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Hipster Holy Grail: The Caller (1987)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The short bit:

The Caller is a low-budget, confined thriller / drama / surreal comedy about a man and a woman who vaguely threaten each other for an hour and a half while you try to figure out what's happening, only for the last ten minutes or so to kick you in your brain-crotch and leave you staggering and helpless.  Anchored by two strong (if occasionally overacted) performances, it manages to be far better than its premise would suggest.  It's definitely a recommend if you can watch it without having to buy a copy, and I'd say that it's worth a few bucks if you're a fan of high-concept, low-stakes movies.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5

The longer bits:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

The 1980s were not the best decade for Malcolm McDowell.  After starting off a great career with huge roles like If... and A Clockwork Orange and then moving on to more mainstream pieces like Time After Time, he unfortunately accepted leading roles in Caligula in 1979 and Cat People in 1982.  Add to that some issues with substance abuse and he was suddenly out of contention for movies that would have been more promising or lucrative.

Fast forward another ten years and he began his that phase of his career that all British actors seem to go through where he basically just accepts roles as either Wise Old Men, villains, or Wise Old Villains.  Not that I'm complaining - he does a terrific job as always.

You have to wonder what he could have done in an alternate universe where people were still interested in casting him as the lead when he was in the "cast me as a Dad or a cranky next door neighbor" part of his life.  As it turns out, somewhere in his career - nestled between a few made-for-TV movies and minor roles - he snagged the lead in a tiny movie named The Caller.

When I say "tiny," I should probably underline it.  It's a short movie with only three or four sets and exactly two characters.  Fortunately, those two performances are solid.

The Caller is built up as a movie about a chance encounter between a helpless woman and a strange, mysterious man that soon escalates into a tense struggle for survival.  How it plays out is... different.

It's another Charles Band production (yay!) that features a few of his trademark schlocky puppet effects.  But unlike his other movies, this one is hellbent on gravitas and plot.  What you end up with is an unusually cerebral piece that has a slight Ghoulies aftertaste.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Tone (and the Plot, sort of)

This is one of those movies that does not really lend itself to a good plot synopsis, except for maybe the last ten minutes or so.  Much of the movie is a slow burn that plays on your sense of dread and expectation rather than an actual narrative.

It's telling that the plot synopses on Wikipedia and IMDb are both brief, ambiguous, and misleading.  They get across the fact that there is A Woman and A Man, and there is mention of the SPOILERS shocking twist ending, but the actual tone of the movie doesn't really come across.

So, let me try my best to walk you through the kind of movie this is rather than the actual specifics of what happens.  Then we can focus on the SPOILERS incredible surprise ending SPOILERS that you'll never SPOILERS predict.

We open with "The Girl" (Madolyn Smith Osborne).  She is driving around a small town running some errands.  We see her stop for gas, pack up some groceries, and generally go about her day.  She is also the only person we see - the town seems to be otherwise abandoned.  While she's doing this, we see glimpses of another person who appears to be following and spying on her.

Osborne has a moment of panic and then calls her daughter, asking her if she's safe.  We never hear or see the other end of the conversation, but instead we see a bizarre shift in Osborne's tone and appearance; at first she talks like a silly imitation of a Concerned Mom, then she makes some ominous statement about "having a plan... you'll see...."

Then "The Caller" (Malcolm McDowell) knocks on the door.  He explains that his car broke down and he has been wandering the woods for awhile trying to find help.  Osborne is reluctant to allow him into her house, but agrees to let him use her phone so he can call a tow truck.

What then follows is a long, tense, and unusual conversation that turns into a kind of mind game between the two of them.  There's a lot of over-written dialogue that is performed as playful banter, and yet it seems like a shallow impersonation of real human interaction.  Basically, Osborne almost immediately distrusts everything that McDowell says and tries to find errors or inconsistencies in his story. At the same time, McDowell seems to be enjoying the fact that he's now on trial, and so he eggs her on by building a more elaborate back-story as to why he's in the woods.

