Director: Kenny Ortega; Cast: Alison Janney, Saoirse Ronan, “Nubbins”
The challenge of modern horror is to show us something new, amidst the minefield of exhausted franchises and self-referential irony-fests. With When No One Calls, television director Kenny Ortega [Gilmore Girls and the snappy, doomed Bunheads] manages to do exactly that.
Ortega begins on a road we’ve traveled before: Laney [Saoirse Ronan] and Blythe [Alison Janney, digitally de-aged] are college friends, late twenties, their friendship having atrophied amidst the demands of work and marriage.
Ronan and Janney flesh out the dynamic between these two women with practiced strokes: Laney is the risk-taker; Blythe plays it safe. Blythe balks predictably when Laney introduces the idea of a womens’ weekend getaway in a remote lodge in the Berkshires. Of course, Laney wins out, and we’re off.
Gorgeous camerawork by Spencer Niekamp follows the women from cookie-cutter suburbia into the wild. Ortega’s use of distant, wide-angle shots leaves no room for doubt: these women will be utterly alone. A conveniently washed-out road dictates the ladies abandon their SUV and hike the last mile towards their mountain retreat.
Night descends. Cell phone reception is long gone. Arturo Biggs’ set design does its job perfectly: the lodge is cozy and welcoming at first sight, but with daylight gone, the house seems built entirely of windows, its habitants exposed on all sides.
With the first thunderclap of a distant storm, the first flicker of the lights, we see Laney’s everpresent confidence quiver. She’s in over her head this time. It’s Blythe who discovers a confidence hidden beneath the gentle Pilates-instructor exterior, and it’s Blythe who hears a snapping branch from beyond the porch and says, “Grab that antique rake from the wall. Get a fire started. When the power goes, we’ll need to see.”
The women prepare to make their stand. We’re left to wonder: what will emerge from the darkness to threaten these women’s lives?
The film’s chilling answer: Nothing.
Ortega’s thesis becomes clear: in a world of constant stimulation, the greatest horror of all is being left alone.
Laney and Blythe crouch tensely by the fire. (Gorgeous lighting design by Mary Twiss, reinforcing the name she made for herself with Empire of Embers.) No further sounds are heard from outside. The snapping branch was probably an animal. The realization settles upon them: nothing is coming to murder them tonight. The women grow tired of crouching and sit.
Huge kudos to Ortega for letting the camera linger on Laney and Blythe’s faces for what feels like hours. As the audience, we experience in real time the phenomenon of two friends slowly running out of things to say to each other:
Laney: Do you remember when the fire alarm woke everyone up while we were coming back from Justin’s dorm party?
Laney: It was freezing out! Everyone was outside in their pajamas. You don’t remember this?
Blythe: I don’t.
Laney: We were coming back from Justin’s.
Blythe: I heard you. Maybe you were with someone else.
Laney: Maybe I was with Kathleen.
(Eleven minutes of silence.)
After reviewing the photos on each other’s phones for the third time and a listless attempt at lesbian sex, the actresses engage in a daring cinéma-vérité free fall of simply naming things in the room:
Blythe: Lighthouse clock.
Thirty-five brave minutes later, the women settle on suicide. Here, Ortega shies away from a truly satisfying conclusion and has the women simply fall asleep while trying to construct a noose out of Christmas garland from the attic. It’s a forgivable misstep. One can only expect so much from PG-13.
The morning brings a visit from Glen, a park ranger scouring the area for storm damage. In a casting decision both bizarre and refreshing, Glen is portrayed by “Nubbins”, a foam creation from the Jim Henson Creature Shop. (Worth noting: Doug Jones’ puppeteering work while operating “Nubbins” is a subtle treasure.) With Glen’s arrival and the return of daylight, the woman snap back to their familar roles. But Blythe’s lingering gaze towards the lodge from the safety of Glen’s cruiser tells us not everyone has emerged from the night unchanged.
When No One Calls gets a lot of things right. The time spent anticipating any flicker of action (nearly the entire film, clocking in at 3 hrs, 22 minutes) builds a level of tension unmatched by the last dozen Paranormal Activities. Ortega pushes both actresses to fresh new territory: seeing Janney play twenty-six is a revelation, although she’s noticably winded by the film’s more strenuous action: climbing a steep staircase into the lodge, and getting in and out of cars. Saoirse Ronan ably manages Laney’s thick Brooklyn accent, dropping it only during a whispered rendition of Danny Boy as the women stave off terror. “Nubbins” has me anticipating another Henson Creature Shop contribution with unexpected optimism.
Hitchcock said “Suspense comes from a quiet conversation at a kitchen table, when we know there’s a bomb underneath.” When No One Calls shows us that even if the bomb never goes off, even if the bomb wasn’t there in the first place, even if the table isn’t in the kitchen at all but in the living room, or on the porch, or in a remote lodge, that quiet conversation can hold horrors all its own.
Tim Sniffen writes and performs in Chicago with The Second City, as well as the Improvised Shakespeare Company and Baby Wants Candy, an improvised musical. He’s written for McSweeney’s Internet Tendancy, the online trivia game You Don't Know Jack, and the Boom Chicago theater in Amsterdam. You can find him on Twitter as MisterSniffen. For real, the first Paranormal Activity kept him awake for three nights.