Cinema Fearité presents 'When Michael Calls'
From the good old days, when phones were wired and TV movies were scary, Cinema Fearite presents 'When Michael Calls.'
Technology moves at the speed of light, so even movies made just a few years ago look dated now. Just look at the phones in One Missed Call or the web interfaces in Fear.com. Movies made in the eighties are even more retro-chic, like the tube televisions of The Video Dead, the satellite technology of TerrorVision, or even the pay phone services of Party Line or 976-EVIL. And then there are the movies of the seventies, where just a simple telephone is unrecognizable and obsolete to today’s children. And that is why When Michael Calls is charming to older viewers while it baffles the younger ones.
When Michael Calls is about a woman named Helen Connelly (Coma’s Elizabeth Ashley) who shares joint custody of her daughter, Peggy (Tom Sawyer’s Karen Pearson), with her ex-husband, Doremus (Ben Gazzara from Road House). Helen also raised her nephews, Michael and Craig, after the death of their mother. One night, Helen receives a call from a person who sounds like Michael. The only problem is that Michael died fifteen years earlier. The voice continues to call Helen, and every time it does, a tragedy befalls someone close to her. With the help of the grown-up Craig (Michael Douglas from Fatal Attraction) and Doremus, Helen must get to the bottom of the mystery before everyone she loves is killed.
Based on a novel by John Farris (The Fury), When Michael Calls was directed by television veteran Philip Leacock (“Gunsmoke,” “The Waltons”) from a screenplay by James Bridges (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy). It first aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on Saturday, February 5, 1972. At first, it seems like a one-note precursor to When a Stranger Calls (or When a Stranger Calls Back). But that one note evokes memories of the “Bobby” story from Dead of Night. And that makes it pretty horrifying, especially given the fact that it was made for broadcast television at a time when programming was much less regulated than it is now.
And that time period really must be taken into consideration when viewing When Michael Calls. Much of the story would be derailed in an instant with modern technologies. If Helen had Caller ID, she’d know exactly where Michael was calling from. Had she used last-call return, better known as *69, she’d be connected to the villain or prankster right away. At one point, Craig mentions that he tried to call Helen and got a busy signal – haven’t these people even heard of call waiting? As with any retro movie, there has to be a little suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience for it to be effective. The whole movie would be over in a minute if Helen had sent the calls directly to voicemail.
The cast of When Michael Calls is remarkable, and not just because it includes a young(ish), pre-“The Streets of San Francisco” Michael Douglas. Ben Gazzara was a television staple at the time, and had done some character movie work, but had not yet fully made the jump to big-screen movie star. Al Waxman, who horror fans will recognize from Class of 1984 and Spasms, pops in as the town sheriff. Larry Reynolds (My Bloody Valentine) and Marian Waldman (Black Christmas, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile) play an older couple who lives with Helen and basically provides cannon fodder, giving the “curse” more victims to pursue. And television fixture Alan McRae (“Dallas,” “Santa Barbara”) portrays a ranch hand who provides an easy red herring for the misdeeds. The cast in When Michael Calls is small and economical, but it’s loaded with talent.
Although it was an American production, When Michael Calls was shot in Ontario, Canada, so most of the crew was Canadian, including cinematographers Reg Morris (Empire of the Ants) and Don Wilder (Lost!). The look of the film jumps from the ominous false security of the bright Autumn day to the creepy darkness of night, with shadows and silhouettes keeping the spirit of Michael alive at every turn. It’s got a television drama feel to it, but everything gets spooky when it needs to. There’s nothing fancy about the photography, but there doesn’t need to be. Like any good TV movie, When Michael Calls looks perfectly serviceable.
The score for When Michael Calls was culled together from stock music that was written by a bunch of different composers like Robert Drasnin (“The Twilight Zone”) and Duane Tatro (“The Invaders”). And it sounds like it. The music is very stereotypical and vanilla, with suspenseful builds that lead to melodramatic flourishes and all that jazz. In the grand scheme of it all, however, that’s a good thing. It gives the movie its old-time ghost story mystery feel.
Movies like When Michael Calls feel like big discoveries, because they were made during a time when television movies were allowed to be scary. But they are also products of their era. As are all films, really. What will movies like Unfriended and Countdown look like in 10 years? Time will tell, but with their views of “cutting edge” technology, odds are that they won’t age well. At least, not as well as When Michael Calls has.