Tonight I was lucky to screen a film that is currently making the festival rounds called Close Calls, a horror-thriller by first time director Richard Stringham. Since it doesn't yet have distribution, they included a trailer in an attempt to hook us on reviewing the film and like any reviewer, I decided to watch it to see if this was something I would dig so let's begin there and see if this is worth pursuing further. The trailer itself has a very '70's Giallo/early '80's slasher vibe which definitely puts this in my wheelhouse. Giallo is an often misused term referring to a style of Italian film-making in the 1960's and 1970's that stylistically were primarily mystery-thrillers which combined elements of slasher films and eroticism and has now come to encompass the whole Italian crime and mystery genre and is often thought of as the precursor to the modern slasher film. The films were particularly gruesome, often featuring a menacing black gloved killer whose identity wasn't revealed until the last third of the film and also featured elements of the supernatural. One of the hallmarks of the genre was a total abandonment of the traditional narrative structure of the story, instead featuring nonsensical and bizarre plot elements and a total eschewing of realism in acting, dialog and character motivation. The trailer definitely lives up the the Giallo definition, providing a creepy old lady, an interesting color palette, an actress that would best be described as 'breathy,' muted whispering, psychedelic camera shots, a synthesizer soundtrack and a title card and poster that evokes Don't Answer the Phone (1980). This is all stuff I love and definitely put me in the mood to check this film out, which means the trailer certainly did it's job well, but I have been fooled by trailers before (see Flesh Blanket). Still, I sucked up my courage and hit play, hoping the film actually lived up to the trailer's promise.
The story centers around Morgan MacKenzie (Jordan Phipps), the aforementioned 'breathy' actress who is your typical self-centered, petulant teenager coming to grips with the death of her mother a year prior the only way she knows how – by acting out, doing a ton of drugs and acting sexually promiscuous. Her father, played by Kristof Waltermire, is back in the saddle, dating a British woman named Brynn (Carmen Patterson) who is best described as a manipulative bitch, though he fails to see it. Morgan totally hates Brynn and isn't shy about expressing it. Her long-suffering father is disappointed in both Morgan's attitude and her casual drug use, and by casual I mean she casually does every drug under the sun and constantly, so like any parent would do he grounds Morgan and impounds her phone, leaving her at home with her addled grandmother who lives on the top floor while he goes out for a well-earned night on the town with his new British girlfriend. Before he leaves for the opera, Morgan's dad tells her, “it's imperative to give grandma her pills,” and speeds off, totally foreshadowing Morgan's complete failure to do just that. Instead she heads to her closet, which is bigger than my apartment, to retrieve her stash of drugs, which consists of a HUGE pile of cocaine, pills, marijuana and a flask of booze and petty much takes it all right on the spot. Just in time for the weirdness to begin.
The first event to happen is a disturbing phone call ala Black Christmas (1974)/When a Stranger Calls(1979) which naturally sets her on edge. Then her grandmother rings the bell which summons Morgan whenever she needs something. As Morgan makes the long walk up the stairs to her grandmother's room her familiar surroundings warp in a manner directly proportional to her drug intake, which is prodigious. Does her grandmother really have a tarantula, cockroaches and rats in her room? Are the pictures leading up to grandma's room really warping and shifting, showing different images than when she first saw them? And what about grandma (marvelously played by Janis Duley)? There's definitely something wrong with grandma the way she keeps coughing up blood and switching from demure grandma to fire and brimstone-spouting granny and back again. She really, really needs her meds, which Morgan conveniently forgot. There's only one answer: more drugs! Good thing her boyfriend (Landen Matt) appears with salvia because that'll calm everything down and get her in the mood for more harassing phone calls. It also turns out she received a letter from an admirer at school that day that would be best described as threatening and her boyfriend is only interested in getting in her pants. Even on salvia (and like 50 other drugs) she knows this jerk is going to be useless so she throws him out, just in time for more obscene phone calls. Just when things couldn't get any worse, a storm rolls in and shortly thereafter a co-worker of her father's arrives, asking to be let in as he's due to meet Mr. MacKenzie after the opera and this dude is as disconcerting as they get. However, he seems a right fellow despite his super-villain-esque look, making sure Morgan is aware that, “if any of this is making you uncomfortable in any way, just let me know.” Horror movies are predicated on poor choices and Morgan has seen enough horror films to know her role, making every bad choice in the book. When things become life-threatening, Morgan now has to overcome her natural handicaps of being hot and brainless as well as her unnatural handicap of being drugged up beyond belief, in an attempt to make sense of what's really happening while also simultaneously attempting to save her own life. Mayhem ensues.
