A beginning, an ending: the first American release of 2008, One Missed Call is, at least this is my hope, the last spasm of the dead corpse of J-Horror remakes. Or maybe not. But no matter, it's a derivative and clumsy thing that surely means the end is near, for no genre capable of crapping out something like this can have all that many ideas left.

The plot: scary pale-faced ghosts with black hair use technology to kill people. As usual. In this case, the technology in question is the cellular phone, and precisely what happens is oddly elaborate for something so fuckawfully idiotic. See, what happens is that you die. And the moment after you die, your phone dials out to somebody in your phone book, and they hear a characteristic ringtone that isn't on their phone, and when they don't pick up their phone (which has a disproportionate likelihood of being from Boost Mobile, as it turns out) displays "One missed call," but it isn't from just now - it's from a couple of days in the future! And when they listen to the voicemail, they hear the sound of their own death.

All this becomes clear pretty damn early on, and in an unusually clear example of an Idiot Plot, none of the characters take advantage of it: "Oho, so I am going to die screaming at 7:55 tomorrow? Well I guess I'll just go on about my business near this construction site rather than lock myself in an empty room for ten minutes, starting at 7:50." The Final Girl sequence is a particularly brazen example, as the glassy-eyed heroine Beth (Shannyn Sossamon) flees from her trusted cop friend and runs into the Scary Old Burned Down Hospital about twenty minutes before her time is up.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The most idiotic plot can still be fun if it's executed with sufficient flair, although screenwriter Andrew Klavan, whose previous credits...anyway, Klavan's dialogue is all very wooden and obvious, not necessarily awful but certainly soporific. But when that dialogue hits the actors, that's when the anti-magic happens.

There might not be a single worthwhile performance in the whole cast, which isn't nearly so common as you'd think it is - usually there's at least a Reliable Ol' Character Actor waiting in the wings to play a colorful cameo, à la Brad Dourif as Thin Bookish Guy in last summer's Pulse (whose rescheduling and flopping, I suspect, is the proximate cause for the new film's delayed opening). One Missed Call does indeed have such a character actor in the form of the very reliable indeed Ray Wise, of Twin Peaks and a couple thousand other things, and while he is certainly interesting to watch, his role as the host of a cable show about miraculous phenomena is one of the most unfortunate bits of superfluous dross in a screenplay not exactly bursting with narrative tautness.

Wise is the closest the film comes to an effective performance; the co-leads, Sossamon and Edward Burns (as Det. Jack Andrews, the only cop who believes Beth's story of high-tech poltergeists) give performances that qualify as languorous even on the heavily left-shifted bell curve with which we grade horror film acting. This should not surprise us in Sossamon's case, but for some inexplicable reason I wanted more from Burns. Probably just some leftover affection for The Brothers McMullen, which is now thirteen years old. Anyway, "languorous" isn't really the worst thing a performance can be, and One Missed Call has plenty of bad to go around, although generally speaking the roles that most of the supporting cast are called to fill don't really abound with actorly possibilities, fitting in the finest generic tradition of differentiating themselves only by function and ethnicity. Thus we have the meek and simpering Latina best friend (Ana Claudia Talancón), the ditzy blonde sexpot (Azura Skye, whose name shrieks "yuppie Angelino, n'est-ce pas?), and even the token black girl who is, indeed, the first victim (Meagan Good, who in another life was a standout in the extraordinary and long-forgotten Eve's Bayou). The only conspicuously awful performance happens to be the work of a conspicuously awful actor, Johnny Lewis as the platonic guy friend, and I had one of those great "bad movie buff" moments when he walked onscreen and not only did I have a "hey, it's that guy!" moment, I knew exactly who that guy was, although it helps a lot that he was last seen in Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, still in theaters. But, I also happen to know that he sucked the life out season 3 of The O.C., though since I surely never watched that show, I'm at a complete loss to explain how I know that. Um.

Surrounded by all this crappy blandness, director Eric Valette is my new hero. Not because he manages to wring effective scares out of the material, for he does not. And not because there as strikingly original compositions, because there are not. Not because he shepherds the story along at a bright clip, for he undeniably does not. In fact, for just about every single reason you might expect to praise a director, Valette's work is proficient at best and sleepy at worst. But I sense that the director finds the film just as dull as I do, and rather than cashing a check and calling it a day, he amuses himself instead. Throughout, not in every scene, but in quite a few, Valette violates one of the simplest keystones of narrative cinema: he does not shoot according the the Hollywood continuity system. That magical combination of wide shots followed by closeups and reverse closeups, matching on action, and the 180º rule, all of these techniques are obeyed only erratically, particularly in the opening half of the film. The 180º rule in particular (basically, that there is a line drawn through the actors, and the camera must always remain on one side of that line during cuts) gets dismissed time and again. We could call this sloppy filmmaking, or we could call it a director who just wanted to fuck around. It kept my attention more than any other aspect of the movie, and so I choose to give Valette the benefit of the doubt. Not enough to make One Missed Call an avant-garde masterpiece, but at least I could feel the presence of a guiding force behind the camera, even if his skills were bent towards evil.


P.S. Scholars of the genre will be delighted by the reverse-ironic twist on the classic Spring-Loaded Cat in the opening scene. The false scare isn't because a cat just appears, but because it just disappears, except not really. I'll shut up now.