Chris (Chester Rushing) is the new kid in town in this creepy ’80s homage, navigating the perils of high school and doing his best to fit in with the cool clique. When he falls in with the wrong crowd, he discovers a deep-rooted vendetta against an elderly resident (Lin Shaye) and gets unwittingly roped into tormenting her. The old lady takes her own life and, riddled with guilt, the group find themselves answering the summons of her widower (Tobin Bell). They are told that they are each beneficiaries to the old lady’s will. The catch? One by one, they must go upstairs and make a one-minute phone call, with the recently deceased on the other end of the line.
It’s an interesting set-up, and one delivered expertly by a fantastic Tobin Bell, who injects gravitas and carefully suppressed rage into his performance. Unfortunately, the twin performances of genre veterans Shay and Bell are by far the best things about this movie, which is otherwise frustratingly pedestrian. At first, the film promises to be a kind of occult version of The Breakfast Club. A small troupe of colourful ’80s high school archetypes is thrust together by circumstance. Before the night is out, they will discover the private secrets and traumas that make them who they are. Instead of an essay project, it’s a phone call to the afterlife that forces them to confront their inner demons in vivid, hallucinatory sequences.
The promise of this strong set-up, however, is never fully realised. Since films like Poltergeist, and more recently the Insidious franchise, have familiarised audience’s with the idea of a parallel universe of psychedelic horrors, we’ve come to expect more creativity in executing this trope than The Call offers. With its retro ’80s horror stylings, and a cast with links to both Stranger Things and the original Nightmare on Elm Street, The Call brings to mind other properties that did significantly more with this idea than it attempts.
When the first teen is confronted by his abusive father in an orange-lit warehouse full of clanking chains, it’s fairly effective, even if it feels like another unnecessary nod to Elm Street. However, when the second teen makes the call, it becomes clear that what we’re seeing aren’t bespoke hellscapes unique to each character, but rather the generic environment in which we’ll be spending much of the rest of the movie. It’s a bit of a disappointment.
Performances throughout are generally strong, even though the characters are cut-and-paste jobs straight from other movies. Chester Rushing as the hapless Chris provides the perfect vehicle for the audience. Meanwhile, Erin Sanders is also good as the enigmatic Tonya, whose charms and confidence entice our hero. The young cast deliver the odd wooden line but mainly offer strong performances. The fault lies in a script that has no interest in developing their roles beyond the paper-thin archetypes they fulfill from their first appearances.
The Call feels like another production eager to cash in on the current vogue for ’80s nostalgia, but which doesn’t truly understand what made those movies so great. As a result, the ’80s imagery comes off as forced, especially as the setting has no impact at all on the plot. The film boasts an evocative synth score by Samuel Joseph Smythe, and some great cinematography from Pablo Diaz – although occasionally it relies on queasy camera shaking to instill tension into lacklustre horror scenes. For the most part though, these effective technical elements are undercut by a story that starts strong but fizzles out as the plot progresses.