Writer/director Anubys Lopez’s feature debut Those Who Call opens in well-worn generic territories. Lauren (Reese Fast) is driving alone in the wooded outskirts of Whispering Pines. With its signposted population of 53, it is the kind of town that you just pass through, and sure enough, Lauren is on a long-haul interstate trip when she loses her phone connection with her boyfriend mid-call, and her car’s tyre blows out. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, she wanders into the trees looking for help, and stumbles upon a torchlit cultic ritual that appears to involve the live burial of young children. Fleeing in a panic, she is grabbed and dragged off into the darkness – and this prologue ends with the sound of her screaming. “We’re in Texas!”, a character will later declare – and sure enough, this particular location, and the more general setting of sinister backwoods, all suggest that we are travelling down byroads familiar from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and to its many sequels, remakes and ripoffs (including Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn, 2003 and Adrian Langley’s Butchers, 2020).
Yet this is also a tale of two sisters, and of family trauma. For we will next see the same route being driven by Ana (Angie Sandoval) and Sandra Pedregales (Yetlanezi Rodriguez). These estranged siblings have been brought back together by the death of their father, and heading cross-country to Colorado to commemorate his passing, they bicker and bond all the way. As their car is filmed with the same high-angle drone shots that tracked Lauren’s final journey, and as they pass the same road sign for Whispering Pines, the trap seems set and their fate sealed. Their attempt to purchase fuel at the only local gas station results merely in a classic Old Man’s Warning™ from the owner (Kevin Kinkade) and ominous words from a creepy young girl (Addison Cousins) – and soon the siblings are running on empty and very lost in the woodland byways. The discovery of strange effigies hanging from the trees, evoking Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ The Blair Witch Project (1999) and expressly associated by Sandra with the brujería, or ‘witchcraft’, that she had once encountered in Cuba, serves only to add to the impression that these sisters are headed to their doom.
As Ana and Sandra first drive and then walk – in circles either way – Those Who Call employs a similar meandering, repetitive trajectory, the aim being always to disorient. Utterly turned around, the sisters may keep hearing whispers from the trees around them, and may be increasingly aware that they are being both watched and manipulatively guided towards a mysterious endpoint in the forest, but at the same time their excursion into the wilderness is also a psychological confrontation, as they work through their issues – Sandra’s serial sense of abandonment (by both their father and Ana), and the more materialistic Ana’s belated efforts to reconnect with her younger sister, even as their dear departed daddy and his curious, elliptical history casts an obscure shadow over what is happening in the woods. It is almost as though the sylvan labyrinth in which these two sisters have become so lost together is mapping out the long unresolved past that they have kept sharing from their separate lives.
Those Who Call is named for a Biblical passage from the the Old Testament (Isaiah 5:20), which the sisters’ father once favoured, and which condemns the perverted confusion of moral absolutes (“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil”). As they follow an increasingly irrational path through the woods together, Ana and Sandra attempt to ‘figure out’ (a recurring phrase) thorny resentments, rivalries and recriminations that cannot easily be reconciled, ending in an unspeakably evil act justified (in bad faith) via the righteous terms of religion. No wonder the film ends with a character all at once triumphant and tearful, challenged – like the viewer – to resolve the contradictory feelings of love and hate that family so readily ingrains in us.
strap: Anubys Lopez’s cultic feature debut tracks two sisters lost in the woods of their thorny past
© Anton Bitel