Color, 1987, 96 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Madolyn Smith
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC)
A very difficult film to describe without giving anything away, The Caller may be the strangest (and the most atypical) film from the short but vivid existence of Empire Pictures, the Charles Band company behind such films as Re-Animator, Trancers, and Ghoulies. Deprived of a genuine theatrical release, this one proved to be a huge marketing challenge due to the fact that the film seems to refuse to fall within any clearly-defined genre for almost all of its running time, preferring instead to keep the audience on its toes with a story that seems to shift its entire direction every few minutes. At least superficially, this was also ahead of the curve since it came out just before the brief wave of sinister chamber pieces like Death and the Maiden, Oleanna, and the strangely forgotten Closet Land with two or three characters engaging in a battle of wits in an isolated setting. However, it ends up going to an entirely different destination that's absolutely worth the mind teasing along the way.
When she comes to a cabin in the woods just before dark after an afternoon of shopping, an unnamed woman (Smith) finds an empty car containing odd clues like a doll's head in the glove compartment. Following a conversation with someone who is apparently her daughter, the woman is interrupted by the arrival of the caller (McDowell), a man who claims his car has broken down nearby. What starts as a simple need to use the phone turns into a protracted and sometimes baffling verbal tap dance between the duo involving her off-screen family, his possible involvement in their fate, and whether the two have ever made contact before.
Deliberately off-kilter and artificial in nature, this is a film that lives or dies on the strength of its performances; fortunately it succeeds with flying colors thanks to McDowell (who's absolutely perfect here with his sometimes eccentric tics used to great effect here) and Smith, an interesting actress who retired a few years later after prominent supporting roles in films like All of Me (as Steve Martin's ice-cold fiancée) and 2010. The Empire Pictures angle only really comes into play during the film's climax, but you'll recognize some familiar faces from the company's stable here including composer Richard Band (whose score is quite good) and late makeup artist John Carl Beuchler, who was really Empire' secret weapon at the time and directed a handful of films for them like Troll, Cellar Dweller, and part of The Dungeonmaster.
Initially released to little fanfare on VHS by TransWorld back in '87 complete with cover art from a photo shoot with neither of the actual actors, The Caller has been something of a secret since then even after it was give an MOD DVD-R release from MGM in 2011 from a very dated fullscreen master. Luckily you can toss that disc aside thanks to the 2020 Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome, which comes outfitted with a fresh 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive. Since it's likely nobody among potential customers has had a chance to see this in good quality before, this will be quite the revelation as even the darkest scenes are now pristine and easily legible. No complaints here at all, and the drastically improved presentation also enhances the film's uncanny atmosphere in a way that should particularly impress first-time viewers who can slip more easily into its oddball rhythms. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track features a very active stereo mix that gives particular emphasis to Band's score, which sounds great here with nice separation. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. On the extras front, "Boiling Over" (15m10s) is an interview with director Arthur Allan Seidelman (mainly known for his TV work, which seems appropriate) who covers his connection to producer Frank Yablans, his experience shooting in Italy before this, and the challenge of mounting a film with only two people. Also included is an audio interview with writer Michael Sloan (9m35s), conducted by Brad Henderson. talking about the origins of the script while he was working on The Equalizer, the consensus opinion that McDowell should be cast, the desire to do a Twilight Zone-style story, the execution of that climactic scene, and his thoughts on the finished product. Finally the disc wraps up with a brief promotional still gallery (47s).
Reviewed on September 12, 2020