WGTC Weekly Throwdown: Which Is The Most Memorable Phone Call In Film?

Gem: Ghostface calls Drew Barrymore in Scream

It’s not often you answer the phone in an evening to discover a black-hearted sadist with a penchant for movie trivia and disembowelling on the other end (unless you’ve got a bastard cinephile fishmonger for a boyfriend.) Fortunately for the gasping slasher genre yet unfortunately for Drew Barrymore, that is precisely the call she receives during the opening sequence of Scream.

What makes this phone call any better than the chilling opening to When A Stranger Calls (and its stellar sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back)? As Scream re-launched the genre, fans cried out that its homages were mere copies of superior original efforts. Scream decimates such obvious reactions by subverting traditional horror tropes. As the film fades in on a counter top phone and a hand grabs it, bringing it up to the cheek of Ms. Barrymore the audience immediately sighs with relief. With full knowledge that they’re about to embark on a trip down terror lane, every spectator knows there’s no way Drew Barrymore is going to die. She’s a star.

As she engages with her mystery caller, you find yourself screaming at the screen, “Hang up, you daft cow!” or as Jada Pinkett’s character in Scream 2 puts it: “Bitch, hang up the phone and Star 69 his ass!” (That would be “Do be a dear and hang up then dial 1471” in the U.K.) We do as we are bid, we indulge in suspending our disbelief and listen in as Casey and Ghostface banter back and forth. Sure, it’s tantamount to idiocy to carry on a conversation with a total stranger, but we continue to eavesdrop on the dialogue to her demise. We ourselves become the voyeurs; peeping through the glass doors, hearing every exhalation of breath and urging her to outsmart him. The experience might push us to the limits of our disbelief, but we’re on her side.

What makes the phone call so damn memorable is its merging of boundaries between the film and the audience. Marking one of the first occasions in cinema where the diegetic film world is self-aware. It knows the horror genre. With every dropped reference to Freddy and Jason it smiles cocksure and calm that it will outwit even you, dear cinemagoer. Usual exploits in film have demolished the fourth wall in making a statement that the film and its characters know they are in a film (Ferris Bueller?) Scream’s phone call announces that yes, it is aware, but it still has the capacity to utterly terrify you.

The turning point emerges as the caller pushes for Casey to tell him her name. Still playing along, she refuses while still flirting. As she finally asks him, “Why do you want to know my name?” his response, “’Cause I wanna know who I’m looking at” cuts through any of the good-natured banter which came before. The score lurches as her eyes swim with panic. It is here that the phone call escalates from a simple wrong number to a cat-and-mouse trap. Casey, mere moments from finally hanging up from him for good is stopped as he rasps out, razor-tongued and full of malice; “Listen to me you little bitch! You hang up on me again and I’ll gut you like a fish!”

And why are we so afraid as the call turns into a life or death film trivia quiz? Because we’re fighting in Casey’s corner, and when her boyfriend is centre stage, tied up and bloody under the porch lights, we too, are equally as stunned. We like this girl. For a scene which for the most part features Barrymore and a phone, the nuances and exposition-through-dialogue reveal her personality to superb effect. That is what pummels this scene as the most memorable phone call in cinema. In a short 12 minutes we’re in essence delivered a short film. An introduction, a middle and a sad tragic ending complete with humour, thrills and sadness. Barrymore’s skill in embodying a fully-fleshed out character with only a phone for company in such a short space of time possibly cements this as her best performance. And one which will lead to our hearts being broken.

After losing in Ghostface’s tricky movie quiz, Casey is chased through her house by a masked killer in a black gown. Charging up the garden, still clutching the phone, Casey can see her parents walking to the front door, mere meters away and barely croaks “Mom!”  (During which many audiences shouted “Throw the phone!”) Too slow for Ghostface, he tackles her to the ground and plunges the knife in while her Mom picks up the extension, listening to the final sounds of her daughter’s brutal murder. A final, grim goodbye….across the telephone.

So, the next time someone calls you asking something trivial and bizarre (“What’s your favourite Olympia Dukakis movie?”), it’s probably best to head into the doomsday bunker you’ve been prepping for the zombie apocalypse. No friggin’ reception down there.