Dir. J. D. Brynn & Abe Goldfarb (2022)
Shock jock Brent Ziff receives a call from a man who is predicting the end of the world.
Anybody who has even a modicum of experience with this site knows how big of a fan I am of indie horror. They're also probably aware of my position toward that type of film, that I don't criticize lack of budget but do fully acknowledge that it's exceptionally rare to find an indie film that holds up to higher-budget Hollywood films. For indie films, it is much more about the idea than it is about the execution, though it's awfully nice when a film can deliver on that second part as well. First Time Caller, the new film from J. D. Brynn and Abe Goldfarb that's based on a dark comedy podcast called The Earth Moves, is a fantastic example of a film that brings a great idea and completely knocks it out of the park.
Internet radio shock jock Brent Ziff (Abe Goldfarb) makes his living by mocking his listeners, taking advantage of the misogynistic culture wars by becoming a cross between Steven Crowder and Andrew Tate. He takes a call by a man named Leo (voice-acted by Brian Silliman) who claims to be able to communicate with the Earth through deep breathing. As Ziff writes off his clearly insane guest, Leo's predictions begin to come true, starting with a surprise tsunami that wipes out Seattle, Washington. As the stakes continue to rise, Ziff must try to handle his internet radio show while determined what can be done to potentially save the world.
It's such a simple premise for a movie, but it's one that entirely depends on the performance of the actor at the heart of the drama. Luckily, Goldfarb, who also is a co-director on the film, is more than up to the task. He also played the same role in the podcast, which I haven't to this point checked out, but the movie was so good that I will definitely be giving it a listen. Silliman, who plays the prescient doomsday caller, is also fantastic, both actors playing off of each other in a way that seems impossible without ever appearing on-screen together. In fact, Silliman never shows up at all, serving simply as a foil to Goldfarb's hilariously sarcastic host. The writing by Mac Rogers (who also wrote the podcast), likewise, is phenomenal, and I was hooked from the very opening scenes.
The one downside of the film is that not a whole lot actually happens. It's entirely self-contained, with all of the action but the occasional scene that is shown in "flashbacks" or within Ziff's own screens taking place inside Ziff's podcasting studio. The film had no choice but to lean so heavily on its writer and actors, a consequence of its entire setup. Perhaps Goldfarb and Silliman had it a little bit easier than most because they have already played these roles, but it is impossible to discount how impressively they embodied these characters. As much as it would be easy to criticize the film's lack of action, it's just so incredibly well-done that it feels more like genius than a detrimental choice.
I'm a sucker for a good disaster movie as is, though that's usually because it's super fun to watch natural disasters taking their toll on a world that doesn't usually experience them. By removing the visual element, focusing on the existential horror of knowing that all of these things are happening with zero ability to do anything to change it, First Time Caller is as terrifying as it is realistic. It's easy to imagine things like this happening when the Earth finally gets tired of our shit once and for all, and being able to see all of this happening in realtime is a really interesting way to show something that most of us are already familiar with in our media. It's a unique, truly special movie that I was immediately into and was still exceptionally surprised that it was as good as it was.
Who this movie is for: Horror comedy fans, Disaster movie lovers, Podcasters
Bottom line: It doesn't take a lot for me to praise an indie movie, but this one is surprisingly good. Some of the best acting I've ever seen in an indie horror, and a script that is tight as hell and does a phenomenal job of holding the audience's attention throughout despite the relative lack of action. Goldfarb and Silliman are fantastic, and while there's not really a whole lot of cinematographic creativity involved, there doesn't need to be. First Time Caller is an excellent example of what is possible with a good writer, a couple of great performances, and very little money. If you get a chance to check this one out, I highly recommend you do so. It will be on VOD starting 1/12/24.