31 Years, 31 Screams: When Michael Calls
Welcome to the 2005 edition of “31 Years, 31 Screams.” For those of you not familiar with the concept from last year, basically I take 31 horror movies over a 31 year period and review them over the 31 days of October, all leading up to Halloween.
Last year, I focused exclusively on slasher movies over the last 32 years, but this year I decided to expand a little and move the period of time back a little.
This year, the focus is on the years 1951-1981, and the list is far more eclectic. No longer will we just see maniacally stalkers slashing at babysitters (although there will be a few of those too). This year’s list has aliens, ghosts, giant spiders, dead things and just all-around general creepiness.
As with last year, the first 21 films are simply randomly selected with the final ten being a countdown of the greatest horror films from that period.
The first selection comes from an odd place — television.
When Michael Calls
(1971) (aka “Shattered Silence”)
D: Phillip Leacock
W: James Bridges, based on the novel by John Farris.
Starring: Elizabeth Ashley, Ben Gazzara, Karen Pearson and Michael Douglas.
Divorcee Helen Connelly (Ashley) and her young daughter Peggy (Pearson) live alone in a small farming town in Vermont. It’s not so bad. They have neighbors “Doc” and Elsa Britton (Larry Reynolds and Marian Waldman) to look out for them, and her nephew Craig (Douglas) isn’t so far away. Doc and Elsa also have a farmhand named Harry Randle (Alan McRae) hanging around the house.
Helen’s ex-husband Doremus (Gazzara) has driven down the pike for a surprise visit. Helen is upset because he showed up unannounced, and she has a life of her own now. Doc and Elsa think she should invite him to stay for dinner, but she says no. Doremus says he’ll be back to pick up Peggy in the morning.
Helen receives a phone call from a small boy.
“Auntie-my-Helen, I missed the school bus. It’s Michael. Please come and get me.”
She’s unsettled by the call, but she tells Peggy and the Brittons that it was just a crank. She is worried that the caller called her “Auntie-my-Helen.” Only Michael ever called her that. Peggy thinks it’s one of the “crazy” boys at the Greenleaf boys sanitarium just outside of town. Helen scolds her not to call them that. Doc reminds her that Michael has been dead for fifteen years. It couldn’t be him.
After the Brittons have gone, Helen receives another call. Again, a boy’s voice:
“Auntie-my-Helen, why didn’t you pick me up? I’m still waiting for you. It’s dark, and I can’t walk home. Please come.”
Helen is worried, but her nephew Craig knocks on the door. She tells him about the calls and asks him if any of the boys at Greenleaf could be making the calls. He says there are just as many mischevious kids in town as in Greenleaf. Doremus calls moments later and asks if Helen will take the day off to spend with he and Peggy. He wants them to be a family again for at least a day. She agrees and tells Doremus to come by in the morning.
In the middle of the night, Helen is awakened from sleep by the ringing phone.
“Auntie-my-Helen, I’m home and there’s nobody here. There’s nobody here! Where’s Craig?! Where’s my mother?! AAAAARRGGH! I’m dead, aren’t I?! I’M DEAD?!”
The next morning, a curious Peggy asks Doremus who Michael is. He tells her that Michael was Craig’s brother, and after their mother “went away,” they moved in with Helen (their mother’s sister). Peggy says that the other kids say that her whole family is crazy. Doremus tells her that Michael got caught in a blizzard and died fifteen years ago.
Helen goes to Craig at the boys’ home and tells him about the other call. She says it really did sound like Michael. She, again, wonders if it could be one of the kids at Greenleaf. He tells her they don’t have access to phones, and there are no phones where Michael is.
Doremus and Peggy take a tour of Doc’s farm where he raises bees for honey in addition to cows and chickens for milk and eggs. After they leave, Doc scolds Harry Randle for being too rough with the cows, potentially curdling their milk. Doremus and Peggy while away the time playing “Go Fish” until Helen gets home. As Helen pulls in, Peggy gets up to get the phone. Helen freaks out when she comes in and sees Peggy on the phone. Peggy says that the boy said his name was Michael and said awful things were going to happen to Doc Britton.
