The horrible story at the center of the new Netflix docuseries Don’t Pick Up the Phone will be instantly familiar to anyone who saw the excellent 2012 film Compliance, written and directed by future Mare of Easttown director Craig Zobel.
Don’t Pick Up the Phone is about a telephonic crime spree from 1994 to 2004 in which a caller impersonated a police officer to call dozens of fast food restaurants across the country and ordered managers to strip search young female employees under the pretext of solving a theft. Of course, there was no theft — multiple women were assaulted by their employers, because those employers had obeyed an anonymous supposed authority figure over the phone. Don’t Pick Up the Phone posits that the criminal may have targeted fast food restaurants in small towns because he thought the people who worked in them would be especially respectful of authority.
Don’t Pick Up the Phone has a horror movie title (it’s not related to the similarly titled 1980 horror movie Don’t Answer the Phone), but it’s a fairly sober and straightforward examination of how the horrific crimes occurred — and came to an end. The main suspect, a former prison guard named David Richard Stewart, was found not guilty on charges of falsely impersonating a police officer and soliciting sodomy, thought he appeared to have been captured on film purchasing calling cards that authorities said were used in the calls. The calls ended after his trial.
Don’t Answer the Phone focuses largely on the case that led to Stewart’s arrest: a Kentucky incident in which 19-year-old McDonald’s employee, Louise Ogborn, was strip-searched and sexually assaulted before an off-duty custodian realized the call was a hoax. Ogborn’s manager began the search, and then enlisted her then-fiance to continue following the fake officer’s orders. The former fiance, Walter W. Nix Jr., ordered Ogborn to perform a sex act on him on the orders of the caller. Nix was convicted of sodomy and assault and sentenced to five years in prison.
Ogborn won a $6.1 million verdict against McDonald’s that was later settled for a confidential amount.
While Don’t Pick Up the Phone gets into the details of the cases, Compliance fictionalizes names and details of the Kentucky case to skip documentary realism in favor of a chilling examination of human nature and why people are so willing to obey. It’s about a terrible crime, yes — but more chillingly, it’s about people’s fear of standing up to perceived authority, and desire to conform.
Compliance is blunt but not exploitative in its depiction of sexual assault. The film stars Dreama Walker as the young employee, Ann Dowd as her boss, and Pat Healy as the caller. As Zobel told us in a 2021 epiosde of the MovieMaker podcast, the film immediately drew a strong emotional response.
“At Sundance, the first screening of the film ever, as the lights went up afterwards… somebody stood up and was like booing the film, and saying shame on Sundance for showing it. And then somebody else stood up, and started arguing with that person, and saying, ‘I want my granddaughters to watch this.’ And then they were like bickering and there were people yelling at each other, and we weren’t even on stage yet. It was quite intense.”
Zobel said he was motivated to write and direct the film because he was so shocked by the real-life case.
“It was born out of just a curiosity: How did that happen?,” he told MovieMaker. “I earnestly was just like, ‘What were they talking about? … I just couldn’t imagine what that dialogue was between those people. That was a writing exercise as much as anything.”
It became a film when he was pitching a producer on another project, and ended up mentioning the idea that became Compliance. Zobel’s film may seem over-the-top when you first see it, but when you read up on the case — or watch Don’t Pick Up the Phone — you learn that Zobel undersold the awfulness of the case.
“It’s about power and people having power over — and people wanting power over — each other and and how that how that authority is apt to be abused,” Zobel explained.
Compliance wasn’t Zobel’s last film to divide audiences — he also directed The Hunt, a March 2020 film in which liberals stalk and kill conservatives. The film isn’t pro- or anti- liberal or conservative, so much as a critique of Americans’ willingness to dehumanize one another.
The Hunt disappeared quickly from theaters because of COVID — it was the last film to play at Hollywood’s famed Arclight before it closed — but Zobel soon hit on a near-universally embraced story with the Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet as a Philadelphia-area cop solving a desperately complex murder.
Don’t Pick Up the Phone is now streaming on Netflix. Compliance is now streaming on Amazon Prime.