In an era when Hollywood is seemingly devoid of originality, nothing is more maddening than watching a film that squanders an otherwise novel idea. Which is why The Caller is the most frustrating film that Netflix recommended to me. The Caller is the Len Bias of modern horror – incredible potential misspent. The film’s concept – a woman menaced by a mysterious caller from the past whose actions can destroy the heroine’s present – could have easily come from the mind of The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. However, The Caller is a classic example of what happens when unaspiring neophytes handle an otherwise brilliant cinematic concept. The Caller has the potential to not only be a great union of horror and science fiction, but also to delve into countless existential issues. Sadly, when this unique idea is left to the incompetent and unimaginative guidance of director Matthew Parkhill and screenwriter Sergio Casci, The Caller settles for well-worn trivialities and inane character “developments”. Typically, I would laugh at the failings of a horror film like The Caller; however, The Caller’s failings left me irritated and enraged.
Drawing from obvious influences from The Twilight Zone and Japanese horror films such as One Missed Call and Ringu, The Caller is set in modern day Puerto Rico and follows a young woman, Mary (Rachelle LeFevre), who moves into a new apartment in an effort to separate herself from her abusive spouse, Stephen (a somehow less than one dimensional, Ed Quinn). Stephen habitually violates his restraining order and randomly shows up at Mary’s dingy apartment for no other purpose than to terrorize her. Soon thereafter, Mary starts receiving phone calls from a mysterious woman named Rose (Lorna Raver, the old gypsy from Drag Me To Hell).
What initially seems to be a wrong number, Rose turns out to be a lonely former resident of the apartment stuck in her own unhappy relationship. At first, one thinks that Rose may be a manifestation of Mary’s bruised subconscious, but, in true Twilight Zone fashion, Mary and Rose realize that they are somehow speaking across time – with Rose calling Mary from 1979. Rather than investigate exactly how this phenomenon has come to pass, Mary starts giving Rose relationship tips – advising the mysterious former tenant to get rid of her unfaithful spouse, Bobby, much like Mary left Stephen. Rose, however, doesn’t just leave Bobby, but kills him, and, in doing so, Rose upsets the timeline of Mary’s present-day life. Familiar things are now different: an ominous brick wall suddenly appears in Mary’s pantry; people Mary knew are now non-existent.
The expiration date of The Caller’s novel idea runs out within the first fifteen minutes, and so the film settles into banal horror formula. After another forty-odd minutes of repeating the same scene – phone rings, Mary answers, Rose says something sinister, Mary throws receiver in horror – Mary attempts to solve the mystery with the help of John (Stephen Moyer), a mathematics professor at her college. Unhinged and paranoid, Mary researches her mysterious caller and learns from the superintendent of her apartment building (a somnambulistic Luis Guzmán) that a woman named Rose did in fact live in Mary’s apartment in the late 1970s and had committed suicide. And at this point, The Caller free falls into inane tedium with illogical twists and turns until eventually unraveling completely. After the first 60 monotonous minutes, Rose finally proves that she is from 1979 by accurately telling Mary what she buried in the apartment building’ garden (it’s a finger! Scary!)
At one point, John explains to the Mary that by altering the past, Rose changes Mary’s present, but still fails to ignore the obvious questions of how Rose is able to call people in the future. If Rose died in Mary’s apartment, then is Rose a ghost or some kind of spiritual limbo? Or is Rose’s suicide in the house just one possible timeline? And if that’s the case, are there several of these mirroring dimensions and Rose somehow find a way to transverse between them like inDonnie Darko? John’s “explanation” – a doodle charting time and space on a diner napkin – ignores all of these questions. All John seems to know is that the past affects the future. Thanks, professor John. We’re sure to ace your math course.
As more of Mary’s acquaintances start vanishing in the present day because Rose is murdering them in the past, we then learn that Mary also grew up in this Puerto Rican town, and so the perilous climax becomes obvious forty minutes beforehand. Ultimately, one realizes that the reasoning for Mary and Rose’s temporal line-crossing is half-formed, and rather than take the time to explain the phenomenon, Sergio Casci’s script can’t do any better than a finale involving a doltish young woman clumsily fleeing a crazy old lady.
The Caller director Matthew Parkhill should be blackballed from the film industry. There’s not a single frame of The Caller that shows even a semblance of directorial competence. That’s almost impressive. You’ve got to be a special kind of terrible to turn an otherwise novel idea into a film this leaden and artificial. So, my kudos to Parkhill for making a film that feels more like a tax shelter or an investment to launder drug money than a cinematic work. If you love watching magnificent failures, or great ideas get flushed down a drain of apathy and complacence, or are trying to find yet another reason to wrap your lips around the barrel of a 12-guage, then by all means, move The Caller to the top of your Instant Queue. But if you’re not one of those types, then do anything else but watch The Caller. Seriously, anything.