Not to be confused with the Korean movie from 2020 that’s also titled The Call. It’s 1987, and awkward kid Chris (Chester Rushing) is adjusting to life in his new high school. He’s befriended by Tonya (Erin Sanders), Zack (Mike Manning), and Brett (Sloane Morgan Siegel), who have a grudge against Edith Cranston (Lin Shaye) and drag Chris into it. Seems Tonya’s sister Laura (Brooklyn Anne Miller) has gone missing, and Edith’s daycare was her last known whereabouts. The teens have a tradition of pranking Edith, who this time around catches them and epically loses her shit, culminating in her committing suicide. They’re contacted by Edith’s husband Edward (Tobin Bell), who has a proposition (a game, if you will) for them: if they can stay on a call with Edith, who was buried with a phone, for a full minute, they win $100,000. Of course, Edith won’t make it easy on them.
I tend to be skeptical of depictions of the 1980s by millennial filmmakers, who were but babes during the decade, but the ’80s accoutrements are skillfully displayed without overshadowing the aesthetic in general: crimped hair, a Walkman, arcade games, blue and pink eye shadow, middle-of-the-night static on TV, and of course the rotary phone on which one makes the titular calls. Visual references to horror movies are plentiful (but not obnoxiously so), from The Exorcist to Poltergeist, but two of the most striking are ones from movies that were released in 1987. There’s an early scene that takes place at a carnival that’s very reminiscent of The Lost Boys, and in one scene there’s a bedroom set overhung with chains, much like in Hellraiser–see the image two paragraphs below.
The characters are more complex than are often depicted in horror movies revolving around teens. Their personalities and motivations are explained in depth. (Except for Tonya, alas–her big reveal is a rare sour note.) The performances are exquisite across the board. Chris, Tonya, and Brett are likable. Manning is spot-on as the quintessential ’80s teenage asshole, evoking a young Val Kilmer. I was actually rooting for the kids to make it, even Zack. I’m a big fan of Lin Shaye (we need more scream queens over 70), but even so I griped a lot about her acting here in my review of The Midnight Man. However, in this one she totally nails being a woman who both demands empathy for her grief and terror of her vengeance. Similarly, Tobin Bell is adept at building tension as a widower barely concealing his rage while confronting the people he blames for his wife’s death, but he’s also a tender, affectionate husband to Edith. I love the scene when Edward tries to comfort her when she’s devastated: “My dream was to be with you forever. And I am. So I’m happy as a clam.”
I was pleasantly surprised by the overall dark and serious tone. Most of it takes place at night, a good chunk in the dimly-lit Cranston house. There’s little in the way of comic relief or one-liners. Though I had a small chuckle when Chris says “As weird as Edith is, I have to admit I’ve seen stranger things.” ‘Cause Chester Rushing was on Stranger Things. And of course there’s a giddy thrill when Edward comes this close to saying “I want to play a game.” It’s not rated, but the multiple f-bombs take it far away from PG-13. Yet it’s not gory, relying mainly on psychological scares.
There’s an interesting motif of the futility of trying to escape the past. Multiple characters mention wanting to bury the past, but none of them is able to effectively do so. In fact, the past is more present than the present for every character. Edith and Edward are persecuted and made miserable for the incident with Laura. All of the teens are haunted by their illicit life experiences, which Edith brings to the fore and forces them to face: for example, Zack and Brett’s abusive father, who says, keeping right along with the theme, “I’m always gonna find you.” As Edith points out, hell isn’t fire and brimstone but instead reliving one’s worst memories.
Overall, I loved it. I was expecting a dumb teen romp, and I got a beautifully shot, smart, entertaining movie. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something thought-provoking but fun and even a little creepy at times.