Some of the more recent two or three character thrillers – such as Nacho Cerda's The Abandoned (2006) – demonstrate what happens when filmmakers spend too much time on visuals, sound design, and montage, leaving characters and a neat plot behind in their self-serving quest to be stylish.
It's like a crutch filmmakers use to mask their inability to tell a story, and their disinterest in working out beforehand a tight script that can tease audiences, yet have them develop their own little suspicions of where the mystery's headed as little clues and bits of oddness are dropped through dialogue, or visual clues, like a painting that's been relatively innocent until the camera zooms in for a closer look.
Shot on a low budget in Italy (but masquerading as Anytown, U.S.A.), The Caller was a vintage Empire production that slid to video and has more or less disappeared into obscurity, and while not an exemplary model of a mystery with a knock-down twist, Arthur Allan Seidelman's direction and Michael Sloane's script prove how the simplest writing and filmmaking tools still work when handled with a bit of discipline and finesse.
It helps to have an able cast – particularly Malcolm McDowell nicely underplaying the role of a stranger who's polite, then suspicious, then cocky, and quite privy to some secret murderous deed – plus immaculate set décor which gives subtle impressions of looming violence when specific elements aren't hinting as to whether Madolyn Smith is an innocent mother preparing dinner for her hubbie, or some mental patient masquerading as a housewife in an isolated log house.
A few character aspects are a bit confusing, and the finale takes a while to sink in, but what's most effective is how the film begins as a straight mystery, then leans towards a psychological thriller, and develops into a game between two characters who seem to know a lot about each other, yet are aware the slightest slip will result in some deadly penalty.
Sloane's script nicely balances intrigue, wit, and grisly horror without going into splatter terrain, and director Seidelman maintains a steady pace, with each scene never coming off as fluffy padding. (Seidelman, long a veteran of TV shows such as Hill Street Blues and Murder, She Wrote, also began his prolific career with Arnold Schwarzenegger's infamous 1970 film debut, Hercules in New York / Hercules Goes Bananas)
Richard Band's score effectively uses modest synths to convey intimate terror, and full orchestra for scenes with major shocks, and moments when the story moves away from the log house where most of the drama occurs. Also of note is the cinematography by Daniele Nannuzzi (Santa Sangre, Senso '45, and Sergei Bondarchuk's Quiet Flows the Don) which emphasizes warm amber hues and primary colours – a bit too eighties, but the colour scheme acts as a deceptively calming façade for the dark conflict that propels the film.
At the time of writing, this film has yet to receive a DVD release.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan