The Call: Please Hang Up and Dial Again

I'll say this for The Call: it's a film that knows its audience. Pitched squarely at the Times Square crowd -- not the new Disney-fied version, but the one from the neighborhood's Taxi Driver days -- this Halle Berry-led serial killer thriller is specifically calculated to elicit a steady stream of vocal reactions from viewers, reactions that range from shouts of surprise to screams of "You idiot -- don't go in there!" Like a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show (minus the costumes and sing-a-longs), The Call isn't meant to be viewed in reverent silence; it wants, nay demands audience participation.

That's probably a good thing because, as with a lot of those old-school Times Square exploitation flicks, the crowd call-and-response helps distract from how cruddy much of The Call really is. Save for one genuinely exciting stretch that begins roughly a half-hour in, the bulk of the film is dull and derivative, with director Brad Anderson (who has some legitimately good movies to his credit, including Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist a.k.a. That Movie Where Christian Bale Lost Way Too Much Weight) filming the action in lots of lurid, torture porn-ready close-ups that echo a Saw sequel. The script by C-movie staple Richard D'Ovidio splits up the overarching narrative -- which pits Berry's 911 call center employee Jordan against a murderer (Michael Eklund) with a thing for young blonde girls -- into three specific acts that are modeled after other, better movies. Act 1 is a home invasion picture in the spirit of When a Stranger Calls, where Jordan tries to talk a desperate teenager through hiding from the man that's entered her house, but winds up committing a major blunder that gets the girl caught and killed instead.

Act 2 picks up six months later and moves the movie into territory previously mined by Cellular and the underrated Brake, with the still at-large murderer acquiring his latest victim, bubbly blonde Casey (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin, all grown up), and locking her in the trunk of his car. Fortunately, she's got a stray cell phone in her pocket and uses it to call 911, eventually getting connected to -- guess who? -- Jordan. Over the phone, the duo try to find some means of Casey's discovery and/or escape, only to be thwarted at every turn by random contrivances and well-meaning, but moronic bystanders (including a potential rescuer turned fellow kidnapee, played by Michael Imperioli, and boy does he look less than enthused to be the obligatory "Hey, it's that guy!" character actor cameo). Act 3 abandons the call center altogether and instead functions as a Silence of the Lambs knock-off, with Jordan stumbling upon the killer's underground prison and busting in sans police back-up to rescue Casey before she's dissected in service of her captor's sick fantasies.

Act 2 is the section of the movie that's been played up in all the trailers and for good reason -- it's the only legitimately entertaining material The Call has to offer. Never mind that much of what happens in this sequence is flat-out implausible (if anything, that's part of the charm); there's just something viscerally exciting about watching a prisoner trying to escape from a confined space using whatever resources happen to be at hand. The cell phone gimmick adds to the tension, requiring Jordan to devise an escape plan from a prison she can't even see. It's the difference between actual suspense and ugly cruelty, which is what the rest of the movie traffics in. But hey, all that stuff went over quite well with the crowd at the screening I attended, particularly the big climax which gives Berry (who is dialed in throughout, by the way -- this isn't an autopilot performance like the X-Men trilogy) the chance to be the avenging angel and enact bloody retribution on the asshole that's been tormenting her over the phone. The Call isn't an especially artful -- or an especially good -- film, but it's smart enough to give the audience what they want.

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