When a Stranger Calls Made in: USA Language: English Director: Simon West Starring: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Lance Henriksen (voice) Year: 2006
Synopsis: When it comes to delivering scares, this movie is about as effective as the UN during a major humanitarian crisis. Director Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider) doesn't do much by way of creating suspense other than making some sudden noises and playing the what's-beyond-the-dark-corner/doorway trick, which becomes tedious in a hurry.
And then there are the phone calls.
What's meant to create tension and dread simply becomes irritating. The phone just rings again, and again, and AGAIN. Most people would be incredibly fed up if they were interrupted by phone calls every 5 minutes, yet protagonist Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) consistently and patiently picks up the receiver every time after fielding more calls than a 911 dispatcher in East LA.
Anyway, the plot of When a Stranger Calls is pretty straightforward. Soon after the opening credits, following a brief introduction of the villain's messy killing habits, we meet Jill. Like most teenagers, she's a midriff-baring track star, a good student, and a pretty good artist too.
Oh, and she just happens to be more glamorous-looking than most magazine cover girls. Like I said, a typical teen. Right. Whatever. She also has two cute midriff-baring friends, and of course, there's the ex-boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty, whom I guess is supposed to be cute too) for whom she still has feelings.
Life is tough for Jill. She's steamed at one of her friends for kissing Bobby, steamed at Bobby for allowing himself to be kissed by her friend, and to top it all off she's been grounded by her dad (Clark Gregg) for using 800 excess minutes on her cell phone. As punishment for this heinous deed, she is forbidden from going out or using the phone for an entire month.
As a "lesson in responsibility," Jill's dad makes her baby-sit for Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings Grant, respectively), a well-to-do couple. After Jill shows up to the Mandrakis residence, Mrs. Mandrakis immediately gives her a tour of the place. During said tour, Jill and the audience are pleasantly introduced to the enormous house, complete with big scary spaces, dark hallways, a murky lagoon, and a faulty alarm system. Gee, I wonder what's going to happen in the next hour?
We also learn that the Mandrakis' have two small children who are recovering from the flu and will therefore be sleeping in their room throughout most of the movie- I mean, evening. Their room, as one might guess, is conveniently located in a spooky part of the house where no one in their right mind would want to go after dark. We then meet Chester the cat. And it's strange how cats in horror movies have a tendency to knock stuff over and make more noise than a drunken hippo in a glassware shop.
Finally, the Mandrakis' are also kind enough to employ Rosa (Rosine Hatem), a cheerful housekeeper whose sole purpose is to turn up dead at some point in the near future.
As night falls and the scary music ramps up, the house begins looking more and more ominous. Then come the deluge of phone calls. At first they are innocuous: the Madrakis' checking in, a goofy prank call, then friends via cell phone who are at a place where the bad reception produces annoying crackling noises that sound like a Geiger counter going off in Iran. Wasn't Jill forbidden from using the phone?
The incessant phone ringing becomes only slightly more interesting by one caller (voiced by Lance Henriksen) who is unknown to Jill. He doesn't say much- instead, most of the time he just breathes then hangs up.
I don’t understand why Lance Henriksen was cast as the caller. Did the casting director suggest at one point: "Hey, remember the android from Aliens? Man, that guy could really breathe!" And as luck would have it I guess Henriksen out-breathed everyone else during the casting sessions.
The breathing is enough to give Jill the willies, and as When a Stranger Calls finally gets moving, things start going "bump" in the night and Jill decides to investigate these strange noises BY HERSELF.
Remarks: There are red herrings aplenty, since it wouldn't make sense for the killer to pop out too early. And as the promos for the When a Stranger Calls clearly stated, Jill soon discovers that the threatening caller is phoning from within the house. The terrors mount, and as the laws of horror movies dictate, our lovely protagonist trips and falls while running away and manages to get as wet as a PG-13 movie will allow. I knew that lagoon was there for a reason!
The only things When a Stranger Calls has going for it is the absence of gratuitous gore and hard profanity, as it would have only bogged down an already tedious storyline.
If you don't remember the original version of When a Stranger Calls back in 1979, you are most likely familiar with the popular urban legend from the 1960's on which it is based: a babysitter encountering a killer who's making calls to her from inside the same house, blah blah blah. In case you were wondering, the legend has been debunked and you can read about it somewhere on snopes.com
However, a debunked urban legend is the least of this movie's problems. Simon West provides virtually no background for any of the characters. Most of the time, Jill's friends are standing around reciting lines written by grown-ups who think they understand teens. They seem to exist only to remind you that this movie is about mildly frustrated teenagers who are, like, totally bummed out about stuff.
Especially weak is the lack of any kind of relationship between Jill and the children she is supposedly looking after, as they all literally do not meet until the movie's climax. Because of this, they come across as a bunch of screaming kids whom we desperately want to slap instead of feel sorry for.
Weakest of all characters is the unscary killer himself (Tommy Flanagan), whose inexplicable presence in the home only becomes more baffling as his razor thin motive is tacked on at the story's conclusion. How did he find the house? How did he get inside? How did he know Jill would be there? Was he able to go to the bathroom?
Further compounding the movie's problems is the importance of the telephone as a horror device. Yeah yeah…I know the original When a Stranger Calls came out before Wes Craven's Scream. But it is Craven's film that now defines the murderous phone caller in horror cinema. In that department, Craven set a bar that has yet to be topped.
And knowing that Camilla Belle is a very capable actress, it was hard watching her bumble through When a Stranger Calls. Hopefully her future film roles will make us forget about this one. We'll see.
To be blunt, there was no reason to remake When a Stranger Calls. Although I never saw Fred Walton's 1979 original, it's based on a debunked urban legend that made use of horror movie devices that have since become either outdated, overused, or both. Simon West's updated version carries those flaws into the 21st Century, creating a movie too forgettable and bland to be enjoyed even while intoxicated.