Night Caller opens with visions of a murder underneath the main credits before Clementine (Susan Priver, Serving Up Richard, Bad Detectives) an operator for Jade Mei’s (Bai Ling, Hustle Down, The Crow) gets a call from the man she saw in the visions before he commits the crime for real.
And that murder serves notice to viewers that this isn’t going to be a Scream or Blumhouse style mainstream horror film. There are repeated gory closeups of a large knife entering the victim’s body. A shift of camera angle to some not so explicit shots that suggest the knife is getting shoved somewhere else. And the ranting killer taking the somehow still living woman’s scalp as a souvenir.
Less than ten minutes in and writer/director Chad Ferrin (The Deep Ones, The Chair) has delivered an effective gross-out kill as well stirred up memories of Maniac, Don’t Answer the Phone and any number of films and TV shows featuring psychics and disturbing visions. And things are only going to get weirder, and nastier as Night Caller progresses.
As the calls and the visions increase, Clementine seeks help. But the police, in the person of Detectives Fuller (Robert Rhine, Escape from Area 51, Bus Party to Hell) and Simms (James MacPherson, Alien Rising, House of Deadly Secrets) are a bigger danger to themselves than the killer. This means she’s forced to seek help from her father (Robert Miano, Legend of Fall Creek, Attack in LA) a now bedridden ex-cop as well as her boss who also seems to have some psychic ability.
Before its done Night Caller gives us warnings from beyond the grave via Clementine’s dead mother (Kelli Maroney, Night of the Comet, The Zero Boys), a second-generation serial killer haunted by the overly critical spirit of his child-killing father, and of course, a connection between it all and Clementine’s family. We also get performances from genre favourites Steve Railsback (Lifeforce, Plaguers) and Lew Temple (Monsterous, Hostile Territory) and a character named after the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, Lily Amirpour.
Rather than rely on gimmicks like digital film damage, Ferrin pays homage to grindhouse films the right way. Night Caller looks and feels like one, from its brutal violence and grimy locations. That’s matched up with a nothing is off the table subject matter that includes extreme child abuse and murder, necrophilia and the kind of mean-spiritedness that sees a woman escape from a would-be rapist into an Uber driven by the killer. And it’s all captured with grainy cinematography that looks like vintage 16mm filmstock although cinematographer Kyle McConaghy actually shot the film digitally with an URSA Mini Pro G2.
However, the film doesn’t shy away from some elements of those films that may be less well-received. There’s a fair amount of misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments and material to be found in Night Caller. I get that Ferrin is using them to authentically recreate the feel of these films, and having seen many of the films that inspired him when they were released, I know they frequently were like this. It works as intended for me, other viewers may have a different reaction.
Joe Castro (Lake Michigan Monster, Clown) delivers the kind of practical effects that will have at least some viewers feeling queasy and looking away. The score by Richard Band (Don’t Let Her In, Re-Animator) fits the film nicely and helps tie Night Caller’s elements together. And stick around for the post-credits scene.
While Night Caller lacks the constant suspense of the best films of its genre it does have plenty of jump scares mixed in with the gore. Ferrin set out to recreate the more lurid horror films of the 70s and 80s and for the most part, he succeeded. If the proposed sequel to the original Maniac had been filmed, it might well have looked like this.