Judge Gordon Sullivan called a pizza parlor in 2043 for a pepperoni and sausage. He's patient.
Some calls are best left unanswered.
Critics of various stripes find it useful to distinguish between terror and horror. Terror is that strain of the frightening which we know has yet to happen, and we dread its happening. Horror is the fear we feel only after something has occurred. Most so-called "horror" films tread the line between the two, building up the terror, offering a gory payoff, and then reveling in the horror the payoff produced. It takes a very special film to dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other, to provide only dread of what's to come or continuous horror at what has happened. The Caller is not one of those films. Although it tries valiantly to make the audience fear the ringing of a telephone, it can only conjure a few moments of cinematic magic to build its world. Instead, we get a clever premise that's squandered on hackneyed spook-story conventions.
Mary Kee has just moved into a new apartment. She's recently divorced and has a restraining order out on her ex-husband. She's looking for peace and quiet. Then one day the phone in her apartment rings. A woman asks for "Bobby." Her name is Rose, and she's convinced it's 1979. This is exactly the kind of thing Mary doesn't need. When she encourages Rose to ditch the abusive Bobby, Mary becomes the lonely woman's only friend. Hounded by this woman who seems to be from the past, Mary must figure out what she wants.
I bet The Caller sounded really good on paper. It has just the right amount of creep to it for a five-to-ten page story: take a vulnerable young woman, give her a ghostly phone, and let the sparks fly. The basic idea is sound: Mary exists in our present, Rose exists in 1979, and because Rose is in the past, she can affect Mary's present. So, every time the phone rings, Rose can affect what happens to Mary. Mary, of course, lacks any reciprocal control, and that is a really effective way to build terror. Just like Mary, the audience dreads the phone ringing.
The problem is that The Caller is a 90-minute film, and the filmmakers can only generate so much terror with a ringing phone. Tied to a three-act structure to fill out the running time, The Caller doesn't really get started until almost 40 minutes into the film. By that time a lot of goodwill has been burned, and the film has to work that much harder to make Mary's terror seem relevant. Then the film has about 20 or 25 minutes of genuine creepiness as Mary and Rose engage in a battle of wills. Once that reaches fever pitch, the film engages in a little bit of contrived plot convenience to wrap everything up by the end.
Such conveniences would be easy to forgive if the movie didn't also rely on a totally clichéd presentation of domestic violence. Mary is being stalked by her ex, despite a restraining order. It's such a tired trope of vulnerable femininity it's almost embarrassing. The film is obviously trying to play around with symmetry (because Bobby is no good for Rose), but Mary's ex drags the film down, offering a few scenes of conflict but adding very little beyond an increase in running time.
I really, really wanted to like The Caller. The idea of applying a kind of time-travel paradox to a horror story is a really brilliant one. The face that Rose has absolute control over Mary while Mary has none over Rose is the kind of perfect horror setup that fans dream about. In all fairness, there are about 20 or so really great minutes in The Caller when the full implications of Rose's existence are playing out. When the movies really firing on all cylinders I want it to work and continue being great so badly that it almost hurts when it stumbles back into pedestrian horror tropes.
As for the DVD, it's not bad. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is a bit dark, but that fits the kind of bleak outlook the film seems to be portraying. It's set in San Juan (a fact that is not immediately obvious), and it's interesting to see a tropical environment given such an unsaturated look. Some of the darker scenes are a bit noisy, and black levels are not terribly deep. For an indie production of this budget the film looks good. The 5.1 surround track is even more effective. Obviously the sound of the ringing telephone is hugely important for a film like The Caller, and this track lets the sound design shine. Dialogue is clean and clear, and atmospheric and directional effects come out in both the surrounds and the stereo field. For extras, we get some ho-hum deleted scenes and an alternate ending, along with a short interview with the director.
The Caller is a tragically missed opportunity. The basic premise of a time-traveling ghost story is a sound one, but the execution here is mired in too many tired ideas. Maybe worth a rental for those who can't get enough Stephen Moyer, but otherwise the film is hard to recommend.
Though you might want to put it on hold, The Caller is not guilty.
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