Nobody actually calls anyone anymore, so your first mistake is answering the phone, but if you’re like me and you’ve found yourself working a night shift job and you sleep during the day, the frenzied jolt of an incoming REM sleep phone call plays pretty strongly to your techno-evolved lizard brain, and you answer the damn phone. Sometimes it’s just the dentist reminding you about the cleaning you’ve scheduled for Tuesday. Sometimes, it’s a girl named Loretta asking who this is and why did you just try to call her. You say, “I didn’t. This is Lucas. Who are you?” “This is Loretta and it says you just tried to call me.” “Well, I didn’t. I’m sleeping right now.” Then Loretta hangs up and everyone’s day was briefly weirder and the shared experience wasn’t even entertaining enough for either of you to retell the story later.
But sometimes it’s a recording from the IRS seeking legal action against you or some bank with a Virgin Islands area code telling you to press 1 to learn about the new interest rate on your credit card. And if it is a recording, it’s what the Federal Trade Commission indicates as a robocall, which in spite of its cool name that sounds like what you do to summon your own personal Terminator or Killbot, it’s actually more diabolical than whatever sci-fi, world-dominating artificial intelligence you could associate it with. According to businesswire.com, the total number of unwanted robocalls in 2019 was around 55 billion at a yearly growth rate of 108%, which ends up being around 14 unwanted calls per month per American, and that’s not even the diabolical part.
Because these robocall operations are so lean and so easy to maintain, and because they can make money by selling crap or defrauding any unsuspecting REM sleeper or elderly person who presses 1 in response to an IRS lawsuit threat, it doesn’t matter how many Do Not Call Lists you put your name and number on, or how many millions these cats end up being sued for by the Federal government. Because like the Mexican black tar heroin trade that has cropped up in middle America in response to the nation’s addiction to pain pills, the same if not another robocall operation will be right behind it to keep the cause going. It’s an industry that’s out of control, and with the Federal Trade Commission’s limited funds and even more limited personnel dedicated to doing anything about it, the best we can do is not answer the phone because, I mean, really, we didn’t want to talk to anyone in the first place. Besides, if it’s important, they’ll leave a message, and if it’s your cousin Keith who only wants to discuss growing his vape juice business to include CBD oil, his new line of vape juice flavors named after hurricanes, and the financial benefits of moving into the old Dairy Queen next to the cash advance place in the strip mall on Buena Vista, you can just tell him you didn’t answer because you “thought it was one of those robocalls.”
And as for annoying phone calls, the worst, and narratively most threatening, are situations like the one that kicks off the 1987 film The Caller, directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. The Caller—as the character is credited—played by Malcolm McDowell dressed like a police detective who also models for the fall edition of the 1987 JCPenney catalogue, drops in on The Girl, played by Madolyn Smith, on a stormy night asking to use her phone to call a tow service to get his car. His car may or may not be the Thunderbird The Girl found in the woods earlier in the day that contained a dismembered baby doll in its glovebox. And not that we discover that this doll has much bearing on what little plot there is, it’s simply one of the several inexplicable peculiarities that writer Michael Sloane—co-creator of The Equalizer TV series—includes to throw us off the scent, or perhaps on the scent, of some part of the heavily dialogued subterfuge that ensues for most of the film.
This movie plays a pretty long game in the first half making you feel like you’re settling in for a cozy, isolated mystery-thriller stuffed up in some cabin in the woods on a stormy night as the only two characters in this film are presented with little to no motive to be threatened by each other are somehow threatened by each other. Not to mention the aesthetic of this thing oozes CBS Sunday night movie, and if it reminds you of watching Angela Lansbury running around New England unpacking some quirky murder at an inn on Cape Cod armed only with her savvy witted typewriter forensics, it’s probably because Arthur Allan Seidelman is best known for his work directing TV movies and at least five episodes of Murder, She Wrote.