Close Calls exceeded my expectations on every level. The movie is chock full of late 1970's/early 1980's horror-film tropes: the storm, creepy phone calls, a demented grandmother whom Morgan keeps forgetting about, psychedelic shifting of familiar objects, strange whispering voices, the supernatural, strangers showing up at odd hours, rampant drug use and a super-attractive lead actress who is destined for Scream Queen glory. It's a bold directorial choice to keep your lead actress in a bra and panties almost the entire movie but when your lead looks like Jordan Phipps you'd be dumb not to. She's definitely going to appeal to the college demographic, as well as the old pervert demographic to which I belong and I fell for it hook, line and 'breathy' sinker. She'll have work in low-budget horror films as long as she wants in very much a Paz de la Huerta kind of way and Close Calls is a step in the right direction as it is an above-average effort, especially for a first-time director. Lest you think Jordan Phipps is just easy on the eyes, she makes a pretty convincing teenager, creating a decent dynamic with Kristof Waltermire as her frustrated father doing his best to control his rebellious daughter while still realizing she's working through her grief at her mother's tragic loss, acting out as her way of dealing with the tragedy. She does succumb to a little over-acting, such as when she calls her dad to inform him of the harassing phone calls but, true to the Giallo style, the occasionally unrealistic dialog, acting and character motivation makes Close Calls feel that much more like a late '70's/early '80's horror film, much like Ti West's House of the Devil (2009). The same can be said for Carmen Patterson's uneven dialog delivery which sometimes comes off as mumbly, especially through the awkward dinner scene and near the end when she and Kristof Waltermire are arguing, but this is not a deal breaker.
The two breakouts of Close Calls are Janis Duley as the grandmother who turns in a performance best described as 'unhinged' and Greg Fallon as the co-worker of Mr. MacKenzie. Fallon is very effective in his role and exudes a Crispen Glover-ish weirdness that colors his whole performance, forcing the audience to think and rethink his role in the film until it's ultimately revealed much to everyone's glee. The mystery isn't the deepest in regards to figuring it out but, again, by the nature of the Giallo it's more about the atmosphere of paranoia and shifting perception and Close Calls creates this in spades. The slow tracking opening on the house sets the scene masterfully, switching between the swing-set, the pool, the ornate lights, the statues surrounding the area, at once showing you the environment yet still adding a disturbing element because almost every classic horror film begins this way. The throwback camera work like shooting Morgan from behind as she receives her first disturbing phone call or the obtuse angles as we follow Morgan as she makes the long trek up to her grandmother's room provide the necessary feeling of dread, setting the stage for the weirdness to come are superbly done. Even the gore is done well with out being too over the top or in your face. I never ever thought I'd be complementing Evanescence in a million years but Rocky Gray's score also suits the film tremendously, it's synth-heavy sound exuding early '80's horror and really helping the throwback feel of the picture. The Director of Photography, Craig Wynn, as well as director Richard Stringham, deserve a huge amount of credit for their uncanny ability to make the film really feel like it was shot in the glory days of the Giallo/slasher genre and they both have a firm handle on what made those films work. An outstanding job all around.
Lest you think it's all roses, I do have some nit-picky stuff. The aforementioned mumbly dialog and penchant for occasional over-acting (or, in the case of Kristof Waltermire, some non-acting). Some of the dialog is stilted and awkward, such as the argument near the end. The whole thing with the boyfriend coming over is pointless other than to drum in Morgan's truly impressive dedication to drugs and her penchant for the sexual escapades that got her in trouble in the first place, of which there is ample enough evidence throughout the rest of the film in both action and dialog. If that part was cut completely it would tighten up the film and reduce the run time to a much more manageable length without losing any of the salient points, especially since it's never followed up again throughout the rest of the picture. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the ending, which some people may have a problem with as it is equal parts Mario Bava and Dario Argento with a liberal amount of Jess Franco thrown in and this may be off-putting to people not altogether familiar with the Giallo style of film-making. Also, a note to the film-makers: screams carry. I don't care how big your house is. This is all secondary, however, to how impressive this film is as a first-time effort.
Close Calls isn't Psycho (1960) or Susperia (1977) nor is it trying to be but walks a nice line between Jess Franco's Bloody Moon (1981) and Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace in that it's at once an homage to the early slasher film as well as a shining example of the precepts of the Giallo film, a hard feat to pull off in today's climate of 'New Horror' which is nothing more than PG-13 dreck. Though not without it's flaws, Close Calls has more in common with Adam Green's Hatchet (2006), Joe Lynch'sWrong Turn 2 (2007) and Astron-6's modern Giallo masterpiece The Editor (2014) in that director Richard Stringham is a modern film-maker with the sensibilities of a Steve Minor or Umberto Lenzi in his ability to make something new feel so much like something old. He has a real sense of what made those early slashers work and updated it to today's cinema without losing it's classic appeal. I sincerely hope this finds distribution just so I can selfishly add the Blu Ray to my collection as well as allowing Close Calls to be seen in a wider avenue than just film festivals as it's a nice little horror/thriller that I think deserves more of an audience. Check it out if you get a chance as it definitely comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A big thank-you to S+Drive Cinema for allowing me to screen this film.