Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Matthew Parkhill
Sony Pictures
United States 

The Caller, based on the lazy synopsis on the back of the case, should not have been a good movie. And when I tell you that the starring role was originally given to Brittany Murphy, and that Luis Guzman (whose two previous roles were in Old Dogs and a direct-to-video sequel to Waiting) plays the role of the surly-but-lovable gardener, well, I completely understand your misgiving.  The title alone alludes to something more visceral in nature. It harks back to other phone terror based movies from the past, such as When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas, and Scream. But the fact is The Caller is a great movie. It has an original premise, and while it's one that could go off the rails at any minute, the smart writing and the believable acting by the cast (including Guzman) keep it grounded. It's a movie more focused on psychological scares, and except for a scene here or there, is never about violence. Really, at its core, it's about the terrible things a person is willing to do to preserve their own self-prescribed idea of a perfect life... and in our protagonist's case, to ensure their own survival.

Mary Kee (Rachelle Lefevr, thankfully replacing Brittany Murphy very early in production) is in the process of divorcing from her abusive husband,  Steven (Ed Quinn), and she moves into a less than desirable apartment in San Juan. The walls are green and the appliances are ancient, but she's finally on her own. Her only company is Dexter the dog, apparently the only thing she was able to salvage from the split with her husband. Her surroundings could be better, but she dresses up her new place in an effort to make it home, and she soon finds company in the apartment complex's gardener, George (Guzman, in an atypical and understated role).

One day, Mary receives a call from Rose, an older woman from the sound of her voice. Rose seems to be looking for someone named Bobby, and is desperate to talk to him. Mary explains that she has just moved into the apartment and that Bobby no longer lived there. And this marks the beginning of what will be a dangerous "friendship" between Mary and Rose. For you see, Rose calls back, again and again. She claims to have driven by the apartment and saw Bobby with her own eyes, which obviously makes no sense to Mary, as she knows she is the only one living in that apartment. Rose breaks down and explains that she and Bobby were to be married right after Bobby returned home "from Vietnam." Mary goes on to ask Rose's age, and she replies 41, which obviously doesn't jibe. The Vietnam war having ended forty years ago, that would have made Mary a mere one year old at the time of the lovers' vow to marry. Mary explains this with frustrated indignation and hangs up. Rose soon calls back...with an idea — a way for her to prove to Mary that through inexplicable events, the two have connected via Mary's apartment phone through forty years of spanning history. Rose claims to have drawn something on the inside of Bobby's apartment pantry in her time and she orders Mary to look — to see what she has drawn. Mary hangs up and checks the pantry. She sees nothing. She scoffs and goes to bed, but finds herself unable to sleep. She goes back to the pantry and this time scrapes away at the wallpaper and reveals a picture...of a rose.

The phone rings. The two women — separated by forty years of time — begin a brief, unlikely friendship. Rose explains that Bobby had always been a womanizer, but she felt too weak to leave him. Mary tells her that for Rose's own good she should simply "get rid of him." Well, Rose takes that advice to heart. She gets rid of Bobby. And the next day, Mary opens her pantry door to see that it's much smaller than it had been the day before, and that a small section towards the back has been bricked off. But the bricks aren't new looking. They look quite old. Forty years old. Rose really took Mary's advice, after all.

Our plot kicks into high gear. A sick game of cat and mouse begins between the two of them. Mary wants only to be left alone, whereas Rose is lonely and wants a friend. And it escalates to a showdown you may or may not see coming. 

The Caller is a remarkable combination of the underrated Dennis Quaid flick Frequency, and your more typical horror fare such as Single White Female or Misery. We can even throw in a bit of Donnie Darko for good measure. And it all works. When working with "time travel" movies, one always runs the risk of falling victim to the plot holes that usually inundate the subgenre. There seem to be an infinite amount of things that can go wrong, or not make sense, or contradict, in movies where time travel is involved. The Caller, knowing this risk, stretches its time travel motif to the extreme without it ever spilling over into the "well this would happen / and that would happen" argument movie nerds love to vilify. As strange as it is to say, the unusual plot of the movie — Mary being stalked by a woman forty years in the past — is handled in a believable way.

This is Lefevr's movie and it's up to her portrayal as Mary to carry the film. And she does, beautifully. Much like many other horror movie leads before her, she had to find that right balance of the terrorized victim and the proactive hero unwilling to lay down and die. Lefevr's Mary is strong, cunning, beautiful, and even ruthless at times. And it all works in service to the film.

This is a movie that plays the slow burn tactic to profound effect. The majority of the movie is Mary and Rose on the phone with each other. The movie hinges on this. And if this didn't work, ultimately the movie would fail. It never falters. This is where the casting of Rose comes into play. Lorna Raver (most famous for her role as the crazy gypsy from the even crazier Drag Me To Hell) had perhaps the most difficult job on the film: finding that balance between sounding sweet, helpless, and even maternal, as well as creepy, sinister, and downright fucking evil. For a large portion of the movie, Rose's villainy can only be exuded through her voice on the phone, and she does so with great skill.

Not helping matters is Steven, who routinely shows up to remind Mary that though she may have moved out, and though their divorce is pending, he will never let her ago. Needless to say, Mary is not having a good year. 

Rounding out the cast is Stephen Moyer as John, who nicely fits the ensemble, and it's refreshing to see him in the role of the protagonist — a man who grows to care for Mary and tries his best to help her when shit hits the fan. Kudos should be given to Moyer for choosing the role he did. The director states that he was originally up for the role of the abusive husband, which he could have played swimmingly. Instead he opted for the less showy role — the one of the hapless male who gets sucked into all the goings-on, all because he becomes fixated on Mary at an early point in the film (and any man would.) We've seen this character type many times before: the disbelieving man who opts to believe the antagonist is crazy until it's too late. Instead, almost from the very beginning,  John is aware of Mary's claims, and while he is not totally on board, he tries to help her make sense of it all. He is clearly aware that Mary is in trouble and wants nothing other than to help. 


As much as I didn't want to discuss the ending for the uninitiated, there's a particular aspect  of it I feel compelled to bring up. When the ending sequence first begins, there is a brief moment of disappointment. "Oh," you say to yourself. "They're doing this?" There are both pros and cons about the movie's end, but really the cons begin to fizzle the more you consider the mental state of Rose for her to do what she has done. In the last five minutes of the movie, Rose is no longer just a voice on the phone. She is a physical villain, smashing through Mary's door with a machete. And yes, while watching this at first, I myself thought it was a cheap ending. To me it seemed to go against everything the movie had established up to that point: how these two characters could be threats to each other, though they were separated by forty years. But the more I thought about it, the more unsettled I became. Basically, it boils down to this: 1970s Rose dominates most of the film. She is the villain. Only in the last five minutes does 2011 Rose show her face. So what you are left with is the realization that Rose waited forty years from the time she first "met" Mary in an effort to finally kill her, once and for all. For forty years, every single day, I'm sure, killing Mary was the only thing on her mind. It's a last-second twist that you're either totally on board with, or not.

I'm on board. All the way.


Not surprisingly, reviews for the movie have been mixed, a sad number of them dipping into negative. Reviewers have accused the movie of having no style,  and being a ho-hum combination of movies we've all seen before.

Reviews like this make me throw my hands up in defeat. If a clever premise, great acting, and psychologically fucked villains can't satiate the horror-craving masses, than I honestly don't know what can.

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