October 7th: Long Distance (2005)
A visit to the local big-box video store will reveal that contemporary American direct-to-DVD horror films come in (mainly) two varieties: the vulgar Photoshop no-brainers like Frankenfish or Leprechaun in the Hood 2, and the stuff that, if it had featured a star, could have been in theaters. If Long Distance had nabbed Halle Berry or Angelina Jolie instead of Monica Keena, it could have bombed at the box office instead of Blockbuster. Most of these films are as bad as Frankenfish, but every now and then something really interesting slips through the cracks (see Friday’s film, Chasing Sleep, or Stuart Gordon’s King of the Ants). Unfortunately, Long Distance is not in this category.
Marcus Stern’s first film Long Distance is a film with a tiny budget. Excepting one short scene, the entire story takes place inside an apartment complex, really one apartment. There are about four developed characters, and less than a dozen altogether. Many of the actors are represented in voice only. A film with such restrictions is often classified de facto as an art film (evidenced by this film’s appearance on the Sundance network). Actually, Long Distance is a limp psychological thriller with aspirations to complexity greater than its ability to deliver.
Monica Keena isn’t a great actor, but she is very likable. In Freddy Vs. Jason, her performance is appropriately all-surface. Her big eyes and expressive face communicate very well in such a film. And she was quite charming on the small screen in Judd Apatow's Undeclared. Also, she can scream. Here, an actor capable of subtlety could have saved Long Distance from its script. Keena plays Nichole Freeman, a grad-student studying Psychology in Boston. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, Chris, and calls her mother to talk about it. She makes a mistake and misdials, reaching a strange answering machine. A minute later, an unknown man with a creepy voice calls, asking “Why did you call me?” Turns out the guy is a serial killer calling himself Joe (as in “average Joe”), who’s just murdered the owner of the cell phone. Joe (Kevin Chapman) decides to call Nichole before every subsequent murder, leaving the phone on so that she can hear his victims screaming for help. Keena spends many of the film’s remaining scenes on the phone (she does have an expressive voice, fortunately).
When the cops find a corpse with a cell phone, they send Detective Frank Halsey (Ivan Martin) to Nichole’s apartment, to question her about the dead woman’s last outgoing call. From then on Frank remains in Nichole’s apartment, as a tech guy (Tim McIntire as Charlie) back at the station traces Joe’s calls (always too late, of course). The FBI sends over expert profiler Margaret Wright (Tamala Jones, pretending she’s in a CSI episode) to coach Nichole on how to keep Joe on the line long enough for Charlie to trace the call and dispatch the police in whatever town Joe is in. Throwing some pins in a map on the wall, Frank realizes that Joe is traveling in an arc across the country, Boston his next location.
A straight-forward conclusion would have been welcome. Instead, (a spoiler here) Long Distance ends with a lame twist, re-framing the entire film as a psychological fiction. While dream sequences throughout the film hint at this, and certain aspects of the script make sense as fantasy (the Hollywood romance that develops between Nichole and Frank), this final reveal is truly groan-worthy. When Joe shows up, things start to get weird, and we realize that Joe (spoiler) may not even be real at all.
Long Distance plays a slasher premise seriously. Fine. Yet, Long Distance could have been a more traditional slasher. The film would have been simpler, yes, but probably better. Every horror film doesn’t have to be as psychologically complex as Silence of the Lambs—especially if the screenwriters (here Shawn and Michael Rasmussen) aren’t up to task. There’s nothing wrong with a good twist; there is something wrong with an unearned one. The final scene in Long Distance is clumsy and confusing. Keena’s performance doesn't have the layers necessary to sell the revelation that she’s dreamt up an entire narrative to hide the fact that she’s (big-time spoiler) murdered her own boyfriend.
The filmmakers made a commitment to keep the film small in many ways. The cinematography is uniform, the sets are simple, the music is subtle. Had the script been reined in, Long Distance could have been a tight and satisfying thriller. The pacing in Long Distance isn’t slow, it's just that the events are mostly minor. Nothing about this film needed to be grand. An overlooked film such as Mimic 3 keeps the action indoors, and—I gotta say—Mimic 3 actually ain’t that bad. Its always frustrating when a film’s mistakes are this obvious.