review by Diablo Joe
Low-budget horror auteur Chad Ferrin’s latest, “Night Caller,” desperately seeks to play a stylish guessing game with its audience. Harkening back to 70s-80s thrillers such as “Dressed to Kill” and “Eyes of Laura Mars,” with tidbits of “Psycho,” “Maniac,” and even “Sleepaway Camp” tossed into the mix, this high-concept slasher flick ends up more muddled than mystery.
Centered around Clementine Carter, a telephone psychic who receives a series of calls from a mysterious client who provokes in her a series of visions of violent murder. Convinced that the acts she sees are real, Clementine is determined to stop the killer but finds herself drawn into a decades-old case her former cop father helped bring to justice before she was born.
Psychic visions driving the engine of a murder mystery are hardly the most original of ideas, but it's one that certainly has room to explore. Writer/director Ferrin chooses to flesh out his basic premise with such a confusing hodge-podge of flashbacks, gender twists, reveals, and hackneyed characters that “Night Caller” fails to ever really ignite its audiences’ pulse.
Part of the problem lies with its indistinct point of view. Clementine sees through the eyes of the killer. Had the film maintained that perspective more diligently, the picture would likely have been more successful in maintaining suspense. Instead, we keep shifting points of view, spending many scenes with the killer as he plays dress-up with his victims' scalps and flayed faces, tormented by memories of his abusive father. On top of this, we have a lengthy flashback recounted by Clementine’s father and a distracting third act focused on a pair of hackneyed detectives investigating the psychic’s story.
As the film’s gender-confused killer, the presence of Steve Railsback, “Helter Skelter’s” Charlie Manson, is absolutely wasted. Covered in a series of identity-concealing (albeit, courtesy of gore effects guru Joe Castro, effectively creepy) skinned female faces and long-haired scalps for almost the entirety of his performance, many might question how much of the character of Andrew Lubitz is indeed actually the actor.
As Clementine, Susan Priver is a bit of an anomaly in a genre film such as this. It is to Ferrin’s credit that he considered casting a woman in her early 60s as his lead when such a role could have easily gone to a much younger actress with only a few minor changes to the script. Sadly, Priver never expands the part beyond a general nervous breathlessness and furrowed brow. Her underwhelming energy flags the film throughout.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as Clementine’s boss, Bai Ling is a dervish of manic hamming and wide-eyed facial expressions. So cool and sleek in “The Crow,” she seems to have torn a page from the worst of the Nicholas Cage Book of Overacting. As Lubitz’s father, character actor Lew Temple fairs a bit better. Blink, and you might miss scream queen Kelli Maroney, who may rival Railsback for lack of screen facetime. Only Ferrin stalwart Robert Miano really pleases as Clementine's movie-loving retired cop of a father.
In this day and age, one does have to question the choice of depicting a killer with such broadly stylized sexuality and gender-identity issues. While the debate has fallen on both sides of the argument regarding “Sleepaway Camp’s” Angela, that film also reflected the sensibilities of an era 30 years ago. Positing a similar psychological profile for your killer in this day and age is, at best, tone-deaf and, at worst, troublingly prejudicial.
“Night Caller” is a decent-looking film, with a few decent performances, alongside too many hoary and cliched character stereotypes. It’s a slasher thriller that, though delivering its slashes, fails to thrill enough to make them count. Its lackluster energy, combined with a convoluted script too directionless to pull off its twists and plot reveals, tanks any chance it might have had.
This demon of a reviewer gives “Night Caller” 1.5 out of 5 imps.