When discussing scary movies, I think we can all agree that a) kids are creepy; and b) mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night are extra-creepy. Combine the two and you have some real nightmare fuel. When Michael Calls is an above-average mystery-thriller that originally aired on ABC in 1972. It’s worth watching for the genuinely disturbing calls (especially in the first 30 minutes), the eerie atmosphere (the 70s color palette doesn’t hurt) and the fine performances from the three leads – Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Ashley, and a twenty-something Michael Douglas in one of his first roles. Plot details abound below, so spoiler-phobes, consider yourself warned.
The film opens with attorney Doremus Connelly (Gazzara) tooling his Benz through the Vermont countryside on his way to the home of his ex-wife Helen (Ashley). Upon arriving, he is greeted warmly by his daughter Peggy and visiting neighbors Doc and Elsa Britton. Helen is cordial but guarded, and clearly annoyed that Doremus didn’t tell her he was coming into town. Helen’s not a fan of the ‘pop-in.’ The reasons for their divorce are never discussed, but the implication is that his legal career may have taken precedence over his family one time too many.
After a quick cocktail/cigarette with the adults (everyone in this movie smokes, and it is a little unusual to see them lighting up all over the place without requesting permission) followed by tea with Peggy in her playhouse, Doremus leaves to check in to a local hotel. Around this time, Helen receives the first of what will be a series of unusual phone calls. The caller identifies himself as her nephew Michael and asks his “Auntie-My-Helen” (that’s creepy enough on its own) if she will pick him up from school. This wouldn’t be a strange request, except for the fact that Michael died 15 years earlier.
After dinner, Helen gets another call from Michael, pleading once more for her to pick him up now that it is “dark and he can’t walk home.” I guess I should comment on the voice of the caller. It has a very strange tonal quality¹ that makes it grating and also difficult to determine whether it is a child or an adult that is speaking. Helen, more annoyed this time, demands to know who is calling, and again the caller hangs up.
Helen’s nephew Craig (Douglas) arrives immediately thereafter (I first thought he was supposed to be her brother, as they appeared to be about the same age – Ashley is only 5 years older than Douglas), having had dinner with Doremus (seriously, everyone loves this guy). Craig is a psychologist at Greenleaf, the local school for boys with emotional and behavioral problems. The phone rings again, but this time it’s only Doremus calling to arrange an outing with Peggy. Craig tells her not to worry about the calls and leaves, mid-cigarette.
In the middle of the night Helen is awakened by a third call, and here we have the most unsettling moment in the film. It’s Michael again, distraught that he has made it home but neither Craig nor his mother are there. Helen tries to calm him, but he lets out a truly bloodcurdling scream followed by a choked “I’m dead, aren’t I? I’m dead! I’m dead! I’M DEAD!!” A spirit captured in the moment becoming self-aware? Now we’re talking.
Jump to next day (I guess the director opted not to show Helen huddled in the fetal position for the next 5 hours). We get some valuable exposition during the father-daughter bonding at the local playground. According to Doremus, Michael (and Craig) moved in with their “Auntie-My-Helen” (*shudder*) after their mother was committed to a mental institution. Troubled Michael ran away from home, and died of exposure during a winter storm. Helen visits Craig at Greenleaf and informs him of the late-night call. She wonders whether one of the boys at Greenleaf might be making the calls. Craig explains the boys don’t have access to telephones, and advises her to contact the sheriff about the calls.
Next we pay a brief visit to Doc Britton’s. Doc has retired from medicine and taken up the life of a gentleman farmer. He also keeps bees, which will be important later. Doc has hired Harry Randall, the local troubled loner/handyman, to work on his farm and they have a minor confrontation over Harry yelling at Doc’s cows. Doc Britton has some sensitive cows, yeesh. Harry is clearly being set up as the red herring in our story. Plus, he’s named Harry and his hair is red, hello? OK, his hair is not really red. It’s brown with a touch of harvest gold, like everything else in the early 70s.
