Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This time we pick up the phone in fear When Michael Calls.
The 70s were not only a great time for television horror films, but it was also a strong decade for adaptations of genre-friendly novels. Powerhouse names like Stephen King, Ira Levin, and Peter Benchley saw big books made into bigger movies while other authors settled for TV adaptations. John Farris, like King actually, got to experience both. When Michael Calls is a tight thriller teasing threats both physical and supernatural, and at the core of it sits some creepy-ass phone calls and a small town with a declining population. Let’s give it a spin, shall we?
When: February 5th, 1972
Helen (Elizabeth Ashley) is a single mom with her hands full raising a precocious little girl, but things are complicated further when she starts receiving disturbing phone calls. It’s the voice of a young boy named Michael who refers to her as Auntie My Helen — which is a problem seeing as Helen’s nephew Michael died fifteen years ago.
At first he seems confused, but he quickly grows frightened by the realization that he’s dead. And then he gets angry. His calls start naming people connected to the family and his own demise in a snow storm, and those people start dying. Is her ex-husband Doremus (Ben Gazzara) playing a sick game? Could one of the patients from the nearby home for disturbed youths be acting out? Is Michael, whose body was never found, somehow still alive? Has Michael’s older and now adult brother Craig (Michael Douglas) finally snapped? Is the local handyman hiding a terrible secret? Or has Michael returned from beyond the grave to run up the phone bill?
When Michael Calls is an adaptation of a Farris novel, and while it’s neither the first of his books to receive that treatment (Because They’re Young, 1960) nor the most well-known (The Fury, 1978), it’s still a terrific little chiller every bit as deserving of attention. The premise is rife with possibility — revenge, madness, ghostly shenanigans — and it’s really only let down with the fairly obvious nature of the culprit’s identity.
Even knowing (or strongly suspecting) who the guilty party is, though, doesn’t hurt the film’s creepy effect. Michael’s calls — the high-pitched voice feels simultaneously childish and adult-like — deliver chills, and once we start catching glimpses of a mysterious boy things grow both mysterious and thrilling. One man is overcome by bees, the sheriff’s body falls dead from the ceiling in front of a bunch of schoolchildren, a figure tries to burn Doremus alive, and soon it’s Helen’s turn to face Michael.
Director Philip Leacock had a long career in both film and television — he also directed last week’s 4:3 & Forgotten entry, Baffled! (1972) — and he does a solid job crafting suspenseful sequences en route to the film’s big revelation. It is his directing choices, though, that tip the film’s hat a bit, while James Bridges’ script does great work laying the groundwork of the unfolding mystery. Again, even knowing the reveal doesn’t necessarily hurt the build-up as it’s an engaging tale throughout. Bridges would go on to write and/or direct features like The China Syndrome (1979), Urban Cowboy (1980), and Bright Lights, Big City (1988).
The cast is solid with a young Douglas doing good work as a psychiatrist in charge of those troubled youths and frequently tasked with defending them against against suspicion. Gazzara, though, gets the meatier role of an ex-husband trying to work his way back into the lives of his wife and child. He gets to play hero and quickly finds himself bossing around everyone in an attempt to find the truth and the killer. Composer Lionel Newman — uncle to both Randy Newman (A Bug’s Life, 1998) and Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)! — helps keep the energy and suspense up with an aggressively exciting score, too.
When Michael Calls remains an effective little chiller thanks to a cast and crew delivering the goods. Part mystery, part horror, and part family drama, the film delivers some thrills and creepy sequences alongside compelling performances. Between this and The Fury, I’m interested enough in Farris’ work to explore some of his novels. The trick now is deciding which of the forty-three titles I should seek out first…