But fret not, armchair detective, there are Italians behind this film and things can only get weirder, but not before they get more frustrating. As The Caller and The Girl go round and round in a catalytic discussion that begins with a not necessarily mysterious man at the door and ends up as a theoretical plot for murder as admitted by The Girl herself, the accusations and assumptions by these two indicate something more is going on, but you will never guess what it is. And just when you’ve settled into enjoying a dark and stormy night thriller, the film breaks your neck in a cut to the next day where Detective JCPenney shows up as CBS Love Interest is picking up her dry-cleaning to give her a ride around the countryside in his racecar that he got from Al’s Towing.
It’s probably important to mention that The Girl made a weird helicopter-mom type phone call to her daughter the previous night before The Caller shows up. There’s also reference to The Girl planning to receive “company” which could be her husband, but her husband “died in the war.” Vietnam? I mean, I guess. Anyway, the use of the phone becomes even more confusing because The Girl’s weird conversation with her daughter—“It’s gonna be really fine this time,”— may or may not have happened on a phone line which we find out later, may have been severed. I’m reminded of this because the only two people in this movie who have names are the two we never see who are called Al, the tow-truck guy, and Allison, The Girl’s daughter. Hmm, funny that they’re male and female variations of the same name. Could there be something to this, or did Sloane just not bother getting past the As in the baby name lists?
Also, this cabin is so badly decorated, and I don’t just mean that it’s dated, it’s unintentionally tacky, almost as if The Girl just found whatever was left at the Goodwill and shopped the statewide Highway US 60 garage sale across Kentucky to decorate this place. There’s an antique flag, daggers on the wall, a fish tank, a granite chess table, crooked brass sconces, bright blue kitchen cabinets with faux brick paneling, and furniture that looks like it was left on the curb after a funeral home remodel. And just to make you nervous, there are pots of food steaming on the stove and a clothing iron plugged into the ceiling over the kitchen island for the entire three days of the film.
If you pay attention, there’s plenty—and I mean plenty—of dialogue to indicate some deeper weirdness happening, and Sloane does a great job of hiding an endgame that you only know is coming because the film is 97 minutes long, and at about 87 minutes you still don’t know what’s going on. Of course, the implied strangeness is only aided by the great performances from overly polite and impeccably dressed Malcolm McDowell and paranoid Madolyn Smith. Aside from needing to use the phone, a little mild stalking, the suggestion of blood from a hatbox, and eventually a photo developed in The Girl’s makeshift bathroom darkroom, there’s very little to indicate the mystery we’re so keen to unfold, but I’ll be damned if we’re not manipulated from the start all the way to the film’s final rubbery, face-melting moments in a twist that delightfully doesn’t undo the film but certainly clears things up, even the horribly decorated cabin, and that’s about all I’ll say about that.
Produced by former Paramount Pictures President Frank Yablans and B-movie legend Charles Band, this film was shot in and around Rome with a mostly Italian crew. And if you know your Italian horror, then you know the sky’s the limit when it comes to however weird you want your movie to get. In fact, in the special features on the new Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray release, Seidelman says he got anything he asked for on the film and the closest he ever got to an outright “no” was some mild hesitation.
Frustrating and annoying to the point of panic-inducing depending on your tolerance for dialogue that sounds like it should be going somewhere, and for the longest time doesn’t, for my money The Caller delivers the goods in an almost cheap move with its climax. It’d be all the way cheap if its take on the classic twist-ending with a hold-my-beer attitude was for the sake of doing it, but it actually works and delivers a payoff far better than it deserves to be. You’ll only ever need to watch this movie twice, though, because beyond that you just really need to show it to your friends to watch their brains get turned into mush in the movie’s final shocking moments.
Dir: Arthur Allen Seidelman
Scr: Michael Sloan
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Madolyn Smith Osborne
Prd: Frank Yablans
DoP: Daniele Nannuzzi
Music: Richard Band
Run time: 97 mins
Available now on home video from Vinegar Syndrome.