There is a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs where Mr Blonde, played by a menacing Michael Madsen, grooves to Stuck In The Middle With You in front of a duct-taped policeman. Then he slices off the cop’s ear. It is a brutal moment that shocks the viewer, one that made iconic gore director Wes Craven reportedly walk out of a screening. Yet the beauty of that Tarantino sequence is that the director didn’t actually show us the ear being severed, instead allowing his camera to look away while the policeman screamed.
The scene chilled us because what we imagined was far more violent than Tarantino — making his first film and bound by severe budgetary and prosthetic constraints — could show. We squirmed at what we almost saw.
In the weird new Apple TV+ series Calls — based on a French series of the same name — horror director Fede Alvarez plays a similar game. This is a show made up of phone calls. Calls that take place while things go horribly wrong. We hear people speak, scream and get understandably bewildered as their lives spiral out of control, but the show refuses to make eye-contact. There are no faces here, only disembodied voices who stay on the phone, panicked, as they encounter doppelgangers and time-loops.
This format, like a radio drama (or podcast) with subtitles, works precisely because of its conversational nature. There are nine episodes, most less than 15 minutes long, and they require the viewer (or should I say listener, or reader?) to eavesdrop on phone conversations. There is little exposition as we hear these characters, characters we know only by their first names, react as they come to grips with the creepy, surreal things unravelling around them. A man drives away from home for a half hour and simultaneously deserts his family for a dozen years, another kills his lover only to get an angry phone call from her — while he’s cradling her body in his arms.
The show features well-known performers — Rosario Dawson, Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Jonas, Danny Huston, Pedro Pascal — but they are here working at their most anonymous, voicing characters we may know or may have spoken to over the phone. Judy Greer, the comedic actress who already shows off her extraordinary vocal range on the animated series Archer (Netflix), is the natural highlight of the bunch, playing a wife with a secret, though it may be argued that the less sensational performances prove to be more unnerving here.
The show begins with an episode called ‘The End.’ This feels appropriate since linearity has gone for a loop. In the universe of the show, there is a rift in space and time allowing people to reach out across quantum fields — allowing them to make phone calls to people in the past and in the future, for example — but repercussions for these are monstrous. Yet people are naturally tempted. Calls plays with mysterious big ideas while telling personal, surprisingly emotional stories about lovers and parents and, rather interestingly, internet forums that speak of the perils of quantum recklessness while doubling as a how-to guide for the same.
Each episode is like a creepy short story, or an episode of The Twilight Zone, with self-contained characters and conversations, but together Calls tells an interconnected quantum story, one that remains fascinating since we never see the whole picture at the same time.
If you have ever encountered those online stories where jump-scares are delivered through a phone screen like yours where you can see two characters texting, you have some idea of the unnerving frights Calls wants to conjure. It helps that phone calls are more ephemeral, less accurate than texts. The visuals are trippy — waveforms of voices turning into graphs both spectral and fractal — but this is really a series that doesn’t require a large screen. Guided by immersive sound design by Mark Binder and a steadily disconcerting background score by The Haxan Cloak, I would however recommend headphones.
Calls is more eerie than flat-out frightening, though I will admit that when I experienced a power-cut in my house midway through an episode, I was relatively freaked out. Immersive audio works far more insidiously than a visual scare, and the threat of what may possibly be on the other line — expressed to us only second-hand, horror conveyed by a third person, by a commentator who may not be getting just how bad it is — is a slippery one.
The voices say things that stick in the head. “I’m floating.” “We’ll have that beer.” “Good things take time.” “Don’t tell me God is a suspect now?” “Sorry baby, not you. The other you.”
By the end of an intriguing first season, Calls fills in the blanks a bit too neatly, and while I wish it had left more questions unanswered, the tight, compelling series serves up enough thrills along the way. The noise, the interference and the constant call drops make the format a marker of our age. Given the choice, would you call up a younger you, or a long-lost parent, and advise, warn or say the unsaid? Would you heed your own advice? The universe has its wires crossed, and we’re listening in on its crossed-connections. Who you gonna call?
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.