By Amylou Ahava
Listening is a cornerstone of effective communication, but often it is overshadowed in the visual medium of cinema (where the emphasis is placed on striking visuals and dynamic action). However, the power of dialogue should not be underestimated, as it holds the potential to convey profound narratives and intricate emotions. And unfortunately, sometimes people need a topic as large as the apocalypse to actually shut-up and listen.
Directed by Abe Goldfarb and J.D. Brynn, FIRST TIME CALLER ventures into uncharted territory as it boldly embraces the challenges of crafting an engaging one-room, one-character thriller. Starring Goldfarb as the abrasive Brent Ziff and the unseen Brian Silliman as the prophetic Leo Short (aka Shorty), the film navigates the treacherous wave lengths of a narrative predominantly propelled by sound, the imperative act of listening, and the end of the world.
Brent Ziff lives Brent free in your head as he gives aggressive and misogynistic advice to anyone who calls in with women troubles. He’s an antagonistic, rude, and egotistical maniac who loves the sound of his own voice. The character largely echoes Tom Cruise's memorable role in Magnolia, creating a magnetic but repulsive presence that makes you half-expect him to bellow, "Respect the cock and tame the cunt!" He runs a shock-jock style program in which people call in and Brent basically berates them and then abruptly ends any conversation which bores him. He controls who gets on air and he controls how long they can talk. However, despite being the star and producer of his own show (and his own life), Brent soon learns there is a lot he cannot control outside his small recording space.
The film begins with a brief compilation of insults and insolent conversations as a means to introduce the viewing audience to the gist of Brent’s show before getting into the main conflict of the film. Brent answers the call from Shorty who (in the radio industry) would be known as a “long time listener, first time caller.” Having never called in before due to a perceived lack of noteworthy content, Shorty now wants to convince Brent of the significance of his story. What follows is a dance between hurtful jabs and a dark turn after Shorty's unseen voice adopts a grave tone when he begins predicting a looming natural catastrophe. The protagonist's smug demeanor adds an intriguing layer as audiences witness his journey from brazen swagger to vulnerable introspection. And while the story transitions from an on-air bully to a series of world ending events, the film still manages to slip in a few moments of humor to try to lighten up the depressing situation. You see, Shorty's prophetic abilities come from a very unusual source as they emanate from deep within the bowels of...himself.
Throughout the duration of the movie, Brent never leaves his recording equipment and aside from contemplating a brief memory or looking at news images on a phone or computer, Goldfarb is the only person to ever appear on screen. With the limited (and isolating) space and very minimalistic cast, the lack of action (in most cases) would weaken the narrative and make audiences lose interest, but the camera’s close-ups create an intimate relationship with Brent and even the off-screen Silliman makes it hard to turn away. The beauty of FIRST TIME CALLER lies in its manipulation of sound. Neither the audience or Brent ever see Shorty, but the unseen caller’s voice creates ripples across Brent's computer screen and even begins to take up space in the small recording studio. The film skillfully utilizes this visual representation of sound waves, which offers a unique and immersive experience for the audience.
The one-room thriller format becomes a strategic asset, crafting a gripping experience reminiscent of the recent horror film Glorious where peril emanates directly from the world of sound. Despite its reliance on auditory sensations (rather than visual spectacles) CALLER leaves an enduring impression with its apocalyptic consequences and contemplative conclusion.
Overall, FIRST TIME CALLER distinguishes itself in the horror genre through its display of inventive storytelling without succumbing to bloated budgets. Its lo-fi horror approach authentically taps into pandemic-induced fears, making it a go-to choice for enthusiasts of micro-budget cinema. And because it is adapted from an audio play, the screen version of the story seamlessly integrates visual choices, injecting the narrative with vivacity, humor, and a palpable sense of unease.
FIRST TIME CALLER debuts on Cable and Digital VOD January 12, 2024, including Prime Video, Vudu, Vubiquity, Cox, and Comcast.