Gialli are strange things. Very much a love-it-or-hate segment of the horror genre it is, in broadly equal parts, rigidly formulaic and delightfully strange. Peaking in the seventies and eighties, the gialli movement gave us some of the horror’s most famous names – Argento, Bava, Fulci – and was a direct inspiration for the slasher movie explosion shortly thereafter. However, where many slashers are easy targets for claims of predictability and monotony, the often bizarre elements that make up gialli mean that they aren’t so easily labelled. Thanks to the current appetite for retro-inspired throwback horror, recent years have seen a steady – if somewhat irregular – stream of eighties-styled giallo movies, with particular highlights being Astron-6’s wonderful Giallo spoof The Editor (2014) and Cattet and Forzani’s mesmerising The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013). Adding to the ranks of modern made but backwards styled horror is the upcoming Close Calls from first time writer/director Richard Stringham.
Caught with her boyfriend and subsequently grounded by an angry father, Megan is left home with her elderly and infirm grandmother. Cut off from the outside world, she turns to drugs to pass the time but as the evening progresses she begins to feel increasingly uneasy. A creepy prank caller, an increasingly imbalanced patient, and an array of dubious visitors all converge on Megan’s home as she begins to questions her own sanity. How far dare she trust those around her or, indeed, herself?
Close Calls is being pushed as a hybrid of both the slasher and giallo genres but there really isn’t much that pushes into the territory of the former. However, where the comparison does work, good and bad, is with the movie’s gialli elements. Stylistically there are many touchstones – use of vivid red is evident at pivotal points and strange camera angles are sprinkled liberally throughout – and thematically it deals with broad genre staples of paranoia, weird supernatural influences, and psychosexual trauma. Despite being suspenseful thrillers at heart, gialli are often punctuated by graphic and gruesome violence and it’s here that Close Calls stumbles somewhat. A small budget feature – around three hundred and fifty thousand dollars – carries substantial limitations. Stringham does well, it often looks impressive and is well shot, but he has a small cast and little violence. In fact, Close Calls could more accurately be described as a character-driven study of madness than a straight, nasty, balls out horror movie. To his credit, the director gives his tale room to breathe; at just over two hours there are some clear pacing issues – the opening act is very baggy – but he does allow space for his limited characters to develop. And develop it does, in weird, unexpected, and occasionally nonsensical ways. There are twists and turns without explanation, there are questions that have no answers, and – especially in the denouement – answers without any real set up. Critics of gialli often point to this slightly random structure as their notable failure; I suspect fans of the genre will find more to appreciate here. There are some obvious missteps – some very dodgy sound design, a Loony Tunes-esque fade during the second act, and some dubious decision making – but, for a first time filmmaker, there’s potential here. For all its limitations Stringham doubtless has an eye for this kind of movie and Close Calls is presented with panache throughout.
Stringham is clearly a genre fan and much fun with Close Calls comes from picking out the nods to an unexpectedly broad range of other horror movies, all the way from a soundtrack best described as an homage to the piano-driven Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Halloween (1978), eighties classics, to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Tim Kincaid oddity Breeders (1986). The cast is composed of largely unknown performers but they do reasonably well with a script which is serviceable but lacking any real sense of fun; it would be nice to see acknowledgement from the characters of how strange things were becoming as Close Calls progresses rather than everyone continuing in po-faced fashion throughout. The film’s real trump card here is its heroine – Morgan – played by Jordan Phipps. I suspect that Stringham realised this too as her name is dramatically introduced even before the title card appears. Gialli are characterised by the beautiful young lead and that’s what Stringham has found here. On-screen for almost the complete running time, Phipps has to work hard and carries the movie solo for large sections; other characters fade in and out, but Phipps is present, and in another genre staple half-naked, all the way to the end. What’s remarkable is how well she does at developing her character from seemingly one-note teen bitch in the movie’s opening motions into something altogether more nuanced and interesting by the end. If Stringham’s performance behind the camera shows promise, Phipps’ turn in front of it is even more impressive.
By the time Close Calls finishes, with a final act that is as strange and vague as the rest of the film, it becomes apparent that any comparison with slasher movies is incredibly tenuous; yes, a pretty girl is menaced and put in a variety of unpleasant situations, but beyond that there is nothing really to support the idea. What is also apparent, however, is that it shares far more with gialli. Whilst it may lack the startling blood and graphic violence that is a gialli mainstay, and whilst it lacks the nuance of the genre’s best, Stringham has – on a very modest budget – created character-driven piece that attempts to deal with the psychosexual, the ambiguous, and the creeping paranoia that gialli fans will recognise and respect. Is Close Calls always successful? No – indeed, I felt rather confused by parts of it – but in trying to recreate one of horror’s more equivocal genres, Stringham has created something unexpected; a low-budget giallo that is, in equal measure, strangely compelling and compellingly strange. Stringham’s movie acts as a signal of intent for a first time filmmaker and of potential for Jordan Phipps, its star and if you appreciate gialli – warts and all – you’ll find plenty to like in Close Calls; if not, I suspect you’ll be as bemused as I was by many of its wranglings.