Los Angeles Police Department veteran 9-1-1 operator Jordan (Halle Berry), receives a call one night from a teenage girl, Leah Templeton (Evie Thompson), fearing for her life as a man breaks into her home. Jordan calmly advises her to conceal herself upstairs, but when the call is disconnected, Jordan calls Leah back, a decision that costs Leah her life, as the ringing phone gives her location away to the intruder. Jordan attempts to dissuade him from going further over the phone. He responds "It's already done" and hangs up, leaving her distraught. The next day, Jordan sees a television report confirming that Leah has been murdered. Emotionally affected by the incident, Jordan tells her boyfriend, Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut), that she can no longer handle field calls.
Six months later, she is working as a trainer for 9-1-1 operators. Simultaneously, teenager Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped from a mall parking garage after parting with her friend, Autumn, and forced into the trunk of a car. Casey had taken Autumn's disposable phone, and uses it to call 9-1-1. A rookie operator (Jenna Lamia) receives the call but is unable to handle it, prompting Jordan to take over, though Casey's use of a disposable phone means that her exact GPS location cannot be found. While the kidnapper drives, Jordan guides Casey through knocking out a tail light and signaling people in nearby cars. One woman who sees Casey waving her arm out of the trunk of the car calls 9-1-1, allowing the police to narrow their search. When Casey tells Jordan that there are cans of paint in the trunk, Jordan has Casey pour the paint out of the taillight hole, attracting the attention of another motorist, Alan Denado (Michael Imperioli) but the kidnapper knocks him out with a shovel, assuming him to be dead and stuffs Alan in the trunk with Casey. He reawakens in the trunk and begins screaming uncontrollably, which causes the kidnapper to stab him. He stops at a gas station where Casey gets an idea to crawl out of the trunk and scream at an active worker for help. The worker attempts to bust the door open, but the kidnapper sprays him with gasoline and throws a lighter at him.
Upon arriving at his destination, the kidnapper, Michael Foster (Michael Eklund), removes Casey from the trunk and finds the phone in her pocket, with 9-1-1 listening on the line. Through the phone, Jordan informs him that his identity is uncovered and advises him to turn himself in and not hurt the girl. Before smashing the phone, Michael responds, "It's already done" and Jordan realizes that Michael is the same culprit who killed Leah six months prior. Meanwhile, Phillips, accompanied by Officer Jake Devans (David Otunga) and others in law enforcement, raid Michael's home, but find only his wife and children. Finding a photo of Michael and his sister, Melinda, they realize that Casey resembles the latter. Additionally, the house seen in the photo is eventually revealed by Michael's wife to have burned down, although a nearby cottage still remains. The police raid it, but find nobody there and leave. Michael begins to wash and cut Casey's hair. Determined to rescue Casey, Jordan drives to the secondary home where she finds a number of photos of Michael with his leukemia-stricken sister. Stepping outside, she recognizes sounds from an outdoor flagpole, reminiscent of sounds heard in the background in the final moments of the 9-1-1 call. She also finds a trap door amid dirt and scrub located where the primary house once stood. After she accidentally drops her cellphone down the cellar, she climbs down in without calling the police.
Navigating the cellar, Jordan hides from an emerging Michael. The cellar itself pieces together Michael's backstory. Michael had incestuous feelings towards his sister and was distraught when she fell ill, lost all of her hair and died of leukemia. Foster has a prop head that he keeps in the cellar that he treats like his sister. He has also been scalping and killing young girls who have similar blond hair, trying to find scalps that match his sister's hair. Jordan soon finds Casey strapped down to a dentist chair and attacks Michael, as he begins to lacerate Casey's scalp. She frees Casey and both manage to gradually escape the cellar, and Casey stabs Michael in the back with a pair of scissors. Michael pursues them and they are able to injure and kick him back down into the cellar, rendering him unconscious. While he is knocked out, they tie him to a chair. When he regains consciousness, they inform him that they plan to leave him to die and claim that Casey had escaped, was found by Jordan in the woods, and that Michael disappeared. Pleading with them that they cannot just leave him there, Jordan replies to Foster using his own words, "It's already done," and as Michael shouts insults at them, Jordan locks the door and leaves, avenging Leah's death.
Screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio was inspired to script the story after his wife heard an NPR segment with a 9-1-1 operator discussing her job. He began to research the subject and visited the Los Angeles Metropolitan Communications Dispatch Center (MCDC). Finding the center, which has backup generators, bulletproof windows, and a moat surrounding the building, to be "pretty amazing," he decided to shed light on what he viewed as a previously overlooked occupation. The story was originally conceptualized as a television series entitled The Hive (a reference to the constant calls and conversations sounding like bees buzzing), but D'Ovidio decided to redraft it as a film on realizing that "the operators couldn't be the ones kicking in doors and going out into the field" all the time. As a result, what was planned to be the pilot episode was expanded and revised as a movie.