Meanwhile, back at Helen’s the phone rings and Peggy answers it. She tells her mother and Doremus that it was ‘Michael’ again, and he was talking shit about Doc and told her that something bad was about to happen. That evening, Doc is seen working in his bee room (bee quarters? bee haven?). By the way, I was impressed that the actor was really in there with all those bees. Doc puts some chloroform on a rag and lays it on top of a tray of bees, and they proceed to FLIP the FUCK OUT, swarming and attacking him. Pretty soon Doc is on the floor, unconscious or maybe worse.
Helen calls Elsa and asks her to check on Doc. She finds his body covered with the swarming bees, pretty clearly dead. She drags him outside and through the fog sees a young blond-headed boy standing watching at the edge of the yard. She assumes this to be Michael, or his ghost.
The next day Hap, the Sheriff, is conducting his investigation, which seems to involve not much more than a quick stroll through the crime scene and instructing his men to leave it unguarded. Nothing to see here, folks. Just your beloved neighbor killed by10,000 deranged bees, it was bound to happen. Hap’s obviously just there to pick up a paycheck. Doremus takes it upon himself to (literally) sniff around and becomes interested in the chloroform bottle. Hap blows him off, leaving Doremus to steal evidence (the chloroform bottle) and take it to the University of Vermont for analysis. Kudos to Doremus for making an effort, but didn’t anybody think to check the bottle for latent prints?
Hap hauls Doremus in for questioning, but not before Doremus’ egghead friends have figured out what’s in the bottle: BEE VENOM. The Sheriff, quick to apply Occam’s Razor so he can get home in time for Match Game PM, guesses Hap simply mislabeled the bottle. Case closed.
Harry is putting up decorations at the Harvest Festival (honestly, is he the only guy in town that knows his way around a set of tools?) when the Sheriff arrives. Harry leaves and the Sheriff begins to hear a child’s voice calling to him from the rafters. Exercising the good judgment so often found in movies like these, he decides to climb a ladder to check it out ALONE. He should have done the rational thing and discharged his service revolver wildly in the direction of the voice. Well, that’s what I would have done, but hey.
Cut to Harvest Festival in full swing. Craig is taking pies in the face with such enthusiasm that one wonders if it is some sort of weird kink with him. This reverie is interrupted by the judging of the pumpkin carving contest. A police officer draws a curtain back to reveal the contestants’ entries, but gets stuck about halfway. The officer is encouraged to really give the ropes a tug, and when he does the lifeless body of Sheriff Hap comes raining down upon the defenseless pumpkins. You know it’s coming, but the stunt work is great and it makes for a nice visual.
OK, now shit is getting real. Helen, Doremus, and Craig meet back at the house for coffee and more exposition. Seems that Doremus didn’t quite know the whole story of what went down with Helen’s sister, and that Doc and Hap were both involved. Now we find out that Helen was the one who had her sister committed, because “she tried to hurt herself and she tried to hurt the children….she was insane.” Doc signed the paperwork declaring her mentally incompetent so that Helen could commit her. And Sheriff Hap? Hap was the muscle – he was the officer who escorted her to the mental hospital. She kills herself in the institution almost immediately (way to drop the ball, mental health professionals), prompting Michael to run away from home.
At this point, it becomes pretty apparent who is behind all this, but Doremus either hasn’t figured it out yet or is distracted by his other goal: getting some tail. After Craig leaves, Doremus tries to salvage the evening by turning it into a booty call with Helen, but she is not having any of it. Maybe some other time when there’s not a homicidal maniac/vengeful spirit on the loose. Harry Randall turns up about this time and proceeds to break into Helen’s house. Doremus knocks him cold and is convinced he is ‘Michael.’ It turns out that he was not there to kill them, he only went there to rob Helen blind on his way out of town.
Thunderstorm outside. Doremus resumes trying to put the moves on Helen, only to get cock-blocked by the kid calling again. Michael gives a location this time, and Doremus heads there, presumably to beat his undead ass once and for all.