Helen calls Doc to warn him, but the line is busy. As Doc is working in his apiary with the bees, he lays down some cotton soaked in chloroform — standard to keep the bees from becoming aggressive. Something goes wrong, though. The bees become agitated and start to swarm him. Doc realizes something is wrong, but as he is trying to get out of the room, he trips over one of the boxes, knocking it to the ground. Helen finally does get through, but it is too late. Doc has been stung to death by the bees. Elsa finds his body and pulls him out of the apiary. When she turns and looks off into the fog, she sees a young blond boy — Michael. He disappears off into the fog.
The next morning, Sheriff Hap Washbrook (Albert S. Waxman) isn’t very happy with Helen for not telling him about the phone calls. He says the police shouldn’t be out of the loop on something like this. He thinks it was probably just an accident since there is no sign of foul play, and the boy Elsa saw through the fog could easily have been a Greenleaf kid or one of the kids from town.
Doremus asks if he can have a look around, and the Sheriff says he’ll allow it. When he goes into the apiary, he finds Harry Randle destroying the bees as per Elsa’s instructions. Doremus finds the bottle marked “Chloroform” and takes a whiff. The bottle smells like bananas, but chloroform smells like nail polish remover. Doremus tells the sheriff to keep Randle from destroying the bees because they might be evidence of a crime.
The sheriff has Doremus brought in for stealing the bottle and having it analyzed himself. Doremus tells the sheriff that the stuff in the bottle was bee venom. While it can be valuable for research, bee venom makes other bees swarm. Hap shrugs it off, saying that Doc probably mislabeled the bottles. After all, he knows it wasn’t Michael because Hap was one of the ones that found what was left of Michael after he died. Doremus asks how they identified Michael’s body, and Hap is forced to admit that the body was unidentifiable, but there was a jacket with his name written on the label.
That night, as Hap and Harry Randle are setting up for the Harvest Festival dance, the sheriff hears a little boy calling to him. “Sheriff, help me. I’m over here. Hurry.” Hap climbs up to the rafters to investigate, and he is never seen alive again. The festival begins, but Hap is nowhere to be found, so the deputy asks Doremus to be a guest judge for the Jack O’Lantern contest. As they’re opening the curtains for the Jack O’Lantern display, Hap’s dead body falls from the rafters, smashing pumpkins all over the place.
An attorney by trade, Doremus interrogates Craig and Helen about Michael’s history with Doc and Hap. Doremus thinks that Michael might not have died. He’d be 22 now, so he might have come back and been unrecognizable. Helen finally relents and says that her sister had to be committed. A few days after she was committed, she killed herself. She thinks Michael always blamed her for his mother’s death. She says that Doc examined and signed the papers, and it was approved by a judge named Scoffield — who died three weeks ago of an apparent heart attack.
Doremus offers to spend the night, but Helen makes him sleep on the couch. It’s a good thing too, because that sneak Harry Randle jimmies the back door and starts swiping some of Helen’s valuables. Doremus catches him in the cact and knocks him out. Helen comes downstairs to see what the commotion is. Doremus tells her that Harry is Michael.
Harry is put in jail, but he’s adamant that he’s not Michael. He admits that he broke in to steal from Helen, but that was only to finance his way out of town before people started pinning stuff on him. The police find a long criminal record to back that up. Harry couldn’t be Michael.
The next night, Helen doesn’t make Doremus sleep on the couch, but they are interrupted by the ringing phone.
“Auntie-my-Helen, it’s storming and I’m afraid. I’m all alone, and I’m afraid. Come and get me. I’ll be at Hawks’ farm.”
