Crisis Hotline is the new film from Mark Schwab. The story centers around hotline operator Simon, who receives a phone call from a young man named Danny. Via a phone conversation, Danny threatens to kill himself and others. Told in flashback scenes, Danny’s story unfolds: after moving to Silicon Valley, Danny met web developer Kyle, and the two immediately hit it off. From there, it didn’t take long for Kyle to introduce Danny to another couple, Lance and Christian, who harbor a dark secret that eventually threatens to consume Danny’s life. The film stars Corey Jackson, Pano Tsaklas, August Browning, Christian Gabriel, Christopher Fung, Mike Mizwicki, and Michael Champlin. Mark Schwab directed from his own screenplay.
First off, I wouldn’t classify Crisis Hotline as a horror film. Instead, the plot is better suited as a psychological thriller, dark drama, or character study. The marketing team is doing the production a big disservice by selling it as horror, when they would more likely find a more enthusiastic audience by targeting a different demographic.
A Mis-dial from the Start
I was put off by the acting right away. The filmmakers make an unwise decision by featuring a bit role as the first character to appear on screen. Sometimes an opening like this can work, but not in the case of Crisis Hotline. While a scene of this nature should serve as a major setup, the line delivery on display here is cold, boring, and more or less pointless. The rest of the cast doesn’t fair much better. Even though Danny’s story of manipulation is interesting, Christian Gabriel appears too timid through most of his scenes, a trait that caused his character arc to not be believable.
Pano Tsaklas does an okay job as Kyle, but the takes that made the final cut show an obvious inconsistency in his acting ability, resulting in an uneven and distracting performance. However, despite those issues, there are a few scenes that show good chemistry between the two. Out of the primary cast, August Browning is the standout, but, disappointingly, his character has very little depth. The rest of the cast is made up of supporting characters that have little to no development.
Sometimes Awkward Performances Pay off in the End…
Across the board, the actors in Crisis Hotline appear to be so amateurish that it is to the point where the viewer feels a certain amount of awkward empathy toward them. By the end of the first act, I decided this fact actually works in the film’s favor. With the cast appearing more vulnerable, the sexually charged scenes that happen later have an appropriately voyeuristic feel to them.
A Tale of Missed Potential
With Simon spending the majority of the film’s running time talking to Danny on the phone, there is plenty of opportunity for mind games, but any attempt at psychological suspense between the two characters falls flat. Despite the big missed opportunity, the backstory of Danny unfolds in a compelling manner. With shades of various thriller sub genres–obsession, revenge story, and erotic thriller, to name a few–it is clear that the idea of Crisis Hotline could have been developed into a worthy film.
I’m not sure if a larger budget would have solved all of the film’s problems, but it would have been a start. Aside from the cast, one of the main issues I had was the production design. Or lack thereof. For example, the office scenes appear to be have been filmed inside a small apartment. At least twice during the movie, Danny comments on the impressiveness of his surroundings; once in his new beau’s place and again at his initial arrival to Lance and Christian’s home. An effective and unique location would have drastically improved the film’s atmosphere. Instead, what we get is a dull, lifeless set that does nothing to give the movie any kind of personality.
Crisis Hotline is set in Silicon Valley, aka a place that is known for social media and technology. From the call center location where Simon works to the disturbing website world that Kyle, Lance, and Christian are involved in, everything about the production seems outdated and low key. We’re supposed to believe these characters live and work there, but none of it gives any sense of place. With a thriller of this nature, technology should be a prominent device used to keep the audience invested in the story and, in turn, leading us to feel the suspense. I will give kudos to Paul Burch, who managed to apply a decent score to what’s shown on screen. The music was subtle, impressive, and, under different circumstances, could have kept me on the edge of my seat.
Admittedly, this is the first project of Mark Schwab’s that I’ve seen, so I can’t compare it to his other work. While never “scary” in the traditional horror movie sense, Danny’s story is interesting and could have been a good psychological thriller if more care had been taken with filming. Unfortunately, almost everything about the production seems to be done in the cheapest and easiest way possible. In the end, Crisis Hotline is a missed opportunity from a filmmaker/writer who obviously has the ability to pen an effectively dark and psychological character study.
Crisis Hotline, which was formerly titled Shadows in Mind, will be available on DVD and streaming services beginning June 11.