Monday, 3 October 2011

The Caller

Man fears ghost – and always have. Religious beliefs aside the ghost serves as warning that action taken in this life provokes a response from the afterlife; the dead wreck revenge. Men should fear ghosts.

The first ghost story was so long ago it is undocumented but there are new ones written every day1. Every culture throughout history has its ghosts. The advent of print put them on the page2. The invention of cinema put them in the movies3.

The 100 years of cinema has witnessed the rise and demise of various genres: the western, the musical, film noir. The ghost story has been filmed as drama (Ghost 1990) and comedy (Ghostbusters 1982) but it is nothing if not horror. This genre never dies and the ghost subgenre is a 100 year staple4.
from print to television to radio to cinema
Hollywood opportunism mirrors the bandwagon effect. When a studio scores a hit the competition rushes into production their copycat versions. The industry will hammer that genre into submission until the public begs “Enough!”

It’s a business model that’s worked so far.

This model produces trends and cycles. The independent Friday the 13th 1980 was distributed by Paramount (domestic) and Warner Bros (international). It grossed a worldwide $170.8 million5 (all figures adjusted for inflation) and kick-started the slasher 80s. The Silence of the Lambs 1991 earned $451.7m6 worldwide and birthed the serial killer 90s. The Ring 2002 had worldwide revenue of $307.9m7 and began the J-horror remake 2000s.

The Ring is boxed in the ‘remake’ category but its subject matter is the ghost. This is true of most J-horror remakes be they sourced from Japan (The Grudge 2004), South Korea (The Uninvited 2009), Thailand (Shutter 2008) or Hong Kong (The Eye 2008).

The latest Hollywood trend is the Found Footage Film. The success of Paranormal Activity 2007 is to blame for this glut but ghosts appear in this genre (La Casa Muda 2011) too. Outside of Hollywood many a Spanish horror film (The Devil’s Backbone 2001, Fragile 2005, The Orphanage 2007) have a spectre as their premise.

The ghost story is ancient and evergreen – be it told verbally, in print or onscreen. The durability of the subgenre can be compared to that of the nascent teen comedy. There will always be adolescents and they will always laugh at their own high jinks. There will always be stories of the dead who return to wreck revenge.

Men fear ghosts but in the movies it is women who are protagonist. They have the more reason to fear them.
Mary Kee has to move into a new apartment because she’s in the middle of a divorce. She begins to receive nuisance calls – from the year 1979.

The caller, Rose, becomes more and more agitated. She becomes violent – and what the enraged Rose does in 1979 could affect Mary in 2011.

The best way to tell a ghost story is slow burn. This original script by Sergio Casci builds the opening scenes with the first telephone call. A 92 minute running time notwithstanding the film takes the time to establish character, setting and plot.

Mary Kee is learning how to live alone again. She’s lonely but not pathetic. She talks to the ‘nutcase’ on the other line because there’s no harm in it. They female bond over bad husbands and abusive lovers. Rose confides she’s murdered her Bobby. Mary tells her never to call again.

This enrages Rose who sets out to punish Mary. These are the classic behaviours of a demon or evil spirit; first they befriend the living then they turn on them and torment them. Having wrote the foundation Casci infuses intricacy and intrigue. The result is woman-in-peril eerie.
Rachelle Lefevre: performance perfect
Rachelle Lefevre is pretty enough to warrant a second look but sexuality is downplayed in this movie. Her Mary Kee is trying to calibrate her new single life. She approves of women’s lib but is devoid of male bashing. Her tone is naturalistic. Her needs are human.

Luis Guzman co-stars. Like Ron Pearlman his place in cinema seems to be the Joe Pesci of the 21st century. He is the support who outshines the lead. His presence induces anticipation from the viewer – something is going to happen.

One of the stars of The Exorcist 1973 didn’t appear in the film. Mercedes McCambridge voiced the demon that possessed Regan McNeil. Despite her Academy Award® for All the Kings Men 1949 and her role in Johnny Guitar 1954 she will always be remembered as Linda Blair’s vocal avatar.
Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar: watch the full film on Youtube

Lorna Raver is the caller. It is her voice that has to carry her scenes with Lefevre otherwise the viewer is left with a shot of Mary with a phone stuck to her head. Raver carries the scenes with aplomb. The first sound of her voice is that of an old woman; frail and somewhat meek. Her cadence and tone and rhythm and flow change. She becomes insistent, strident, knowing, taunting, mocking, spiteful, gleeful, evil. Lorna Raver is an actress. She can be seen in Drag Me to Hell 2009.
Lorna Raver: her Mercedes moment
The Caller has faults. Its low budget shows; this is a city with no crowds and Mary lives in an apartment with no passing neighbours. The musical cues are signposts befitting a TV movie. There are minor lapses in plot logic concerning both Mary and Rose in both 2011 and 1979. There’s a plot device lifted from the teen horror Forget Me Not 2009. There’s a visual motif stolen from Ju-on: The Grudge 2003.

Be that as it may the strengths of this flick outshine its weaknesses. The equation is of a capable actress with rock solid support from two veterans, an eerie premise and an involving plot. The net is a horror film of sheer entertainment. That’s not to be sniffed at. This is the year of big budget buffoonery the likes of Scream 4, Final Destination 5 and The Thing.

Thank goodness some people still make films for the audience.
The Caller is released on DVD in the US 4th October.

Read more Thrill Fiction: John Carpenter’s The Thing
3 The history of the motion picture
4 Partial list of ghost movies Wikipedia
5 Friday the 13th The Numbers
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