Take it from us: We've never gotten any stranger calls than those from Judge Kerry Birmingham, drunk in a cheap motel room in Reno and ranting about what to do about all the blood, all the blood.
Evil hits home.
If there's any misbegotten child of the Hollywood production system, it's the remake, and if there's anything more dirty and shameful than the remake, it's the horror remake. If the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? remake sacrificed dignity in casting Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac, then there's certainly no dignity to be had in regurgitating something that had little dignity to begin with. But we're talking money here: Integrity must, inevitably, give way to profitability, and this is why screens are so often inundated with horror remakes. They're cheap, they're based on a proven template, and when they hit, they hit big. When a Stranger Calls, an update for the cell phone age of the 1979 TV movie starring Carol Kane, does its best to put a modern Hollywood gloss on a moldy premise ("Have you checked the children?") and hopes the siren call of a PG-13 rating will lure in the undiscerning teen audience that makes these ventures profitable.
Facts of the Case
Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) is a Colorado teen who, in the throes of a high school love triangle, goes way over her cell phone minutes and learns a lesson in responsibility from her parents. For her phone bill transgressions, Jill agrees to babysit for an affluent doctor and his wife in their ultra-modern, wow-I-should-have-gone-to-medical-school home. It's not long before Jill, alone in the house with the doctor's sleeping children, starts to receive strange phone calls. As the calls get more menacing, Jill comes to realize the hard way that the calls are not a joke, and that the caller is watching her.
Having established that When a Stranger Calls is a lazy, undisguised cash-grab on the studio's part, the question is: Well, is it any good?
Yes and no…but mostly no. When a Stranger Calls delivers exactly what it promises: PG-13 thrills of the what's-that-noise-coming-from-that-dark-room variety. The premise, the only thing anyone remembers about the original 1979 film, actually comprises that film's first 20 minutes or so. Here it is stretched to the breaking point at 87 minutes, and it becomes evident that the concept is ill-suited for a feature film. It's a premise more suitable for a half-hour Twilight Zone episode with a particularly predictable twist or, if we're feeling charitable and possibly pretentious, a story that more succinctly transforms free-floating modern anxiety into urban legend. As it stands, it makes for some dubious storytelling.
It's not that director Simon West (of Tomb Raider fame) doesn't pull out all the stops to make that long 87 minutes seem justified. West can't be called a hack since he is, at the very least, technically proficient. Knowing that this is a piece dependent on a single set and, really, a single actress, West puts his camera in every square inch of the house set in an attempt to build tension in a story with a widely known premise (blown by both the well-known original and this version's ill-conceived trailer) and a limited number of elements to work with (a phone rings—spooky!). West deserves some credit for using the space to advantage. Although the house is of the stupidly elaborate variety seen only in movies, it is nonetheless a smart change from the usual creaky Tudor mansions found in this type of movie. Aside from making the house look like the most stylish real estate ad ever, though, West does little to distinguish himself here.
In his defense, although West is not particularly known as a visionary filmmaker (he could safely be put in the same inoffensively competent camp as Paul W.S. Anderson), he didn't have much to work with. Screenwriter Jake Wade Wall does his best to fluff up the thin concept by throwing in a few extraneous characters to raise the body count, and a lot of time is spent explaining why the many conveniences of modern telephone technology can't help Jill track down the mysterious caller (has any technological advancement been more damaging to horror movie scenarios than the cell phone?). Wall, however, is fighting a losing battle. By the time Jill makes a mad dash to the guest house, it's clear that Wall is straining to use every plausible element to eke out any possible scares. Even a flaccid opening sequence, meant to show just how brutal the Caller can be and what possibly awaits Jill, does little to make the story feel more substantial. More damning is that PG-13 rating: when your scares come with restrictions, it's only natural that you resort to hoary chestnuts like the cat jumping out at a tense moment or the scared girl fumbling for her car keys. It's possible that a more experienced screenwriter might have been able to work with the setting more effectively and more organically, but there's no hiding just how awkward the whole setup is for a feature film.
Camille Belle, called upon to carry the entire film, does reasonably well under the circumstances, crying and looking afraid at the right beats and sounding more like a real teen than many of her contemporaries, despite an occasional wooden moment (besides which, she's ultra-cute). All other characters—the traitorous best friend, the maid, Jill's parents—are superfluous and virtually afterthoughts, ignored unless a body is discovered or an actual conversation is needed to break up shots of Jill looking frightened by the telephone headset. Weirdly, the children are almost wholly ignored; they spend most of the movie unseen, unheard, and in bed until it is narratively convenient for Jill to actually give a damn. Urging the kids to run from the shadowy killer, Jill can only shout "Kids!"—she doesn't know their names. Nor are they represented to the audience as anything other than something Jill ought to possibly keep an eye on. You know, if she has a moment.
The deleted scenes include a justly removed cutaway to the local police station and a completely inexplicable music video montage in which the babysitter's terror is intercut with shots of her high school's bonfire rally, apparently to show how groovin' stalking and killing teenage girls can be when set to a dance beat. West, on his commentary with a cold-afflicted Belle, is genial and generally pleased with the results of his effort, while a second commentary by screenwriter Wall shows that even bad scripts have had a lot of thought put into them. The making-of featurette is typical promotional fluff. Sony includes a gaggle of trailers for new DVD releases and upcoming theatrical releases but not, strangely, this movie's fairly awful trailer, a textbook case of a trailer that tells you so much that you don't need to see the movie.
As should be expected of releases of recent studio films, both the sound and picture quality are uniformly excellent, with the blacks black and the floors creaking creepily when they should.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's easy to knock When a Stranger Calls for its uninspired thrills and unearned scares, but if you're somehow unfamiliar with the original, or aren't jaded by watching way too many horror movies, or are 14 years old, then there might be a lot to like here.
To enjoy this film, or even its predecessor, it helps to be of the temperament that any horror movie is worth watching once, even if it's terrible. Heck, especially if it's terrible. If you're the kind of viewer for whom a lack of standards is your only standard, relish this film as a disposable bit of shiny Hollywood horror and slick modern schlock. Anyone with a semblance of a discerning palate for horror should just walk away.
Guilty. The court will consider allowing When a Stranger Calls community service if Sony promises not to make a sequel. Seriously, don't. I'm not kidding.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Simon West and Actress Camilla Belle
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