cinematographer Pablo Diez and production designer Markos Keyto—the opportunity to show they can achieve some intriguing images with limited resources, as they do in the re-enactment sequences. The picture also benefits from the presence of Shaye and Bell, both stalwarts of the horror genre. Neither is a subtle actor, and they hardly hold anything back here, but they give the movie a kind of credential that fans will appreciate.
The younger cast members are less impressive. Rushing fares best, projecting a naiveté and vulnerability that’s fairly convincing. The others, by contrast, are either stiff or amateurish, and the rest of the supporting cast is at best fair. Editor
Wayne J. Liu struggles to avoid sluggishness in the pacing—he gives Bell such leeway to be solemn, especially in his last scenes, that the movie nearly comes to a halt. Samuel Joseph Smythe’s score is okay with being at all distinguished.
“The Call” is a highly derivative horror movie lifted from utter mediocrity by a couple of veteran genre stars and some eye-catching nightmare sequences. It’s pretty forgettable, but less painful than a message inquiring about your lapsed car warranty.