We revisit the 1980s once again in Timothy Woodward Jr.’s ode to the sinister power of good old, stolid, analogue tech. However, this schlocky supernatural thriller is the thin end of the wedge when it comes to neon-soaked, big-haired nostalgia. Decent characterisation and a patient build up keep it watchable, but things rather fall apart when it gets into its stride, leaving us with little impression other than some competently handled, but generic, tropes in favour of a thoroughly silly premise.
Chris (Chester Rushing) moves to a new town, and makes friends with Tonya (Erin Sanders), belligerent Zack (Mike Manning), and his timid younger brother Brett (Sloane Morgan Siegel). Tonya’s sister went missing years previously. A body was never found but suspicion fell on Edith Cranston (Lin Shaye), the owner of a day care centre. Cranston was acquitted, but the youngsters have waged a campaign of harassment against the elderly woman and her husband since. On the anniversary of the disappearance, they go once more to the Cranston house. After a bitter confrontation, Edith hangs herself later that evening.
The next days the kids are summoned to the house by Edith’s husband Edward (Tobin Bell). He explains to the sceptical gang that Edith has provided for them in her will. The catch is that they must all make a call from an old princess phone. When the call is answered, they must stay on the line for one minute to earn their share of the money. Easy enough. But none of them bargains for who answers the phone.
The Call‘s biggest draw is the presence of horror royalty Shaye (Insidious, Dead End) and Bell (Saw). The two spark off each other nicely and are fully believable as an eccentric, if not outright sinister, couple of decades standing. You get the impression fairly early that the couple are innocent of the murder of Tonya’s sister, but neither are by any means a benevolent presence. The dynamic between the group is also established well. Manning in particularly is poised on a knife edge as an alleged tough guy pining for Tonya. Her immediate liking for Chris immediately adding a frisson of tension at the core of the group. As such, the opening act lets us believe we’re in for a minor gem as it sets up the pieces for its spectacularly ludicrous conceit.
However, it’s all anticipation and little pay off. There needs to be a greater horror hit once things start to get freaky and the kids make their calls. As they pick up the phone one by one, it becomes schematic as the kids are each sucked into a variation of their biggest fears. Each of these play out as a riff between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, albeit all taking part in the same grubby rooms, and all lit by a constant capillary red wash of neon. This is clearly a budgetary constraint, but it condenses each individual trauma into one nebulous mass, undercutting the pains Patrick Stibbs‘ script took with the decent characterisation early on. As it stands, there simply isn’t enough inventiveness or variety in the nightmare-scapes to drag the viewer past the sheer stupidity of the youngsters even setting foot in casa Cranston.
It’s a pity that The Call couldn’t follow through on its early promise. The script juggles audience sympathies and it’s great to see Shaye and Bell share a screen. Neither phone it in, but they can’t elevate a narrative that flatlines just at the moment it should burst into life. Beyond the well-sampled wellspring of ’80s nostalgia, there is little to stay on the line for.
Available on Shudder from Mon 12 Jul 2021