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Friday, 13 May 2016

A Dead Calling (2006)

Director: Michael Feifer
Writer: Michael Feifer
Stars: Alexandra Holden, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
With Little Big Top in Sid Haig’s mind as a rare chance for him to play a lead role that had nothing to do with wackiness or thuggery, it’s hardly surprising that A Dead Calling followed soon afterwards. It was also made in 2006 and he got to avoid stereotyping once again, albeit in a supporting role in a horror movie. The casting choice was presumably due to Michael Feifer, a prolific producer who was starting to get into the writing and directing business at the time; this was his first feature as a writer and his third as a director. He went on to carve out a couple of niches for himself, odd ones when you put them next to each other: straight to video dramatisations of real serial killers with awkward titles, such as Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, Bundy: An American Icon and Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, and made for TV Christmas films starring dogs, like The Dog Who Saved Christmas, My Dog’s Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Wedding Tail. This is fortunately neither, which makes it a little more interesting, but it’s still notably flawed.

Our lead is Rachel Beckwith, a television journalist in New York City who reports with flair. ‘They want drama,’ she tells her guy in the news van. ‘They want a good story.’ Unfortunately she promptly becomes one of those good stories: later that night, a strange man breaks into her house and murders her fiancé, Brian. Why this happens, we’re never told, but it clearly isn’t burglary because he knows her and has followed her on television. This mysterious subplot is promptly forgotten, though we can join some dots and eventually figure out who the intruder was. What’s important for now is that she takes time off to go back to the sleepy small town of Fillmore to stay with mum and dad and recharge her batteries. Here’s where horror fans start paying attention because mum is Leslie Easterbrook and dad is Sid Haig. Only a year earlier, they had been a couple in The Devil’s Rejects, serial killer parents of Sheri Moon’s psychotic murderess, but here they’re just Marge and George, loving parents of a victim. Talk about anti-stereotyping!
Oddly, Alexandra Holden does much better with the material she’s given than either Easterbrook or Haig, though that’s probably mostly because she’s given better material. She’s the one character with real substance here and we puzzle through the first half of the movie as to whether her visions are real, making this a ghost story, or just the product of post-traumatic stress, making it a drama. Of course, the film itself is a horror movie because what she sees is another murder, this time a deliberate and bloody one, but for most of the running time, she’s the only character who’s really in a horror movie. Haig and Easterbrook are in a drama, as they’re insulated from the visions until the end and they’re only in the film to provide loving support as Rachel goes back to work for the local TV station. Both get good scenes but both still struggle because they’re not just playing roles, they’re playing parents who are playing roles, stuck in a tough situation that they’re unprepared for. They walk on eggshells for most of the film.

Stephen Javitz, her new boss, is in a drama too, because he’s caring support as well, albeit with a mildly creepy vibe because he has followed her career since she’s left town. He’s prematurely grey and comes off rather like a low budget Richard Gere playing a low budget Anderson Cooper. Actor John Burke is a regular cast member for Michael Feifer, and he’s as typecast as Sid Haig used to be, just in different jobs. Of his twenty films, at least eight have him playing newscasters, reporters or anchormen. Add in the law, at the police station or in the courtroom, and we’re already over half, before we even try to translate the remaining names into their occupations. He’s fine enough in this role, but I wonder why he plays it like he does. He seems to be aiming for too good to be true, as if he wants us to suspect that he’s more than he says he is. Perhaps the goal was to keep us guessing until the reveals begin, but I was never really sold on his performance because he seemed more interested in being a red herring than a character.
Javitz wants Rachel to start out small, with a series on local architecture, so she checks out the Sullivan House. She’s hardly on her game here because she doesn’t even turn over the clipping she found in the station’s morgue to catch the warning in the headline: the house was abandoned because Dr Frank Sullivan massacred his family there a quarter of a century earlier. She sees the murder happen, but she’s the only one there at the time and she only half believes herself. When she goes back, she chats with a journalist from the Fillmore Union-Tribune who’s investigating Sullivan, but after the doctor snaps his neck and throws him into the basement, she calls the cops to find that the Union-Tribune hasn’t existed for years and Arnie Howard is just another ghost. Fans watching for Haig and Easterbrook will also note here that Chief Murken, a refreshingly capable, decent and unstereotypical small town cop, is played by Bill Moseley, another member of The Devil’s Rejects family playing against type, almost unrecognisably in this instance.

With Haig, Moseley and Easterbrook on board, we ought to have some seriously good acting at least but it doesn’t feel that strong. Moseley is as good as ever, as a cop so on the ball that he almost becomes invisible. Haig doesn’t find his footing for a while, maybe struggling with the concept of smiling on film: he grins more in his first scene here than he does in the entirety of Little Big Top, in which he rarely left the screen. He gets a great scene late on, when George decides to get ready for action, but it takes him a while to get there. Easterbrook takes a while to find her stride too, her best moment coming late in the film with a monologue delivered to her screen daughter at a particularly crucial time. To be fair, both suffer from consistently awkward dialogue, but they’re also professionals who give it the old college try. Fortunately, Holden is decent as Rachel because the further down the cast list we go, the less able the actors become. There’s some embarrassing acting late in the picture when it’s most offputting.
I was with the story for half the film. The setup in New York is good and the follow up in Fillmore isn’t bad, even if it’s a little over-convenient; did the Sullivan House have to be the very first place she goes on day one in her new job? I liked Javitz’s potential, the angles used to shoot the creepy old building (which I’d love to own) and the way the cops were portrayed unstereotypically; Chief Murken sends Rachel straight home after the Arnie Howard incident and has his son, Deputy Dave, follow to ensure she gets there. I liked the ghost story that builds and the possibility that it could be explained psychologically too. Even when the script starts to derail into horror movie cliché, there are still some neatly freaky scenes like Arnie’s death and Sullivan’s hidden dissecting room. At this point, Feifer is still paying attention enough to explain why Chief Murken shows up at the Sullivan House without warning, so there’s effort here. It’s really a starting out film, to set up Feifer’s career as a filmmaker, rather than a later accomplished one.

And that means that there’s a lot of bad here too, especially as we explore the second half. All that neat ambiguity is thrown out of the window when the potential of the supernatural and psychological fades into the banal. The first of a couple of twists is about as unsurprising as it comes and it’s addressed clumsily to boot; the second is weak enough and arrives late enough for us to not really care. By this point, characters are either dead or unsympathetic. The best performances during the highly clichéd last act are from children playing ghosts and, while I salute them for their effort, it only highlights how weak the major actors had become (or how weak the dialogue and plot progression given to them had become; it would be difficult indeed to do some of this material justice). There are even odd bleeps littered around the soundtrack at this point that feel like interference on the sound equipment that the crew didn’t catch at the time; I paused my DVD a couple of times to see if it was outside but no, it was in the movie.
So, I get why Sid Haig picked this. From his perspective, it’s a companion piece to Little Big Top, because it’s the beginning of a new era. You could roughly break his career down into the early years in exploitation, the stereotype years playing heavies, the years away when he trained as a hypnotherapist, the triumphant return years when Tarantino and Zombie reestablished his film career and the current years that see him well regarded as a talented character actor. 2006 was the point in between those last two eras, as he was finally able to play parts that were unusual for him: an alcoholic clown and a doting father, the former a substantial lead role to boot. To the rest of us, it’s clear that Little Big Top is by far the superior of the two films. This one is half of a good movie but half of a bad one too, so it’s far less essential, its biggest claim to fame the fact that Michael Feifer, for some reason, chose to cast a trio of actors from The Devil’s Rejects firmly against type. In the long term, that’s the biggest reason to watch this.

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