To put it another way, it's kind of like if a horror movie opened with an ax-wielding Stalker knocking on a Victim's door and pretending to be a salesman, but before he could carry out a devious murder scheme, the Victim started pointing out all the ways that the Stalker gave himself away.  And then, instead of whipping out his ax and chopping off her head, the Stalker decided that it would be more fun to try to talk his way out of things.

The conversation actually switches in the complete opposite direction at one point - now Osborne starts talking about how she might have been planning to murder him the whole time, and how she could have been setting up an elaborate scheme to trap McDowell in her home.  She makes some not-so-subtle threats and even brandishes a knife against his throat.  McDowell takes his own stab (ha!) at trying to point out flaws in her story - but even after having a knife at his throat, he doesn't leave.

This kind of back and forth between the two characters is basically the entire movie until the last ten minutes.  It's an odd cat-and-mouse game where McDowell and Osborne try to outwit one another in a series of implied, hypothetical murder/crime schemes.  They take turns at playing the victim and the criminal, alternately coming off as creepy and weird or sympathetic and confused.

There's a couple of jarring time shifts - the most notable comes at the end of Act One where we suddenly flash forward to around noon the next day, and Osborne is out shopping again.  McDowell almost runs her over and then gives her a ride in his sports car while they continue to play their weird games.

But despite the time or place, this bizarre interaction between these two unstable, suspicious characters continues.  And no matter how many theories are tossed out, no matter how many clues or strange background details we see (like the flat tire on Osborne's car, or the picture she took of a meadow, or the creepy dolls in her daughter's room), we never actually get any information about what is actually going on.  We also don't ever see any other people, not even in the background.  It's like the entire universe exists just for these two weirdos to hang out and torment each other.

Throughout, McDowell will occasionally say, "Point to you," whenever Osborne notes something that he has been lying about.  And yet she never phones the police or tries to run away from him; she just keeps trying to get more points by picking out flaws in his story.  It gradually becomes not just an implied mind game but a literal one that she can actually win if only she has enough points.

Then at some point there's a mention of how she has fifty points, and the last act hits.

You ready for the grand reveal?

Turns out he's a robot.

Yeah, so, McDowell is part of some kind of horrible alien/robot/mutant army that has conquered and enslaved Earth.  They've separated the remaining human adults from their children and they run bizarre, psychologically devastating experiments on people like Osborne.  At one point, she actually lived here with another man, but he tried to escape and McDowell killed him.

In an unexpectedly horrifying scene, Osborne springs a sort of Rube Goldbergesque trap on McDowell using things that were seeded earlier in the movie. It's a little too complex to describe briefly, but let's just sum it up as "he melts partially and she's free to run away."  She just has to make it past the purple force field that we didn't know until just now was surrounding the forest.

Unfortunately, she doesn't quite make it to freedom.  Right after she gets past the force field, she hears her child calling out to her and she turns back.  Then a different McDowell - clean, tidy, and unmelted - comes out from the forest and tells her that it was a trick; her daughter's nowhere close, and she's been trapped again.  "You'll have to try again tomorrow," he says, and they go back to her house.

The next day it's like the movie is starting over.  McDowell goes to Osborne's house and knocks on the door as if for the first time.  He introduces himself as a sheriff, and Osborne lets him inside so they can talk about her missing husband.  She stares at the camera as she closes the door behind him....

The Bit Wherein I Try to Interpret Things

Having read all that, you might be confused.  I still am, too, a bit.

Like Incident at Raven's Gate, this is the kind of movie that begs you to come up with a theory of some sort before you can really start to discuss or understand it.  Sure, there's a literal explanation hanging there - even if it does come out far too quickly and knocks you over - but it feels like you're missing something.  Why keep the alien/robot domination thing a secret until the very end?  Why spend the whole movie, ostensibly a science-fiction themed survival movie, building up this bizarre relationship between a human prisoner and her robot captor without ever once actually mentioning that she's a prisoner and he's a robot until the last few moments?

