The good ol'-fashioned nail-biting thriller seems to have faded almost to extinction in recent years, replaced by found-footage glop involving paranormal activity or torture-filled nastiness that would make even Wes Craven reach for a barf bag.
But the genre gets a generally well-crafted adrenaline shot with The Call, the latest from director Brad Anderson (TV's Fringe and The Killing).
Oscar-winner (yes, lately we've had to consciously remind ourselves) Halle Berry stars as Jordan Turner, an LAPD 911 operator who, six months earlier, made a fatal mistake with a caller who was being kidnapped; the young girl's body was later discovered in a ditch. Now the killer is back, abducting young Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), and Jordan needs to save the girl and try to redeem herself in the process.
The action kicks into high gear when Casey calls 911 from the trunk of her abductor's car. Jordan tries to talk her through it as much as she can (it's a disposable phone, so GPS can't get a lock). Along the way she also offers the audience a convenient tutorial, should (God forbid) anyone ever find themselves in the same situation.
The easy comparison here is to the 2004 thriller Cellular, but The Call actually takes things up a notch. Sure, there are inexplicable moments where Jordan's advice seems to be working and then is completely forgotten seconds later, but the real-time feel of The Call and the excellent camera work in tight quarters keep things rolling-- credit to Anderson and his cinematographer Tom Yatsko. (Side note, I do fault Anderson for his borderline pervy decision regarding 16-year-old Breslin's appearance in the third act-- though I imagine he'd correct it, looking back.)
The screenplay by Richard D'Ovidio (Thir13en Ghosts, Exit Wounds) is generally clever, plot holes are kept to a minimum, and it gives Breslin and Berry plenty of opportunity to turn in riveting performances, especially considering the inane piece of dreck that this easily could have become. It turns out, though, that The Call is as taut and nerve-wracking as anything since The Silence of the Lambs (though the two are nowhere near each other in staying power or smarts).
It's a true white-knuckler that never lets up until the end-- and then, in a nifty twist, not even then.
@popcollin is the resident movie critic at Essex Cinemas in Essex, VT, and Cumberland 12 in Plattsburgh, NY.