For most of the film, Berry's character, Turner, the 9-1-1 operator, does stay inside "the hive" before becoming actively involved in the search for Breslin's character, Welson, the kidnapped caller. D'Ovidio chose two female leads, explaining, "I wanted strong women... I think it was appropriate here, since most 911 call operators are women." Berry remarked, "I love the idea of being a part of a movie that was so empowering for women. We don't often get to play roles like this, where ordinary people become heroic and do something extraordinary." D'Ovidio chose to tell the story from the perspective of two characters—the operator and the caller—believing that it would become repetitive if it focused on only one. As a result, he switched perspectives every ten pages when writing the screenplay. As well as collaborating on the story with his wife, Nicole and Jon Bokenkamp, he accepted suggestions from Berry, Breslin and Eklund: "Halle came in with some great notes and Abigail and Michael and it started to flesh things out. I'm not one to say 'no' to a great suggested line of dialogue. It just makes me look better as a writer! I feel it's a very collaborative process, and some of the happiest accidents happen when you just listen to people. When someone comes up to you and says, 'Why don't we do it this way?' I think that it's important to listen."
Chestnut, who plays Phillips, a police officer and Turner's boyfriend, prepared by riding along with Los Angeles police officers to observe what it is like to be an officer in a squad car and Berry prepared for the role by visiting a call center and observing the operators at work. She told a Miami Herald interviewer, "You get a different perspective by doing research... You can't know what it's like to be a cop even though you've seen it in the movies. But nobody ever saw a 9-1-1 center. I thought they lived in the ground somewhere! It was interesting to see who they were and how they deal and how stressful it can be. I was a wreck watching them. They would just be as cool as can be doing their thing. I thought, 'I could never do this job.'"
Producers scheduled for The Call to be filmed in Canada in June 2011 after they failed to make the cut for a California tax credit. With a low budget of $13 million, they settled on Ottawa, Ontario, where director Anderson had just finished another project. However, the California Film Commission (CFC) called back nine months later and informed them that the waiting list had been largely cleared and that they now qualified for $1.9 million in tax deduction. According to Producer Michael Helfant, they were "literally days from starting to put down a deposit." Berry was reportedly pleased with the news, having wanted to stay in Los Angeles and the CFC helped secure film locations for the project.
With a crew of roughly 120 persons, filming took a total of 25 days, spanning from July to August 2012. Car chase scenes were shot at Long Beach and a Westlake Village office building was modeled as the emergency dispatch center. The latter was also used for the scenes in which Welson is locked in the trunk of a car. Other filming locations include the Burbank Town Center on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, California, Santa Clarita, California and the 170 Highway. At one point, Berry was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after falling headfirst on concrete while shooting a fight sequence. A spokesperson for Berry confirmed that she suffered a minor head injury and was taken to the hospital as a precaution, but she checked out healthy and was released.
Berry told interviewer Kimberly Grant, "The hard part for me was to try to stay connected to Phillips and Welson." This was because, Grant writes, "she had to spend an entire day reading 21 pages of dialogue, rattling off in quick succession 911-operator jargon, that would be cut and edited to fit the film... In film terms, that means Berry performed for 21 minutes straight with no breaks, not an easy feat for any actor." Though she enjoyed working with Chestnut, Berry told Grant that it was difficult being unable to see her co-stars for most of the film: "That was my constant challenge; to stay on such an emotional level [as Jordan], so that I would be on the same level as they [i.e., Casey and Officer Phillips] were. I used that feeling of frustration and of being stuck to fuel my character."
Spanning 94 minutes upon completion, the movie received an R rating for violence, disturbing content and some language. Berry and Chestnut promoted the film at the ShowPlace ICON movie theater at the red-carpet premiere in Chicago on February 28. Berry also traveled to Rio to promote The Call in anticipation of its April 12 release in Brazil.
The Women's International Film Festival hosted a screening of The Call at the Regal South Beach theater on February 26, 2013. Chestnut told the audience that he would sign on for a sequel, saying about Berry, "I didn't get to kiss this woman enough!" Berry added, "I'm in the movie and even I was scared." The film was released in theatres on March 15 and on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on June 25 of that same year. DVD extras included a featurette entitled "Emergency Procedure: Making the Film" and commentary from Abigail Breslin, Halle Berry, and other filmmakers. The Blu-ray version came with more features, including deleted scenes, an alternate ending, Michael Eklund's audition tape, featurettes entitled "A Set Tour of The Hive and The Lair" and "Inside the Stunts", as well as all of the original DVD content.
