When a Stranger Calls (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spoiler Alert: This movie contains spoilers for those who haven't seen the 1979 movie or the trailer for the 2006 version (which gives away what I'm going to reveal).

Something went terribly wrong during the production of When a Stranger Calls. This movie should have been a tense nail-biter, possibly a worthy successor to John Carpenter's Halloween. With the right, claustrophobic tone and escalating tension, When a Stranger Calls could have been brilliant. But, as helmed by second-rate director Simon West, who understands a lot about cheap shocks and nothing about suspense, and who hasn't met a horror movie cliché he eschews, it's as emasculated and lifeless as any recent "scary" movie.

When a Stranger Calls is a remake of the 1979 movie of the same name - or at least a reworking of the first 20 minutes of it. Fans have long praised the earlier film's taut opening act then expressed dismay at where the narrative went from there. For the remake, screenwriter Jake Wade Wall decides to expand those first 20 minutes into a full-length feature. In the process, he piles on the clichés and contrivances (think that car will start on the first try…) until we feel like we're watching a "greatest hits" compilation of stupid things people do in horror and slasher movies.

The setup is as classic as it is creepy. Those who didn't see the 1979 film may remember that Wes Craven borrowed the premise for the opening Drew Barrymore sequence in Scream. A babysitter, Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle), arrives at the lakeside Colorado home of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings Grant), to care for their two children while they do the "dinner and a movie" thing. Almost immediately, Jill begins to get ominous prank calls: heavy breathing and messages wondering if she has checked the children. (She does, but not until 2/3 of the running length has elapsed.) Eventually, freaked out and unable to reach anyone by phone (her parents are at a concert and everyone from her high school is attending a bonfire party in a location that conveniently does not have cell service), she contacts the police. They trace the call and determine it's coming from within the house. This leads to a generic 20-minute hide-and-seek segment that is supposed to be reminiscent of Halloween, but more strongly recalls the unfortunate sequels.

Tension and character identification are two key pieces necessary for something like When a Stranger Calls to work. The movie has neither. Despite attempts to give Jill a backstory (her boyfriend was caught kissing another girl, she has exceeded her parents' allotted cell minutes by 800 and has to babysit to pay them back, etc.), she remains largely a blank slate. Camilla Belle, who impressed in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, brings little to the part. Then there's the sheer stupidity evidenced by Jill, which goes above and beyond the level one expects from a slasher movie protagonist.

Simon West is probably best known for helming the first Tomb Raider. For that film, he had no need to master the art of suspense. For something like When a Stranger Calls, this is mandatory, and he doesn't have a clue. Boo moments - often involving a cat - abound, but the movie contains only a single frightening instance (the "reveal" of the stranger in the rafters). The narrative doesn't build to anything; it meanders. When things finally get to the point when they have the potential to become sinister, When a Stranger Calls devolves into a series of routine chase scenes. If there's one good thing about the movie, at least it can be said that the killer doesn't turn out to be a supporting character we have previously encountered. He's an anonymous psycho.

The movie ends with a bizarre and unsatisfying denouement. The epilogue, which is designed either to set up a sequel (after all, more than 2/3 of the original remains) or lampoon Halloween 2, plays like a sour last note. I suppose someone thought it was clever, but it doesn't work. It's another of the film's many missteps but, by the time it comes, we have become accustomed to them. They define When a Stranger Calls, a production that never comes close to realizing its potential to tweak the viewer's primal fears.

When a Stranger Calls (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1