JULY 19, 2011
I think When A Killer Calls might have been the first title that made me aware of the existence of The Asylum, hitting my Blockbuster shelf right around the time that its namesake (When A Stranger Calls remake, obviously) was stinking up theaters. I didn’t think much of it, and this being pre-HMAD, never thought I’d actually watch it. But at the time I did think “It’s probably better”, and damned if five years later I am not here to confirm my suspicion. It’s not a good movie, but it’s far less obnoxious than the other film, and I can actually laud it for being surprisingly grim and largely fake scare free.
Note - this next paragraph might be a bit TMI, but it’s a funny anecdote I have very little opportunity to share, so just skip it if you don’t want to hear about a certain bank I visited when I was low on cash.
Back in January of 2006, I was flat broke, having moved to LA for a job that I didn’t actually get, and working at Best Buy and the E! channel for minimum wage just to pay bills. So when I saw on Craigslist that a sperm bank in Santa Monica was looking for donors, I took the opportunity, because just for walking in you’d get free movie passes. Being a movie nut with no spending money, I was missing a lot of films I wanted to see, so I figured it was worth my time and “effort”. And while I can’t remember what I spent the dough on (most likely either a bill or food, though I ended up getting my current, well-paying job a week or so later), I distinctly remember using my free pass to see When A Stranger Calls, and commenting later that the movie “wasn’t worth jerking off to see”.
Granted the 2006 movie was PG-13 and aimed specifically at that audience (unlike say The Ring, which is a fairly adult PG-13 movie), but good Christ was it an annoyance to watch, with heroine Camilla Belle being “tormented” by every single object in the house (doors, lamps, a goddamn ice machine!) before the killer finally appeared 10 minutes before the damn thing ended. And even though a family was killed in the opening scene (off-screen), the movie didn’t have the balls to stick with a key element of the original – that the kids she was watching didn’t make it out alive. Basically, every single thing they could do wrong, they did, and it remains (to me) one of the worst horror remakes ever.
When A Killer Calls, on the other hand, is unabashedly R-rated, and features not one but two child killings; a pair at the top of the film (our guy’s a pretty prolific killer this time) and the little girl that our heroine is babysitting is found dead in her bed during the 3rd act (accompanied by a fairly logical reason – he killed her parents too, so “would you rather she woke up to find out her parents were dead?”). He also takes out a neighbor, the girl’s boyfriend and his friends... I wasn’t even entirely convinced that SHE would make it out, as the movie was getting borderline sleazy violent at times.
See, it has an odd three part structure, one that almost single-handedly keeps it from actually being a good movie. At first, it’s the usual scenario – Trish the babysitter arrives, gets creepy calls, thinks it’s her boyfriend, etc. Then she calls the cops and for once in a horror movie, they are helpful and believe her. He explains what she needs to do in order to trace a call, calms her down, etc – but that tipped me off that something dumb was about to happen. It was too early in the movie to get to the “The calls are coming from inside the house!” bit (since they were using the remake as a template and not the original), so what could the rest of the movie be about if they’ve already gotten to this point? Nearly as soon as I finished my thought I got the answer – her boyfriend and two of his friends (another couple) shows up, and then the phone call motif is dropped in favor of a pretty boring slasher movie, with the other friends going off to fuck/die, and her boyfriend trying to get some action but not getting past 1st or 2nd base (what kind of idiot brings pals around to see his girlfriend if he plans to get laid?). It just deflates the minor suspense that the movie had managed to build up, and adds two more lousy actors to the mix (this being an Asylum movie, I wasn’t expecting – nor did I receive – any memorable performances).
Then it switches to a torture flick for its final 20 minutes or so, as our killer for some reason ties up Trish, the boyfriend, and the other girl in the basement, slicing their bare skin and even rubbing the boyfriend’s face in her bloody chest as she screams and cries. Its unpleasant and pointless, and out of nowhere – if he’s into this sort of thing, why did he kill everyone else so quickly? It seems more like they realized that the movie would be too short without it so they tossed in this nonsense to pad it out. Granted, it’s better than having the girl just wander around the house getting scared by shadows like in its inspiration, but not by much.
They also give the killer a specific reason to go after the girl, which I can take or leave but it renders a lot of what he did rather stupid. At least if he’s just a guy killing people for the hell of it you don’t have to worry about the logic (or lack thereof) behind his kills, but why go to all this trouble if you’re specifically after this one girl? Just go kill her! I was also baffled by the camera that he set up inside the family’s living room. Not only does this really strain the rather thin logic (what, he broke in when no one was home and installed it for future reference?), but the damn thing is in plain sight and no one notices. Come on, guys, at least TRY.
They also give away that the killer is someone that the characters (or at least, the parents) know far too early, as he approaches them as they are driving, has a full conversation with them, and then kills them. Even the remake got this much right – the guy is scarier when he’s a stranger, not a family pal. The staging is ridiculous too; he kills the father at the back of the car, and then gets in the driver’s seat, but it’s like 30 seconds before the wife even seems to realize that it’s not her husband getting into the car, let alone questions it.
But at least they are working within their means on this one, unlike their more effects driven “mockbusters”. Most of the movie takes place in the (average sized) house, and the dull actors actually sort of fit – they don’t really look like movie stars. I also enjoyed director Peter Mervis taking a shot at himself; at one point Trish watches another one of his Asylum epics on TV (Dead Men Walking) and comments “This is TERRIBLE!”. Heh. He needs to fire his DP though, as his lighting (combined with her terrible makeup) makes Trish look like a damn zombie throughout half of the movie. They also overuse the “crazy cam” effect, but otherwise it’s actually pretty professional looking for something that they probably shot in a week.
Plus it has a theme song, of sorts! The end credits feature “The Stalker Song”, an acoustic ditty that sounds like a love song but is actually fairly disturbing (think Ludo mixed with Stroke 9, if you know who either of those bands are), which actually improved the movie’s overall worth in my eyes – they leave you smiling. I was also charmed by the fact that the little girl was doing a jigsaw puzzle when we met her, and both Trish AND the boyfriend’s idiot friend sit down at the table and place a few pieces over the course of the film. As a jigsaw enthusiast, I’m always happy to see someone besides the residents of mental institutes doing them (seriously, nearly every scene set in an institute recreation room features someone doing a puzzle, as if Hollywood is suggesting you’d have to be insane to want to do one. Fuck you, they’re fun!).
And again, it’s better than the movie it was created to cash in on, so that’s gotta be worth something. It’s pointless to say “If they had just done this or that then it would be a good movie”, because it’s pretty obvious that any merit an Asylum film has is purely by either accident, and if they were really interested in making good movies they probably could have made one by now. I’m still baffled how they managed to fuck up Paranormal Entity so badly.
What say you?