Saturday, February 22, 2014

Phone Call, The (1989)

... aka: Super Polar (Super Thriller)

Directed by:
Allan A. Goldstein

Married computer salesman Michael Henderson (Michael Sarrazin) goes away to a weekend seminar with his co-worker Ben (Vlasta Vrana). Bored and lonely in his hotel room, Michael decides to call up a phone sex hotline Ben introduced him to and begins chatting with the husky-voiced Carey. Not long into their conversation, Michael discovers he's been redirected to the wrong place and is actually on "The Man Line" talking to a dude. Disgusted, he calls Carey (Ron Lea) a "sick bastard," hangs up the phone and goes about his business. Unfortunately for him, Carey turns out to be a down-on-his-luck ex-con (and psycho) who doesn't take lightly to being insulted. He uses Michael's name and credit card information to track him down at the hotel and then shows up in person demanding an apology. Michael refuses, calls hotel security and has him dragged away, but not before Carey leans in and gives him a nice wet one on the lips, which his co-worker sees. When Michael returns to work, it doesn't take long for him to realize that Ben has spread it around the workplace that he's gay, which causes problems with his homophobic boss (Harold Ryshpan) and others. And that's just the beginning of Michael's problems when Carey begins to stalk and terrorize both him and his family.

This psycho-thriller owes a huge debt to Adrian Lyne's massively popular Fatal Attraction (1987), which starred Michael Douglas as a successful, happily married businessman whose no-strings-attached weekend fling with a mysterious woman (Glenn Close) backfires when she reveals herself to be a clingy psycho who won't go away. It's been awhile since I've seen Attraction but I do recall specific scenes from the film and many of those have been carbon copied here by writer Donald Martin. In Attraction, Close's character shows up at Douglas' house pretending to be interested in buying their home just so she can meet his wife and daughter, kills their pet rabbit (helping to coin the popular "bunny boiler" phrase), vandalizes his car and swipes the young daughter, buys her ice cream, takes her to an amusement park and scares her with a roller coaster ride before dropping her back off at home. In this film, Lea's character shows up at Sarrazin's home to paint their fence just so he can meet his wife (Linda Smith) and daughter (Lisa Jakub), kills the family's pet cat, vandalizes his car and swipes the young daughter, buys her candy, takes her to a park and scares her by pushing her too high on a swing before dropping her back off at home. It's pretty much straight down the line with this one.

The only truly interesting thing about this otherwise derivative, routine effort is the whole gay angle. There's the shell of a good, thought-provoking film in here, but the content is not explored thoroughly enough and it resorts to generic thriller clichés by the end. Things begin interestingly as Michael's prejudicial taunt and refusal to simply apologize to someone he's unnecessarily degraded comes back to haunt him. He then gets a good taste of what it's like to be gay at the workplace (circa 1989) when his "friend" Ben stops talking to him (and hopes to capitalize on the water cooler gossip by swiping his accounts out from under him), his pregnant secretary (Dannette McKay) makes a passing barb about his sudden lack of masculinity and his boss insists he take a long holiday (suggesting he's planning on firing him despite him doing good work for the company). Michael is also treated poorly when he finally decides to come clean and go to the police for help; who pretty much just assume he's a closeted gay man and write him off as a pervert. 

The film seems to be setting up something of a cathartic experience for the Michael character: forcing him to walk in someone else's shoes and experience what someone he initially mocked may have gone through in his own life that led him to a dark place, but it doesn't follow through with this at all. By the end, one never gets the impression Michael is truly sorry (though he does finally apologize for it... after strangling and beating Carey up!), nor does one ever get the impression he has learned anything from the experience. Like most of the rest of the film, the finale - which features both men facing off with their phallic weapons until one "penetrates" the other with a knife while they're caught in an embrace - is interesting and seems to be hinting toward something deeper, but they don't quite pull it off either. The addition of some incredibly stupid one-liners are completely out of place and don't help matters any.

Another major issue I had with the film is that I could never discern a focused point to all of this. Neither Michael nor Carey are painted in a very sympathetic light; though audience allegiance is clearly steered toward Michael and his family, leaving Carey to be a generic maladjusted gay psycho threatening Michael's "normal" existence as straight married man and father. One could stretch and say that Carey represents repressed homosexuality in the Michael character, but I doubt that was the intention since the filmmakers constantly reassure us of Michael's heterosexuality with PG lovemaking scenes with his wife. Carey, an ex-con who spent years in prison for robbing a video store, is depicted in a pretty one-dimensional light. His mother wants nothing to do with him and his former lover from prison has moved on with his life and has married a woman. One wants to feel sorry for Carey but there are never any moments where he seems genuinely sad, lonely or anything of the sort. If the filmmakers had set aside a few minutes to humanize him (or even made him pitiable) this would have been a much more compelling film than it is.

A French / Canadian co-production filmed in Quebec, The Phone Call debuted on TV and has long since been forgotten. It received an American VHS release by Monarch in 1991 but hasn't been revived since then, probably because of the combination of a generic title, the gay subject matter and the fact it just isn't a very good movie. Still interesting, though.

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