When a Stranger Calls is the latest in a string of PG-13 horror movies from Columbia Pictures that seem designed to appeal to the middle school and high school crowd. (Boogeyman, The Fog and The Grudge are others.) This one is a remake of the 1979 Carol Kane/Charles Durning thriller that, years later, inspired the fantastic opening scene of Wes Craven’s Scream . I saw the original on cable when I was about 12 or 13; however, the only clear memory I have is of the movie’s famous hook, where an innocent babysitter learns that the harassing phone calls she’s been receiving are coming from inside the house. Now that’s creepy.
The new version stars Camilla Belle as Jill Johnson, a pretty teenager who has been grounded for a month because she ran up an astronomical phone bill. Jill’s parents don’t care that this happened because she was trying to sort out the recently-discovered affair between her boyfriend and her best gal pal; they just want her to pay off the bill. To achieve this, they have arranged for her to babysit the children of a wealthy doctor and his wife. When Jill arrives at their (naturally) isolated lakeside estate, the kids are already sound asleep.
With nothing to watch on TV, Jill decides to do a little homework. She’s interrupted by the constant ringing of the telephone. Sometimes it’s her friend Scarlet, sometimes it’s her apologetic boyfriend, and sometimes it’s a classmate crank calling. Then there are a few pesky calls where Jill only hears deep breathing on the other end. After consulting with the local police, she tries to engage the mystery caller in a conversation so that the phone company can trace the call. He expresses a desire to kill her and cover himself with her blood. Then the cops check in again to say that the call originated from within the house. Jill has to roust the kids and escape the house before the killer can spring.
As catchy as the story’s hook is, When a Stranger Calls has always suffered from being a great concept with no substance. For starters, it has to go to great lengths to be plausible. (That’s why the wealthy doctor lives in the middle of nowhere instead of in a nice suburb where helpful neighbors are close by.) There also isn’t a lot of room to develop the plot once the hook has been dropped. Okay, the killer is inside – so run outside. I always thought that this should have been a short story or short film that ended with the words “the call is coming from inside the house.” Steven King could have owned that tale.
Because the plot is so thin, not much actually happens here. Jill spends much of the movie picking up the phone, having a short conversation, hanging up, then taking another call. Occasionally she walks around the house. Then the phone rings again and again and again, requiring her to take call after call after call. It gets kind of boring after a while. Despite the inclusion of a few red herrings (including a maid upstairs and a grown child living in the guest house), the entire first hour is essentially Jill talking on the phone.
This remake has some additional problems, including a surplus of clichés. The second you see the family cat, it’s obvious that it will jump out to provide a “false scare” at some point. Parts of the movie don’t make much sense either. The doctor’s house has a feature where all the lights have motion detectors so they can turn themselves on when someone enters a room and off when someone leaves a room. Given this fact, Jill should feel relatively confident that the psycho is nowhere near her when she’s in the living room, as the sudden illumination of lights in surrounding rooms would be a dead giveaway.
Having said all this, I must confess that, while I cannot recommend When a Stranger Calls, it is not as bad as it could have been. It gets a few things sort-of right. I had never heard of Camilla Belle before this movie, although I have apparently seen her before, as the Internet Movie Database informs me that she also appeared in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and The Patriot. Belle makes a surprisingly engaging heroine. Jill Johnson is a woefully underdeveloped character – we know little about her life outside of this babysitting gig – but the actress brings such innate likeability to the movie that she held my attention. Considering Belle is in nearly every frame of this film, often by herself, this is a commendable feat.
Once the psycho finally comes out of hiding, director Simon West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) manages to pull off some isolated moments of tension. He doesn’t know what to do with the rest of the film, but he knows how to milk at least a little suspense out of the hook. When a Stranger Calls is too tame to really scare adults and horror buffs will be disappointed by the relative lack of blood and gore. I will, however, predict that teenage girls who babysit may conjure up a case of the creeps watching it. This is a movie for them and, perhaps, for them alone.
( out of four)
When a Stranger Calls is rated PG-13 for intense terror, violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
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