Familiar Stranger: ‘The Caller’ (1987) revisited

❉ A real cult curio from Malcolm McDowell’s 1980s, ‘The Caller’ has never received due praise – until now.

Stalking, peeping and loitering with clear intent , Malcolm McDowell’s character known simply as ‘The Caller’ seems at first to be a potentially deadly foe. When he appears at a lone cabin door in a dark forest one night needing to use the phone the viewer suspects the worse. (We all know what happens when Malcolm McDowell knocks on the door of an isolated home at night pleading to use a phone!) But within minutes the tension eases just a bit and the Caller is let into rustic Yew Tree Cottage  by ‘Girl’ (Madolyn Smith of Urban Cowboy). Girl is just setting the dinner table for a gentlemen guest “due to arrive very soon.” Family photos and furnishings tell the viewer that this is a happily married young mother. She playfully engages Caller despite her uneasiness seething below the surface. The uneasiness will grow into something akin to mental combat as the film progresses.

Madolyn Smith smartly holds her own as Girl and the only other actor opposite Malcolm McDowell in a roller coaster of a film based largely around dramatic dialogue. Armed with confidence and enough firearms to protect herself, Girl’s playful uneasiness quickly escalates into boldface anger at the Caller. What ensues are mind games, gaslighting, severe mental illness, abuse, edge play and even BDSM.  Caller is convinced that Girl has killed her husband and daughter. She vehemently denies all despite what appears to be a worrisome number of absentee family members, cryptic expressions of guilt and a bizarrely oozing hat box.

Despite the wild ride The Caller creatively avoids sexist tropes and  virtually no male-gaze camera work. Given that this was the era of Porky’s 2 this is no small feat. Smith is never seen topless or running around in her underwear screaming. She’s immaculately dressed in classy casual and tastefully prim 1980s fashions. There is also no gratuitously bad 1980s B movie sex. Girl is more than able to stand up for herself against this strange oppressive Caller whose life appears to be inextricably linked with hers.

Malcolm McDowell’s wardrobe includes what was in fashion for many gay men in San Francisco circa late 1980s almost to the point of comedy. His character sports an Aviation jacket, silk cravat, oversized check flannel shirt and quilted vests. Thus when Caller is taunted for his inability to “make love” like a “real man” the audience isn’t necessarily surprised. What is puzzling is why he passionately considers a heavy make out session he put the brakes on to nonetheless be “making love.”

Despite Caller not wanting a sexual exchange, he persists in dominating Girl to the point of acting like a verbally abusive and jealous spouse. But there must be some other intrinsic need at play? A serious debt he needs paid? What could it be? This is a film that requires the audience to get heavily invested with a pay off that nearly all first time viewers claim they would, “never have seen coming in a million years.” Thus this review contains no spoilers moreover it’s not simple to explain the plot in greater detail without potentially giving key aspects of writer Michael Sloane’s plot away.

Dismissing the excellent performances by McDowell and Smith, some early 2000s online reviews write-off The Caller as “low budget” and “too much talking” which is a grossly unfair knock.  The recent re-release by Vinegar Syndrome on Blue Ray has been met with universal approval. While visually previous prints of The Caller had the usual lower color depth of 1980s films the excellent cinematography of Daniele Nannuzzi (Santa Sangre) now shines through in the 2K restoration. The studio sets barely look dated and the location shots (both filmed in Italy) look astonishingly like rural America. Produced by the now legendary cult studio, Empire International Pictures*, which went into administration shortly after shooting wrapped,  The Caller never received the promotion and the due it deserved.

The Caller is the last film of Malcolm McDowell’s second decade as an international star and cult cinema icon. Thus it’s easy to cop-out and say the proverbial and grossly inaccurate, “This set the stage for many of the typical villains and bad guys Malcolm would go on to play.”  His body of work to date shows quite the opposite. The Caller is yet another character in Malcolm McDowell’s very unique film career. As this film necessitates a second watch, it’s clear this was yet another role that he imbued with empathy and depth.

*  The fascinating story behind Empire International was covered in Empire of the ‘B’s: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band written by Dave Jay, Torsten Dewi, and Nathan Shumate. An Empire documentary entitled Celluloid Wizards in the Video Wasteland directed by Daniel Griffith is is also said to be in the works.

❉ ‘The Caller’ – Vinegar Syndrome Blu-Ray released September 1st, 2020. Rating: R. Region Coding: Region A. RRP $34.98 USD. Click HERE.

❉ Super Amanda was born into a third generation musical family with her father producing the Rock Fusion Prog band Automatic Man for Island records (1976). She views reading and seeing A Clockwork Orange at age 13 as the most transformative experiences of her adolescence. Her favourite filmmakers (among many) are Anna Biller, Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson. Malcolm McDowell and Sophia Loren are her favourite actors. The Who, The Bonzos and Mono Neon are her jams.

Become a patron at Patreon!