Air Date: February 5, 1972
Production Companies: 20th Century Fox Television, Palomar Pictures International
Running Time: 73 min. (90 min.)
Available on: YouTube
Written by: James Bridges
Based on the 1967 novel by John Farris
Directed by: Philip Leacock
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Ashley, Michael Douglas, Larry Reynolds, Marian Waldman, Alan McRae
If there’s one TV horror film I remember from the 1970s, it’s When Michael Calls (1972.) For some reason, it remains vivid in my mind. That reason may very well be the commercials I saw for it around the time it originally aired. (I find myself frequently remembering advertisements for movies and TV shows more clearly than the movies and TV shows themselves.)
The concept epitomizes what 70s TV horror movies are in my memory: a woman receives phone calls from a boy that died 15 years ago. Period. That simple statement is a springboard for all kinds of potential plots and stories, supernatural or not. It’s like a great hook in a song. I hear it and I’m instantly smitten.
48 years after seeing the movie when it first aired, When Michael Calls does not disappoint. The hook is still there, and its use is terrific. Some of the details have changed. It’s not Helen Connelly’s (Elizabeth Ashley) dead son that is calling, but her nephew. And there’s a surprisingly effective family drama that I would not have recognized when I was nine years old.
Like another of my favorites, Revenge!, the drama is subtle and the story doesn’t hammer details into our minds. You either catch them or you don’t, but we have roughly only an hour and a half to get through it, so we’re not going to waste any time. In other words, I consider it smart, and believe that it considers its audience to be smart.
At the same time, though, if you’re not so smart, you still get plenty of thrills and chills. When Michael Calls has bizarre deaths, stormy nights, twists and turns, and, of course, hidden secrets. It doesn’t contain as many red herrings as other 70s TV movies, but that makes the big reveal even more surprising. I mean, if it’s not so-and-so, who is it? I was surprised.
For more of my thoughts, listen to me and Richard Chamberlain discuss it on episode 47 of The Classic Horrors Club Podcast.