My notes on Night Caller, which has just opened in LA.
A throwback to 1970s TV movies like Visions, Mind over Murder and Baffled, but with a ‘80s sense of grot, including a few scalping licks from Maniac and a general air of grim nastiness from Eyes of a Stranger or Don’t Answer the Phone. Knives plunge into flesh or peel back scalps with some regularity, and there’s a freefloating sense of hostility on the streets and in the garages of the big city that evokes bygone exploitation films but also catches the mood of the moment. Typical is a scene in which a woman fights off a homeless would-be rapist who spouts vile misogyny at her only to be picked up by an Uber (or other unnamed ride service) driver who turns out to be a serial killer.
It’s rare to see a genre film built around a middle-aged woman who isn’t Barbara Crampton or Lin Shaye, and Susan Priver – who doesn’t have the sort of CV that’d land her a table at autograph conventions – is excellent as Clementine Carter, a second-generation psychic who is keeping her head down after a bad marriage by working at a not-quite-a-scam psychic phoneline while also tending to her bedridden ex-cop movie fan father (Robert Miano), who reminisces about taking her mother (Kelli Maroney) to the premiere of Patrick in 1978. She starts receiving calls from a raspy-voiced customer, and intuits that he’s the Scalper – a second generation serial killer, who is haunted by a) the prior screen crimes of former Manson/Ed Gein star Steve Railsback who plays the role, b) the ghost/phantasm of his even-more-abusive serial killer father (Lew Temple) who nitpicks about his kill methods and c) elements of Psycho/Red Riding Hood that come into play when he starts putting on scalps as wigs and dressing up in old lady clothes.
The heroine is reluctant to go to the cops (Robert Rhine, James MacPherson), for obvious reasons – and when she does they turn out to be unhelpful, and also overconfident/inept when they move in on the killer’s lair … leaving the Carters to cope with the fiendish Andrew Lubitz (Railsback) on their own in a climax that finds Dad still tough after he’s been scalped and daughter filling in the gaps by having psychic flashes of atrocities we’ve hitherto missed out on. With Bai Ling as a fellow phone psychic worker and Sylvia Spross as victim ‘Jenny Tarkovsky’. Written and directed by busy Chad Ferrin, who seesaws between nostalgic pastiche and more serious, pertinent material in his filmography and sometimes (as here) within a single film.