When Michael Calls – also known as Shattered Silence – is a 1972 thriller-drama television movie directed by Philip Leacock and starring Elizabeth Ashley, Ben Gazzara and Michael Douglas. It was adapted from John Farris’ 1967 novel of the same name.
Single mother Helen (Elizabeth Ashley) is going through a relatively amicable divorce from Doremus (probably over his name – played by Ben Gazzara from Anatomy of a Murder and Bloodline) but otherwise lives a perfectly humdrum middle-class American life on a cosy farm in New England with her young daughter, Peggy. Flitting around in the background is her nephew, the equally inoffensive Craig (Michael Douglas – yes, that one – in a very early film role) who is a psychiatrist working with emotionally troubled youngsters in the town.
Aside from the by-numbers fraught post-marriage arrangements, the only blot on the horizon are a series of phone calls Helen keeps receiving. Not the heavy-breathing sort, these are an entirely different level of weird – they are coming from Craig’s long-dead brother. Michael had perished in a Vermont snowstorm over a decade ago after running away from home; this sent Craig and Michael’s mother into a spiral of mental illness, leading to a short spell in an asylum before she committed suicide. The phone calls begin as confusing and progress to alarmingly intense. Not only that but the calls spark a wave of family members being murdered, leaving Helen to doubt both her sanity and who exactly is at the end of the phone.
This oft-remembered TV movie, held by some in the same esteem as the likes of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Bad Ronald, rests on two principles:
1. Telephones were now the most terrifying household appliance since showers (Black Sabbath; When a Stranger Calls; Don’t Answer the Phone; Black Christmas)
2. A good percentage of American children were medically mute (Candy Snatchers; Suffer, Little Children)
The latter in this film is a slightly goofy device for spanning out the drama an extra few minutes but the first comes with a real sting – the killer line being a young child sobbing to Helen, “I’m dead, aren’t I?” It really works, though a tough crowd may claim that beyond the odd line like this, there’s little substance and a pretty thin cast numbers-wise. It is worth remembering that this was only a TV movie and is still stronger than many appearing on the silver screen.
Ashley is little more than adequate as the rather slight lead female, her soon-to-be ex-husband coming across as a good egg all round (played by a far stronger Gazzara). Douglas is, naturally in convenient retrospect, the strongest card though is given such a sappy character that it’s almost quite exciting when he starts smoking.
Director Philip Leacock was an old hand at television drama to say the least; Bonanza – check, Gunsmoke – check, Hawaii Five-O – check, Buck Rogers and so on, the man was a television Goliath. Equally as deft was the writer of the original novel, John Farris – aside from his career as one of the greatest exponents of Southern Gothic novels, he also wrote two successful screenplays, Dear Dead Delilah and Brian De Palma’s The Fury. The TV movie is adapted for the screen by James Bridges, also extremely accomplished with a typewriter but also as a director, his most famous film being The China Syndrome.
Screened as one of ABC’s Movies of the Week, it was rather bafflingly released as Shattered Silence on DVD in quite appalling quality, adding to the sinister grime but doing little raise its profile, doomed forever to be ‘that film with Michael Douglas smoking, on the phone to his dead brother’.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania.com
“This MOTW is capable of producing real chills, it terrified me when it was first aired.” Michael Karol, The ABC Movie of the Week Companion