Women-in-jeopardy thriller 'The Call' gets extra scary treatment

I know what you're thinking.

Three stars for this piece of manipulative, sensationalistic female survival claptrap?

Sure. Because "The Call" is taut and suspenseful high-grade manipulative, sensationalistic female survival claptrap.

"The Call" makes no apologies for being a well-executed woman-in-jeopardy thriller.

As directed by Brad Anderson (whose feature career has been eclipsed by his virtuoso work on TV with "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire"), "The Call" boasts some of the best squirm moments in recent movie history, capped by a particularly scary jolt rivaling Alan Arkin's lunge at Audrey Hepburn near the end of "Wait Until Dark."

I don't mean to oversell the virtues of Anderson's tidy little genre gem. (These would include John Debney's nerve-jangling score, Avi Youabian's ultratight editing, Tom Yatsko's crazy macro-lensed close-ups of terror-eyes-ed women, and Michael Eklund's twisted portrait of a deranged sicko who takes his role as "family man" a few miles too far.)

It begins with a call to LAPD's 911 center where receptionist Jordan Turner (played by a highly focused, deliberately over-emoting Halle Berry) answers.

A young girl (Evie Thompson) on a cellphone screeches that a man is trying to break into her house. The intruder catches the girl and snatches up her phone.

"You don't have to do this!" Jordan says to him.

"It's already done!" the intruder hisses.

This doesn't turn out well for the girl.

Six months pass. A pretty blonde teen named Casey (grown-up Abigail Breslin known mostly for "Little Miss Sunshine") winds up in the trunk of a fire-engine red Toyota Camry driven by a sunglasses-wearing kidnapper (Eklund) with a penchant for bad 1980s music.

This guy isn't the brightest star in the villainous pervert universe. He fails to check Casey for communication devices, then leaves a screwdriver in the trunk so she has a potential weapon.

A panicked Casey calls 911 on a friend's prepaid cellphone, the kind that doesn't pack a convenient GPS homing device.

Jordan takes the call and right away you know she's going to violate the two biggest rules of 911 receptionists: 1) don't get emotional, and 2) never promise a caller anything, ever.

Jordan talks Casey through some basic survival maneuvers as her cell's battery power starts to dwindle.

This is when "The Call" actually makes us feel good about the human race, even L.A. residents. Complete strangers constantly step up to do the right thing, such as report seeing Casey's hand frantically waving through a hole in the Camry's trunk.

Sometimes, no good deed goes unpunished, as when the kidnapper turns a would-be heroic gas station attendant (Tommy Rosales) into a human torch. Or takes a shovel to the face of a sharp limo driver (Michael Imperioli) who suspects something foul might be afoot.

"The Call" comes equipped with crackling tension and surprises. Lots of surprises.

And silly stuff. (Jordan investigates an abandoned house by turning on lights in the first room, but uses a flashlight to check the other rooms. Hey, why not just turn on the lights?)

Morris Chestnut gets away with phoning in machismo charm as an L.A. cop dating Jordan during her rare off-hours, but the role demands little else.

For a while, Richard D'Ovidio's screenplay feels fresh and punchy before succumbing to horror film clichés just about when Jordan traces the kidnapper to his secret lair, one that too closely recalls Buffalo Bill's basement of horrors in "The Silence of the Lambs."

By then, "The Call" has already rendered viewers bejabbersless, having scared them silly in a frightfully fast-paced 98 minutes.

Sure, you don't have to do this movie.

But it's already well-done.

“The Call”

★ ★ ★

Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund

Directed by: Brad Anderson

Other: A TriStar Pictures release. Rated R for language and violence. 95 minutes

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