Doremus tells her to stay put and call Craig. He says he’ll go to Hawks’s farm and to have Craig meet him there. When Doremus arrives, he sees a little boy standing in the doorway of the barn. The boy ducks into the barn, and Doremus follows. As he arrives in the upstairs hay loft, Doremus is hit on the head from behind. The young boy looks on as someone – a third person – douses the hay in gasoline and lights it on fire.
Doremus awakens just in time to get out and take the boy with him. The boy tries to run away but runs right into Craig. Doremus shakes the boy and tells him to admit that he’s been making those calls. Craig tells him that the boy’s name is Peter. He’s from Greenleaf, but he couldn’t have made those calls – he’s a mute.
When Doremus investigates Greenleaf, he asks if Peter’s muteness is physical or psychological. Craig admits that it is psychological. The nurse says that Peter was with her all through the Festival because he had an upset stomach.
Craig and Doremus head to Craig’s office to sneak in a smoke and a drink. Craig theorizes that Peter might have run away one night and met the real Michael. He says that Michael could have told him the whole story, which Peter would sympathize with because his mother was hated too. Doremus says there was someone else in that barn with them because Peter couldn’t have knocked him out. Craig offers to take a look at Doremus’ cut as Doremus tells him about Peter’s behavior. He says it’s almost like Peter was hypnotized.
As Craig is dressing Doremus’ wound, he starts describing the behavior of a psychotic. Doremus watches Craig in a mirror as he begins to tremble when talking about the pressure a psychotic feels. Doremus knows then that Craig is controlling Peter! He asks Craig to give himself up before the pressure becomes to great. Craig refuses and smashes a lamp over Doremus’ head, knocking him out.
Craig calls Helen and tells her that Michael is alive. He says that he’ll be right over to explain things, but until then she must NOT answer the phone, no matter what. He says that Michael mustn’t know she’s at home. Craig locks Doremus in his office, collects Peter and drives to Helen’s house.
Doremus awakens in Craig’s office and has to shimmy down the side of the building. He tells the nurse to call Helen. He heads out to follow Craig. The nurse calls, but of course, Helen has been told not to answer. Craig sends the deputy guarding the house away. Helen lets Craig and Peter in.
Craig, by now, is completely unhinged. He tells Peter to say hello to his Auntie-my-Helen. Helen and Peggy run and hide in the dark. Craig stalks around the house and tells them that Michael didn’t die in the snow. He found Michael. But Michael won’t talk to him because he blames Craig for letting Helen put their mother away. Once she’s dead, though, Michael will forgive him.
He starts swinging a bat at her, but Helen unleashes a chandelier, letting it fall on Craig’s head. Craig gets up and is about to bash her brains in when Peter grabs him and stops him. He yells, “I’m not Michael. My name’s Peter!” Craig staggers back and falls into a chair. He breaks down and admits that he told Michael to run away that day, and that’s why Michael died. He says Michael was the favorite. He wanted him to die.
Doremus and the police arrive to find Helen holding a silent Craig. Craig is taken away to get some help. Investigation reveals that Craig had pre-recorded messages from Peter/Michael and hypnotized him to dial her number and push play.
With nothing much left to stay for, Helen and Peggy decide to leave with Doremus and head back to city life.
The 411: A truly chilling little made-for-TV movie back before films like “Star Wars” and “Jaws” turned every Hollywood film into a bankbuster. Leacock doesn’t employ many tricks; he simply allows the camera to zoom in and out at the appropriately creepy moments. I dare you to watch this film late at night and then answer a ringing phone. The plot may be a little farfetched in the “Scooby Doo” variety, but so are most films of this ilk. Oddly enough, Gazarra seems to be playing the quintessential “Michael Douglas” role while Douglas plays nicely against his two types (sleazy corporate raider and sensitive fuzzy liberal). Unfortunately, a good print of the film is exceedingly difficult to find unless you have Fox Movie Channel. Keep watching for it on DVD, though.
Final Score: 7.0