Over-stylized and narratively undercooked, The Caller treats its Twilight Zone-style conceit for dim thrills. In a new apartment of grungy green walls, faded tablecloths, and filthy floor tiles, Mary (Rachelle Lefevre) sits around in the pitch black fearing for her safety thanks to abusive husband Steven (Ed Quinn), who regularly stops by to violate her restraining order against him and make claims on their dog. However, more problematic than Steven—a monstrous spouse who’s less than one-dimensional—are the phone calls that Mary begins receiving from a mysterious woman named Rose, who claims to be trying to reach the unfaithful boyfriend she says lives in Mary’s home. It doesn’t take long before Mary and Rose both realize that they’re speaking across eras, with Mary in the present and Rose in 1979, and moreover, that Rose is a stone-cold psycho who, after Mary suggests that Rose adopt feminism and kick her louse boyfriend to the curb, goes a step further and murders him. This is all too much for Mary, especially once a strange brick wall suddenly appears in her pantry (behind it are bodies!), so she turns to John (Stephen Moyer), a professor at her college who, like Moyer’s gentlemanly vampire on True Blood, has a preternatural taste for women half his age.
For Mary, danger comes from both Steven and Rose, the latter of whom soon starts making Mary’s current acquaintances nonexistent (including a somnambulistic Luis Guzmán as a neighboring tenant) by killing them in the past. Since Mary also lived in the area as a kid, the perilous climax is telegraphed far in advance, though the film’s real menace is director Matthew Parkhill’s direction. Enshrouding everything in over-the-top darkness, and often positioning his panning camera behind bars and/or posts, Parkill shoots with a look-at-me aesthetic fit for a slick TV commercial, and, as with the innumerable ominous zooms toward Mary’s old-fashioned black phone, with half the subtlety.
From Mary’s stage-set apartment to John’s parents’ underlit restaurant, nothing appears real in The Caller, and the way in which the action indulges in long, underlined silences furthers the overriding sense of trying too hard to muster up a suspenseful mood from a conceit better suited to a half-hour television program. Lefevre and Moyer are unbelievable, but they’re mere victims of circumstance, forced to utter banal dialogue and, predictably, to have Cinemax-grade sex in silhouetting shadows. The reason for Mary and Rose’s temporal line-crossing ultimately proves half-formed, but then, that’s in keeping with a film that, after 90 minutes, can do no better than a finale derivative of The Shining involving a doltish young woman clumsily fleeing a crazy old lady.