According to Boxoffice, The Call was expected to earn about $11–12 million on its opening weekend in 2,507 theaters across the United States but surpassed this by a significant margin and grossed $17 million in its first three days. This indicated good profits, as the film cost about $13 million to produce and TriStar Pictures paid a much smaller amount to acquire U.S. distribution rights. With box office takings of over $68 million, The Call is WWE Studios' most commercially successful film to date, the previous top-grossing productions being See No Evil, which stars professional wrestler Kane (Glenn Jacobs) ($19 million) and 12 Rounds, which stars professional wrestler John Cena ($17 million).
Critics were surprised by the movie's success because "Berry hadn't had a hit in a number of years" and because the R rating narrowed down the audience. WWE Studios head Michael Luisi commented that The Call "[exceeded] our most optimistic forecasts."
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 44% based on 124 reviews, with an average rating of 5.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Call builds plenty of suspense before taking a problematic turn in the third act." On Metacritic, another film review aggregator, the film has a weighted average score of 51 out of 100, based on 23 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B rating, saying that the tale "is surprisingly good and surprisingly gruesome fun. Eklund makes the most of the maniac role and Breslin is a sympathetic victim." Reviewer Dwight Brown wrote, "The script gives Berry a blue-collar character she can make accessible, vulnerable and gutsy... Chestnut is not suitably gallant and stalwart as her caring lover and a cop on a mission... This film is a whole lot scarier than you think it's going to be." Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "An effectively creepy thriller about a 911 operator and a young miss in peril, The Call is a model of low-budget filmmaking." She praised its "clean, clever premise" and said that Berry's Jordan is "an old-fashioned hero in many respects, so it's fitting that Mr. Anderson uses old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, like crosscutting, to build tension and old-school exploitation tricks like evil to justify taking the story dark and then dark and bonkers."
A reviewer for The Hutchinson News, Jake Coyle, commented, "Director Brad Anderson... working from the simple, high-concept screenplay by Richard D'Ovidio, ably cuts between Berry's increasingly emotionally-attached Jordan Turner and Breslin's panicking Casey Welson, contrasting the fraught strategizing of Turner with the frantic police pursuit of the kidnapper." Coyle stated that "The Call dials up a shallow thrill ride, but one efficiently peppered with your typical 'don't go in there!' moments," but concluded, "The Call is a rudimentary, almost old-fashioned 90-minute escape that manages to achieve its low ambitions." Rating the film 2 stars out of 4, Coyle writes that once the film "manages to build some suspense from the trunk of the car-- the clever attempts to elicit help, the dwindling cell phone battery-- its deficiencies become less forgivable once the action turns off the road."
Roger Moore of The Seattle Times showed mixed feelings in his review: "Rare is the thriller that goes as completely and utterly wrong as The Call does at almost precisely the one-hour mark. Which is a crying shame, because for an hour this is a riveting, by-the-book kidnapping." Moore explained what he saw as the highs and lows: "Brad Anderson turns this...serial-killer hunt...into a real edge-of-your-seat thriller. Given...a half-decent tale of horror, guilt, problem-solving and redemption, Anderson couldn't go far wrong," but, Moore states, "It's only when our Oscar-winning heroine puts down the phone and sets out to do some sleuthing of her own that The Call disconnects, turning into something far more generic and far less exciting." The Los Angeles Times turned in a similar review: "The semi-fresh thriller, set mainly in an emergency call center and on the freeways of Los Angeles, puts a tech slant on a damsel-in-distress setup. It buzzes along for a while, the promising plot innovations inviting suspension of disbelief, before by-the-numbers implausibility, over-the-top valor and unsavory contrivances take over and the line goes dead."
Berry was nominated for two awards for her role as Turner in The Call in 2013. She was nominated for Best Actress for the BET Awards, which were created by the Black Entertainment Television network to celebrate African Americans and other minorities in music, acting, sports and other fields of entertainment over the past year, Berry lost to Kerry Washington for the role in Django Unchained. She was also nominated for Choice Movie Actress in a Drama at the Teen Choice Awards, but lost to Emma Watson for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The film was also nominated for Best Thriller Film at the 40th Saturn Awards and Berry was nominated for Saturn Award for Best Actress, but lost to World War Z and Sandra Bullock, respectively.