Here's my take: it's an extended metaphor for the relationship between an audience and a mystery writer.  And a bad writer at that.

McDowell is basically playing an author surrogate while Osborne plays a sort of amalgam of a self-aware Victim in said story and an audience surrogate.  McDowell is amused by his own ability to craft a devious scheme and a pulpy secret, and he enjoys watching his audience (Osborne) try to figure it out.

The problem is that Osborne is tired of mystery stories.  She doesn't want another one.  Aside from the cliches that come with them, they're exhausting and tiresome. There's a telling scene where she points to her TV and practically says to the camera, "Don't you just hate these cop shows that are always on TV?  There's always a couple of cops who have to overcome their interpersonal differences and solve a mystery.  It's so predictable.  I hate it."

But McDowell as the Author won't let her go that easily.  He has literally created an entire world for Osborne to play around in and figure out his Secret - it would be a terrible waste if she didn't figure it all out.  Until she reaches the end of his story, she cannot be free.  So he pulls her along bit by bit, giving her points when she makes a discovery and delves deeper into the plot.

Osborne tries various ways to opt out of the story.  Either she just doesn't want to play (the scenes where she ignores him), or she tries to run away to a different story (the various scenes where she plots and executes her escape), or she tries to take control of the situation and tell her own story (the scene where she pretends that she was plotting to kill McDowell).

The ending implies that Osborne has been through this many times.  Every week McDowell has some new story he wants to try out.  But she's just so exhausted now.  There's too many red herrings, too many obscure references, too much plot.  Forget it!  She just wants to go home and hang out with her daughter and watch, say, a comedy.

But she can't.  Because she's not the storyteller; McDowell is.  He has all the cards and he calls all the shots. In the end, it's about the cruel tedium of poor storytelling, and the panic that a viewer feels when they realize they're stuck with a shitty mystery.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

I'm not surprised that this movie has been overlooked.  It's got all those hallmarks of independent projects that put off a lot of people: almost no cast, an esoteric plot, unnamed characters, heavy dialogue, an ambiguous ending, etc.  But watching it for the first time really does give you that feeling of discovering a little treasure.

It's almost like the filmmakers knew that what they were making was eventually going to fade into obscurity and that the only people who would watch it were movie geeks like me that over-analyze everything and seek a greater meaning.  The movie is filled to the brim with little moments and details that may not actually serve any purpose other than just to screw around with you, the same way McDowell is screwing around with Osborne.

The Caller ultimately won me over through its sheer cleverness.  Even if my writer metaphor explanation above is wrong, it has enough spirit and ambiguous moments that you can adapt it to whatever framework you like - and throughout it all, the two leads find ways to subvert your expectation.

Hell, even the ending comes across like the director said, "You think you can guess plot twists?  Guess this, asshole."  The whole movie plays on everything you've come to expect from movies and contradicts it just because it can.

In this way, it kind of works on two levels.  Either you can admire it for its subtext, or you can just enjoy the spectacle of a massive film prank. I like it for both.

It's a bit hard to find, unfortunately.  I could not find it on the more accessible sources (Youtube, Netflix, Redbox, etc.).  But you can buy a copy from, and I'm sure it'll show up on TV from time to time.  If you ever get the chance, I'd definitely recommend that you check it out.

Update (October 2016): How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Technically this should only get 20 points for obscurity since it has over 300 ratings on IMDb, but since it just barely cracks that threshold (It's at 302 as I write this), I'll round up to 25.  I'll give it another 10 point pedigree bonus for being a Charles Band / Empire Pictures production.  And I'll also tack on the full recommendation bonus of 30 points, since this is definitely one that you'd try to one-up somebody with at a party.

Beyond that, it's hard to find truly hipstery content.  I want to give it a much higher score, but there isn't much here.  I guess 5 points for surprise robots?

That still adds up to a respectable total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  This is a case where the lack of ratings really helps its rank.  Better watch it now if you want to prove your mettle.