Directed By Arthur Allan Seidelman
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Madolyn Smith
During the mid-to-late 1980′s, few low budget film studios were as prolific as Charles Band’s Empire Films. When it came to producing good-looking features with a minimal cost, Band had a secret weapon that gave him an edge on his competition – a studio facility in Italy. He combined that with easy access to local technical talent and was able to produce a number of cult favorites like Troll, Crawlspace and From Beyond cheaply and quickly.
In fact the Empire-in-Italy setup was so prolific that b-movie buffs are still trying to catch up with its output. There are number of Empire productions that quickly disappeared to home video and cable and are ripe for rediscovery. One of the most noteworthy “lost” Empire movies is The Caller, a tense thriller with some unusual plot hooks.
The story begins with The Girl (Madolyn Smith) going about her business in an oddly barren town before returning home to an isolated cabin in the woods. It seems she is being watched and her manner is nervous, as evidenced by a cryptic phone call to her daughter. She is surprised when the titular figure (Malcolm McDowell) turns up at her door and requests to use her phone to call a tow truck.
This is where The Caller gets really interesting. The Caller makes a show of being normal yet is oddly persistent about hanging around the Girl’s home. The unexpected element is that the Girl acts as suspiciously as he does, asking a number of paranoia-tinged questions and behaving in a way that suggests there is more to this situation than meets the eye. Over a two day period, this duo continues to circle each other – both trying to poke holes in the other’s stories – and raising the stakes until the story enters a whole new realm at its finale.
The finished film is exactly the kind of thing genre fans hoped for back in the day when making a blind choice at the video rental store. Michael Sloane’s script boasts intelligent, fast-paced dialogue that draws the viewer in and the story deftly travels through a variety of moods while ratcheting up the tension between its two characters. T.V. veteran Seidelman directs the film in a spare but skillfully paced style that gives the actors the room necessaryto sell the storyline.
Best of all, the performances are spot-on. McDowell gets one of his better roles of his 1980′s period here and drives it home with skill, handling his character’s shifts between charm and menace with ease. However, the revelatory work here comes from Smith, who is usually remembered for playing Chevy Chase’s wife in Funny Farm. She goes toe to toe with McDowell, creating a characterization that is just as intense and unpredictable. The two have a sharp chemistry and it’s great fun to watch this duo go through their paces.
If there’s a criticism to be made for The Caller, it comes with the twist ending. Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say that the big plot twist is a bit too involved and complex for its own good once it is revealed, almost feeling like a beginning to a second story. That said, the journey to this finale is never less than compelling and McDowell and Smith keep the viewer riveted until the credits roll. In short, The Caller is a cult fave waiting to happen and one of the best products of Charles Band’s shot-in-Italy period.
As for MGM’s DVD-R of this title, it’s rather disappointing. It is presented full-frame and the weak color and soft detail suggest this is an old video master. There’s even a telltale bit of video damage a few minutes in. As good as it is to see this film again, MGM should have located a better master for it. There is no trailer or any other supplements on the disc, making it a less-than-rewarding package for its price.
Film: ***1/2 out of *****
DVD: *1/2 out of *****
Don Guarisco also writes the blog Schlockmania, your online guide to the Schlock Experience: http://www.schlockmania.com