I'm a little surprised that it took a little-known 1987 flick starring Malcom McDowell to help me find the edge of my seat again, but it's true. The Caller is an exceedingly odd bit of cinema that hops and skips through genres on its way to establishing quite an idiosyncratic identity. Although a bit spare in its execution, it bobs and weaves as one tries to pin it down only to throw any semblance of normalcy out the window during its nutty climax. In other words, I had fun with it from start to finish.
The film opens on a woman (Madolyn Smith) going about her daily chores while an unseen stranger quietly watches her. The stranger observes her as she drives home. He peeks in through the window as she showers and gets dressed. And then he knocks on the door. The stranger is played by Malcolm McDowell wearing an authentically creepy smirk. Not knowing what the audience knows, the woman has no reason to be suspicious of him and yet she is. In fact, they both interact as if they know each other on some basic level even though they have never met.
The man's simple request to use the woman's phone to call a tow truck sets them off on a conversation that is by turns oddly mannered and intensely personal (in a way that true strangers can never be). Their barbed small talk smacks of brinksmanship as they test each other's boundaries. With little warning, the woman steers the conversation towards murder and starts to describe how she would hypothetically kill the man and get away with it. There is a sudden eruption of physical violence between the two of them and then...the film goes places that you never even knew were on the map.
It may sound like I've given away too much of the film's plot and yet the delightful thing is that I've barely scratched the surface. I've been intentionally oblique and cut my description short because much of the film's pleasure is in watching it find its own way to the astonishing ending that would be plain ludicrous if it didn't completely explain all the events preceding it. While the first act of the film suggests that we are watching a slasher film or at the very least a home invasion thriller, the truth is far stranger than that.
This is very much a struggle between two characters (the only two in the cast) but it morphs so much throughout the movie that their relationship is best described as complex. How else would you describe moments of sheer terror that turn oddly seductive without any warning? Every bit of dialogue is meant to cloak so many layers of meaning that I'm not even sure the characters fully grasp what they are suggesting at times. This sort of ambiguity would be tiresome if the payoff wasn't worthwhile. This is definitely not the case here. Everything gets explained before the closing credits but that doesn't mean you'll like the explanation. It's more than a little bonkers and some will find it too silly for words. I thought it was boldly inventive and brilliantly left-field.
Since the entire film essentially consists of two characters verbally sparring with each other, director Arthur Allan Seidelman is fortunate to have actors like Smith and McDowell at his disposal. McDowell sells the creepy but genial nature of the stranger with every fiber of his being. Smith, for her part, does a great job with what I consider the tougher of the two roles. While both characters are enigmatic, the woman's motivations are murkier. Smith successfully keeps us (and McDowell) off balance by capturing the duality of her role. Together, Smith and McDowell, make this a film worth revisiting. Enjoy it the first time for what is said. Enjoy it on successive viewings for what is being left unsaid.