❉ Suspenseful short film ‘The Telephone’ is a psychological horror worth watching.
“When Richard arrives in a small town, following the receipt of a letter and glass fish sent to his newspaper office, he is unaware of what he is about to become embroiled in. Intrigued by the story of a mysterious disappearance of a young woman Jane, Richard takes a room in the pub, the last place Jane was known to be alive. Awakened one night by an old telephone that seems to ring endlessly and then a chance encounter with the spectral image of a young woman, Richard decides to question the owner. Max, an abstract artist, denies ever seeing or putting up the woman in question. Richard is told ‘The Telephone’ must be in his imagination. Richard’s instincts tell him there is more to the story. Is the ghostly figure seen late at night, that of Jane? Could the telephone ringing truly just be in his head? If you heard the ringing, would you be prepared to answer what lies at the end of the phone?”
It’s a good job writer/director Stuart Wheeldon provided such a synopsis for the IMDb because it clarifies some plot points the short film itself leaves vague. Given that the running time is just short of half an hour (too long, as it happens, for this to be used as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected without losing a good four or five minutes) it’s fair to expect slightly more from the plot than that of a ten minute short. Had the different strands built up to a particularly clever narrative twist the lack of initial explanation would have been more forgivable, but they don’t. The characters are introduced oddly (no one behaves realistically at all), and the inclusion of three stills of missing people just before the titles may set the tone, but it’s never explained who these people are or why they’re missing. It’s almost as though Wheeldon lost confidence in the strengths of his own work (and there are strengths to it) and decided to throw in some more plot elements to add intrigue to the story. Rather than strengthen it they confuse the plot, which is a shame as that aspect of the production aside there is much here to enjoy. Performances are strong (particularly Nigel Barber the mysterious landlord) and sound design is very impressive, if at times somewhat overwhelming. At a guess I would say that the location was plagued with sound problems and it was decided to add quite a lot to the design in post-production, losing as much of the ambient sound as possible and adding a soundscape entirely of Jordan Frater’s making. At times his score is oppressively to the fore, but for the most part it works well.
With good use of locations (the pub looks particularly nice), what this really needed was a re-write to tighten up the aspects of the plot which don’t quite ring true, and to tie up the loose ends which are left hanging. Setting it in the ‘80s would have helped – the lack of mobile phones is glaring and makes the antagonist’s frequent trips to a phone box seem unusually outdated, although the exterior of the pub looks atmospheric. That said, this is the second in a trilogy of short films, so it’s quite possible that I’m being unfair and the trilogy as a whole – which could easily be feature length – makes coherent sense when viewed together.
Criticism aside, this is still worth watching. It’s suspenseful in all the right places, Nigel Barber is compelling as landlord Max and it’s well filmed. Young directors often use their shorts as calling cards, throwing every stylistic technique at the screen in the hope of impressing but – and this is perhaps more true of horror than any other genre – less is always more, and Wheeldon recognises this. His direction is steady and assured and is one of the film’s real strengths – I can easily imagine Wheeldon directing feature-films in the future. On the basis of this, they’ll be worth watching.
❉ The Telephone has been released and is available to watch on Amazon
❉ Discover more about Production company Nine Ladies Film