I never knew I wanted a movie in which a heroic 911 operator played by Halle Berry rescues the "Little Miss Sunshine" girl from a serial killer until I saw "The Call."
"We're Capricorns, and we're fighters!" the operator reassures kidnap victim Casey, played by 16-year-old Abigail Breslin, who has grown up a bit since "Little Miss Sunshine," as "The Call" insists on reminding us with a multiplicity of Breslin bra shots.
The operator's enthusiasm is more inspiring than her apparent embrace of pseudoscience. But can even an upbeat horoscope-reading provide much comfort when you're the captive of a psycho who washes your hair to the music of Boy George, and who plays Taco's version of "Puttin' on the Ritz" while he has you locked in his car trunk?
When zodiac references aren't enough to distract the caller from worrying about her impending doom, the operator asks: "Casey, what's your favorite movie, sweetheart?" Casey's answer is "Bridesmaids," which is appropriate: "The Call" may have just as many laughs, but they're unintentional.
In fact, "The Call" is so improbable, ridiculous and earnest that I watched it with a sense of impatience, disbelief and, finally, elation. This is a get-your-head-right, talk-back-to-the-screen instant camp classic if there ever was one -- a film made to order for "Mystery Science Theater 3000" wisecracking. It also would be a good choice for future tween-girl slumber parties (even if it does become a bit gruesome). Once it gets going, almost every scene demands the viewer respond with "Look out, dummy!," "Don't go in there!" and "Why did you turn your back on him again, you idiot?" It's almost a reflex -- the suspense-movie equivalent of a rubber hammer striking the patellar tendon of the knee.
In addition to showcasing the type of nutcase maniac that in the 1980s might have attracted actor Michael Ironside (see: "Visiting Hours"), "The Call" is a paean to the dedicated professionals who work the emergency-service phone banks of our urban jungles. "We're the eyes and ears of the whole city," operator Jordan Turner (Berry) intones, as if she were Morgan Freeman in a "Dark Knight" sequel. "If 'the hive' goes down, the whole city goes dark," she adds.
Film buffs may think of such Warner Bros. testimonials to the unsung working class as "I've Got Your Number" (1934), a celebration of telephone repairmen, and "Manpower" (1942), about the danger-filled world of power-company linemen.
As we watch Jordan in "action" at her desk, it's easy to imagine Joan Crawford in the role. ("Chris, put the gun down -- it's not worth it," she tells one caller. Yes, it's just another night talking down suicides on the 911 line.) It's also easy to imagine Will Ferrell in the role, because Richard D'Ovidio's dramatic dialogue would play just as well as comedy. (The sitcom-worthy ensemble of Jordan's fellow operators includes a wise older woman with cropped white hair, a flirty guy in a wheelchair and a tough-but-fair boss lady.) A more playful actress might have embraced the silliness, but the ever-humorless Berry seems oblivious to the material's risibility.
When the film opens, Jordan is essentially the Queen Bee (speaking of Crawford) if not literal head of "the hive." But like a cop in a film noir who gets a desk job after a fatal shooting, Jordan is reassigned as an instructor for novice operators after her poorly timed redial reveals a victim's hiding place to a stalker.
Jordan gets a chance to redeem herself when Casey calls from the trunk of a car driven by a blond-hunting, thirtysomething, clean-cut Everymaniac (Michael Eklund). Over the phone, Jordan counsels Casey on ways to increase her chances of survival, and, later, turns sleuth, when her hunky cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) and the rest of the LAPD prove less competent at crime-solving than a determined 911 operator. (Yes, help -- if not "The Help" -- is on the way: On one level, this is yet another story of an industrious black woman running herself ragged to take care of somebody else's white kid.)
"The Call" was directed by Brad Anderson, formerly known for such "art horror" movies as "Session 9" and "The Machinist," for which the ever-dedicated Christian Bale notoriously dropped his weight to an emaciated 120 pounds. Anderson appears to have shot much of his new movie with small digital cameras; during the film's outbursts of violence, he hypes the action with disorienting extreme close-ups, brief slo-mo and quick-freeze frames. He plays it smart, too: At one point, the killer opens the door to a room in his subterranean lair, then quickly changes his mind. "You're not gonna want to see that," he tells Casey, sparing her but denying us the scary sight. By delaying our gratification, he makes us eager to return to the room.
"You're not gonna want to see that." Some reviewers will suggest that's the perfect response to anyone who inquires about "The Call." But I'm saying the opposite. You will want to see "The Call," if only to