Doremus arrives at the location, which turns out to be an old barn. He begins to look for Michael, and is knocked unconscious by a wooden club to the head (ouch!) When he comes around, he is surprised to see a) a young boy staring at him from across the room; and b) someone is trying to set him on fire. Doremus jumps through the flames, grabs the child, and runs outside. About that time, the sheriff’s deputy and Craig arrive, having been summoned by Helen.
Doremus tries to shake some answers out of the boy, but Craig intervenes. It seems that Peter (the boy’s real name) is a mute, and therefore couldn’t have made the calls. How very convenient. Back at Greenleaf, Doremus takes charge, firing question after question, sizing up the situation. Despite the presence of the police, it’s clearly his investigation now.
Craig and Doremus retire to Craig’s office for a drink. Doremus continues to probe. Peter’s inability to speak is a psychological rather than physiological issue, and Craig has been working with Peter under hypnosis to lift the block. Uh-huh. Interesting. Drawn into a discussion about psychotic behavior, Craig almost loses control of himself. Doremus suggests Craig give himself up, but turns his back on Craig and gets bonked in the noggin for the second time in as many hours. D’oh!
I’ll say one thing for him: Craiggers can think on his feet. He immediately calls Helen, and tells her he’s on his way over and not to answer the phone if it rings. Craig even has the calm to smoke a cigarette and then call Helen himself to test her. (She follows his instructions and doesn’t answer it.) He locks Doremus in the office and sneaks outside. He disables the radio in the police car (smart), and then waits in his VW for hypnotized Peter to climb out his window and join him.
Luckily, Doremus regained consciousness just in time to see Peter sneaking along the window ledge, and is making his own way down the side of the building. Isn’t he the best? (Ms. Retronaut: “Doremus is doh-reamy”). He alerts the others and tells Amy (Craig’s secretary) to call Helen. No answer. That Craig, always thinking ahead. Craig arrives at Helen’s and tells the officer on guard that he’s needed elsewhere, and that he’ll be taking over watch duty. The cop can’t confirm with his boss because of the broken radio – remember how Craig did that? Clever.
Helen and Peggy let Craig in the house, despite his homicidal stare, baseball bat, and towheaded young sidekick. It doesn’t take long for Helen to realize this was a bad idea. Helen and Peggy develop their own action plan: run through the house dodging Craig’s wildly swinging bat and then hide behind a chair until he finds them. Maybe not the best plan, but you know, you don’t always have a flamethrower around when you need one.
Craig goes into talking killer mode, rambling about how Peter is really Michael and won’t talk because Craig allowed Helen to take their mother away and blah blah now you’re going to die. Helen sacrifices a few antiques in an attempt to fend off Craig, but to no avail. Just as he is about to swing the bat at her head, Peter jumps in to stop him. He also decides it’s time to speak up: “My name is not Michael – it’s Peter.” He’s had enough of waking up at all hours to go on killing sprees with this weirdo.
This has the effect of shocking Craig back to reality and he has a breakdown of sorts. His jealousy prompted him to encourage Michael to run away, even though he knew something bad would likely happen. Helen rushes to comfort him, and Doremus and the police arrive. I appreciated that they presented a climax that felt real and not totally over-the-top. 9 out of 10 filmmakers would have had Doremus and Craig battling it out on the roof of Helen’s house, with Helen finally shooting Craig with a gun she pulled from a dead cop’s hand. Of course, the movie was based on a novel by John Farris, so perhaps I should thank him.
Cut to denouement. Helen is packing a suitcase when the phone rings. We hear “Auntie-my-Helen?” once more. No, it’s not ‘Michael’ again, it’s just that wacky deputy playing one of the tapes that Craig made. Peter had been instructed under hypnosis to dial Helen’s number and play them. Good times. Apparently the kid is doing OK and doesn’t remember any of the ordeal, at least not now. I’m sure he will in 10 years, when he grabs a hockey mask and axe and moves to Camp Crystal Lake. But that’s a story for another day.
¹The closest thing I can compare it to would be the voice of Howdy Doody, pitched slightly higher, or as Ms. Retronaut helpfully pointed out, a Depression-era newsboy.