Sometimes, those stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame align.
Courtesy of B&S About Movies’ recent obsession with Christmas movies written and directed by David DeCoteau and Fred Olen Ray—some of which starred Eric Roberts—colliding with our recent flurry of reviewing radio broadcasting-set films—one of which starred Eric Roberts (Power 98)—careening off our recent “Ape Week” homage to the Planet of the Apes franchise, it brings us to this moment: a review of the debut screenplay by Mark Bomback, the producer and screenwriter behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes.
Like David Mickey Evans before him: every screenwriter has to start somewhere. Before Evans got to Radio Flyer (1990) and The Sandlot (1993), he had to write, yes, the radio-psycho romp, Open House (1987). For Mark Bomback, his start in the business was writing a direct-to-video damsel-in-distress vanity flick produced by American television actress Shanna Reed (CBS-TV’s Major Dad).
Needless to say, one’s first impression of The Night Caller is that it’s a variant of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me—only with Tracy Nelson (NBC-TV’s Father Dowling Mysteries, the “female” Jerry Seinfeld in the “The Cartoon” episode) in the role played by Jessica Walter. Only Nelson’s Beth Needham isn’t a spurned one night stand who transforms into a flat-out crazy bitch; the character is a bit more twisted and prone to psycho-visions and voices and suffers with an unhealthy co-dependency on her mother, so she’s more like Norman Bates.
However, as I re-watch The Night Caller all these years later, I can’t help but think that Stephen King’s Misery (1990) served as an influence, with James Cann’s famed novelist Paul Sheldon traded out for Shanna Reed’s Dr. Drew-inspired radio psychologist. Once you hear Nelson’s wholesome rants-mixture of horror and dark comedy with the epithets of “baboon butt, “snoopy poopy,” and “bossy the cow,” and her singing goofy, nonsequential songs about “peanuts up your nose,” you’ll understand the connection.
Do not, however, let the fact that this radio-psycho variant went straight-to-video and aired on Showtime leaving you to think The Night Caller is inferior to the bigger-budgeted, theatrically released Psycho, Play Misty for Me, Misery, or Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Tracy Nelson tears this movie up, giving us an amazing performance that equals and exceeds the psycho interpretations of Anthony Perkins, Jessica Walter, Kathy Bates, and Rebecca De Mornay. Nelson single-handedly saves what would have otherwise been just another run-of-the-mill Lifetime-inspired damsel-in-distress romp.
Nelson’s Beth Needham is a childish, socially-repressed and friendless, thirty-something convenience store nightshift clerk who spends the days taking care of her bed-ridden, verbally abusive mother (TV actress Eve Sigall in a bravo performance) who blames Beth for her own sexual abuse at the hands of her late father. Beth finds solace in the late night musings of Dr. Lindsay Roland on the air of San Diego’s KBEX radio—her obsession brimming with lesbian tendencies. (If this was produced as an R-rated theatrical, that sexual dynamic may have been more deeply explored; so here, it’s just insinuated.) So deep is Beth’s obsession—in bed she fawns over Dr. Roland’s picture in the newspaper—she’s prone to seeing visions of the radio shrink as a glowing, white-adorned advice-granting angel.
One night, when Beth musters the courage to call into the show to tell of her plight, Beth takes the good doctor’s encouragement to “make changes” and to “plant the seeds” of friendship, literally.
Before you know it, Beth threatens her boss with a knife, quits her job, and murders her mother—and “pickles” her hands in mason jars. But those angelic visions and advice aren’t enough: it’s time to “plant the seeds.” Beth’s stalking leads her to apply for a job with the answering service used by the radio station—and Beth’s kills the woman who got the job. Then Beth’s knocking off babysitters, answering service coworkers, and radio station employees—with it culminating in her kidnapping Dr. Roland and taking her on a motorhome road trip to their “new shiny, start” so they can live like “Thelma and Louise.”
As far as the problems with the technical accuracy of radio stations in film, “KBEX San Diego” gets a pass.
That’s because The Night Caller isn’t about Shanna Reed’s good doctor: it’s all about Tracy Nelson’s tour-de-force and her psyche. As result, there’s no need for any scenes of Dr. Roland’s day-to-day toiling at the radio station or any broadcasting expositional dialog with station managers, etc. And since there’s no “thank you” in the credits to any particular radio station or technical credits, the “radio studio” is a cost-effective build (set design) with a microphone boom screwed into a table top; slap a set of headphones on Shanna Reed and have her punch a couple buttons on a wired-up Telos phone board—and “shoot it tight” and in the shadows—and POOF, you have a radio studio on a budget.
While The Night Caller was released in 1998 on both VHS and DVD in the overseas-international marketplace, it was never released on DVD in the United States. So be wary of those online DVDs and know your regions, and watch out for those grey market DVD-Rs before you buy. None of the online content delivery services, such as TubiTV or Vudu, are streaming The Night Caller. Amazon Prime had it, but lost their rights to it. So you’ll have to settle for a really clean VHS upload on You Tube.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.