The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
One Missed Call

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article What makes a good horror film? To my mind, it all comes down to uncertainty: we fear things because we don’t understand them, we don’t understand them because they are unknowable, they are unknowable because they do not conform to the self-imposed rules and explanations that we place on our own field of experience. Provide no complete answers and you have an uneasy audience.

This is what can separate a truly terrifying film from a mediocre genre exercise: say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) from Jeepers Creepers (2002). Constantly a horror movie will begin tolerably well, notching up the tension and atmosphere, then lose it completely when the killer is revealed. This is because the something that threatened us with its ambiguity has become a definable thing, complete with an explanation and a reason for existence.

Jeepers Creepers is a textbook case. The opening, with a brother and sister travelling a rural road, becoming increasingly terrorised - first by a giant truck, then by an eerie place with a mysterious hole in its backyard - has an undeniable air of dread about it. The moment the evil force becomes personified in a winged demon who needs to take body parts of humans to survive, fear becomes impossible, replaced by incredulity and ridicule.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, begins in a very similar way (possibly because Jeepers Creepers’ opening is so clearly indebted to it), with its young cast in a strange and creepy rural place, but doesn’t lose its power when the killer(s) are revealed. This is because, even though we now have a visual conduit for our fear in the form of Leatherface and his family, these figures are never really explained, never made safe by reason. So, just as at the beginning of Jeepers Creepers we were worriedly asking “Who’s in that truck? What’s that figure doing by that pipe?”, we are still asking in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “Who are these people? Why are they doing what they’re doing?”, and any answers we might get are partial rather than complete and reductive. Thus, our terror cannot be explained away.

One Missed Call succeeds for similar reasons. Although it self-consciously follows the familiar horror story of one or two ‘regular’ people (often, as here, a man and woman) investigating a mysterious event to try to find the truth, the truth found is still ultimately uncertain. The clues (the sweets, the inhaler sound) mount up, people are questioned, our heroes seem to be edging closer to an explanation, then towards the end, when we would expect to be given concrete answers, things suddenly become - in a small-scale Miike madness way - very confusing.

The evil responsible for the killings appears to be in the hands of one of our main characters - or is it? If so, who is the corpse in the basement? Why is the phone important? The ending does make a certain kind of sense, but in a bizarre, impressionistic way that leaves many loose ends untied. The final scene, with its jarring an incongruous optimism that seems to be meant as a happy ending, in fact feels more unsettling than a traditional it’s-still-out-there (…) dénouement. To some this could all seem like bad plotting, to me it is a masterful handling of tone that succeeds in being frightening because it never allows gives the audience the sense that it has a mastery-through-understanding of the film’s content.

But the uncertainty extends far beyond the story. For one thing, the way the individual scares happen is not in the traditional horror format of slow-build-up-then-JUMP; rather they creep up on you subtly, menacingly. The moment in the opening restaurant scene, when a ghostly white hand is shown to be inexplicably sitting on a character’s shoulder, then in the next shot is gone, is a good example of this. There is no logical reason for it, it happens almost imperceptibly (it would easily be possible to miss it), but its effect is instant and powerful, placing an icy dread upon us that is as complete as that which the character herself is feeling. Similar techniques continue throughout: rather than having shocks shoved upon us by close-ups, we see little things at the edge of the frame, almost out of the corner of our eye, making us question whether we even saw them at all. The result is that we feel surrounded, unsafe, as if the threat cannot be contained by traditional film methods and could creep up on us at any moment.

One Missed Call: uncertain imagery
One Missed Call: uncertain imagery
The horror imagery too is not cut-and-dried. No single human, or monstrous, form embodies the evil. Instead we get objects and forms that are not instantly decipherable - a body contorted in a strange and disquieting fashion, uncanny shapes in jars too indistinct to be understood. Far more unnerving than a single man with a knife, or a monster with teeth, this again creates uncertainty, makes us feel this world and its threats are unknowable, and this uncertainty breeds fear.

The filmmaking itself is full of doubt and danger, using slow-moving long takes for much of the time, then occasionally whipping around frenziedly for no apparent reason. If even the camera and editing feel unstable what is there left for us to cling onto for safety?

Certainly not traditional horror cliché assumptions. For a long time we seem to be dealing with the familiar situation of our heroes knowing what is going on while no one else believes them. A usual method of this kind of film is for the killer/danger to only be seen and experienced by a very limited number of people, with other characters missing the action and remaining unaffected and sceptical. The TV show scene, which appears to be setting us up for exactly this sort of thing, blows the formula out of the water by having the supernatural force explode in front of everyone, protagonists and extras alike. No one, least of all us, is protected from it.

On the levels of story, shocks, imagery, style and genre One Missed Call systematically breaks down the audience’s sense of certainty and reassurance. This is what makes it a far more effective horror film than any of the other recent Japanese exports that it will no doubt be accused of copying, and indeed what makes it one of the best pure-horror films of recent memory.

This Alternate Take was published on August 13, 2005.

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