‘80s nostalgia appears everywhere in popular culture...
...A longstanding love for the decade means the clothes, music, and horror movies almost never go out of style. Over the last few years quite a few horror films (It, Summer of ‘84) and TV shows (Stranger Things, AHS:1984) have chosen to break away from present day and set themselves instead in the decade which established the slasher subgenre and so many of the well-known horror tropes. While using an ‘80s setting allows for the inclusion of retro music, bizarre clothes, and all the neon you can find, the rewind also allows a return to a different time for the horror genre. Starting in the ‘90s, the genre became more self-aware thanks to the Scream franchise, and the trend continues to present day. Characters in movies can no longer play naïve and intentionally place themselves in risky situations. Teenage characters recognize a horror movie situation, so directors must get more creative with convincing their characters to put themselves in imminent danger. However, placing the film in the ‘80s removes 30 to 40 years of genre knowledge and allows the director to return to more innocent times in horror. Produced by Jeffery Riddick (Final Destination), directed by Tobin Woodward Jr (The Final Wish), and written by Patrick Stibbs, The Call combines an impressive mix of horror talent from multiple generations and, even though the film relies on the innocence of the ‘80s to push the scares, the story and characters will surprise you with something new.
As the movie starts, a freckle-faced youngster named Chris (Chester Rushing, Stranger Things) finds himself lost and awkward on his first day at a new school when he encounters a very eager wannabe tour guide by the name of Tonya (Erin Sanders). Tonya’s overenthusiastic behavior nearly smothers Chris, but once his new friend leaves his side, we get a glimpse into the new kid’s past, and it appears troubled. Fitting in at school seems hard but going home also proves tiresome. Chris’ mom’s newfound freedom from marriage leads her to more promiscuous behavior, leaving her son wanting to be anywhere outside of his house to avoid having to call any of the new boyfriends ‘dad’.
Desperate for something to do, Chris calls up Tonya and then gets the pleasure of meeting Zack (Mike Manning), Brett (Sloan Morgan Siegel) at a very creepy late-night carnival. Chris does not particularly seem to like his new friends, nor their wanton activities, but peer pressure never goes out of style, so Chris suffers through their taunts and dares. Set in the ‘80s, the story follows a line found throughout the nostalgia-creating decade. According to Tonya, Brett, and Zach, years ago Tonya’s little sister Laura disappeared while in the care of Edith Cranston (Lin Shaye, Insidious franchise). And in true ‘80s Satanic-Panic tradition, the Cranston daycare became associated with witchcraft and was blamed for the missing child. The Cranstons escaped a guilty sentence, but the kids take it upon themselves to punish Edith for her supposed crime. When the foursome run into Edith during a moment of vandalism at the Cranston residence, the matron of the house expresses her hate for the teenagers. But, despite their proclivity to throw bricks and dead animals, she does not fear them. Chris refuses to throw a rock that night and, when Edith dies shortly after their confrontation with her, is the only one of the group to exhibit any feelings of guilt.
Edith left behind some unexplained questions and her grieving husband Edward (Tobin Bell, Saw franchise). The latter decides to take it upon himself to seek some revenge for his wife. He convinces his late wife’s bullies to come back to the house they recently terrorized and offers them $100,000, which Edith supposedly bequeathed them. However, the freshly widowed sole member of the house, in all his Tobin Bell glory, announces the teens must now play a game. The group exhibits a mixture of greed, fear, and disbelief as the “game” involves simply going upstairs and dialing a number. The number supposedly connects to Edith in her grave and, if the kids stay on the line for one minute, they will earn their share of the money. So, through a mixture of bribery and blackmail, all four agree to play. The whole “game” sounds preposterous, but when Tobin Bell takes to orating, everyone listens.
The movie obviously calls back to the ‘80s horror genre, but the horror influence goes back even further with heavy gothic influences. The setting is a massive dark house with candle lit hallways, creaking stairs, moving doors, swinging chains, and a voice from beyond the grave. The combination of different generations of horror in theme, appearance, and even cast provides a more thorough level of fear and suspense than if the film just followed one predictable path.
Persuaded by Mr. Cranston, the teenagers break one of the first rules of horror movies when they separate from one another. Once they’re alone, the audience sees into each character’s psyche and the film takes on the feel of an anthology as each call plays out a short horror story. Upon making the call, the characters enter a nightmare realm visually distinct from the dark corridors of the Cranston house. When first entering, the color palette takes on warm colors of orange, red, and yellow to denote a change in location, and also to create a jarring sensation when danger appears and the color scheme switches to cool blues, greens, and purples. The color changes mold with the overall tone of the surroundings as well as the featured character’s emotions and fears.
Bell earns a lot of acclaim for his role as moderator of the game, but Lin Shaye steals quite a few scenes; she plays a terrifying character alive or dead. Even the younger cast members fit well into the genre, with particular praise going to Chester Rushing’s portrayal of Chris and his journey through his past and current fears. The Call discusses the fears which hide in all of us and how everyone comes from one kind of tragedy, whether self-inflicted or otherwise. However, the movie also looks heavily at the concept of learned helplessness and how perpetual abuse becomes someone’s identity. A person can be called pathetic, or a loser, or even a witch only so many times before they become what others label them.
The Call is now playing in drive-ins via Cinedigm.
By Amylou Ahava
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