Another week, another unnecessary horror remake. The difference this time is that, unlike previously remade films like 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" and 2005's "The Fog
," there is much room for improvement where 1979's "When a Stranger Calls" stands. That picture starred Carol Kane as a vulnerable teenage babysitter terrorized by ominous, gradually threatening phone callsfor the opening twenty minutes. Afterward, the tension dissipated in the place of an admittedly rather dull crime drama before returning to its scary roots by the finale. 1993's made-for-cable sequel, "When a Stranger Calls Back," followed the same structure as its flawed predecessor, but was actually a superior effort. Its initial twenty-five minutes, which cleverly twisted around the original's first act, are genuinely tense and ingeniously written, pre-dating the similar Drew Barrymore opener in "Scream" by three years. All of the above, of course, heavily lifted major plot points found in 1974's "Black Christmas" and urban folkloremost notably the menacing calls that are discovered to be coming from inside the housebut then, no one could really accuse any incarnation of "When a Stranger Calls" as a poster child for originality.
2006's "When a Stranger Calls," a PG-13 suspenser aimed squarely at the teenybopper crowd, gets one thing exactly right: recognizing that the 1979 version fell apart after the beginning section, director Simon West (2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
") and first-time scripter Jake Wade Wall have reworked and expanded that bravura first twenty minutes to 83-minute feature length. Because of this very smart decision, the new "When a Stranger Calls" moves at a tauter pace and isn't nearly as uneven, quickly getting right to the point and doing a skilled job at sustaining an aura of apprehension for almost its whole running time. Stylistically and technically, the film is top-notch. From an acting and writing standpoint, the picture skates perilously throughout on thin ice.
High-schooler Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is having a miserable day. She is on the verge of cutting loose her boyfriend, Bobby (Brian Geraghty), after catching him and best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy) kissing. Her cell phone has been temporarily canceled by her parents for dramatically going over her planned minutes, leading to a grounding and a taking away of driving privileges. And, in lieu of attending a school bonfire, her father (Clark Gregg) has insisted she take a last-minute babysitting job for the Mandrakis family, who live in a secluded, state-of-the-art, million-dollar lakeside home. As the children are fast asleep upstairs, Jill settles in for a night of studying, boredom and harmless snooping. Then the crank phone calls begin, with a breathy, menacing voice on the other end of the line who speaks little and abruptly hangs up, but refuses to go away. What begins as a minor, albeit creepy, annoyance eventually leaves Jill fearing for her life when she comes to suspect she and the children aren't alone.
"When a Stranger Calls" opens with an attention-grabbing bang, with director Simon West classily and atmospherically playing the opening titles out over seemingly mundane snapshots of a suburban landscape gone awry. On one side of the street, a carnival is in full swing, the array of lights from the ferris wheel coloring the night sky. On the other side of the street, neighbors sit outside and chat. An oil pump continuously seesaws nearby. And on the corner, in plain sight of passersby, sits a house forgotten, the young voice inside pleading for a phantom phone caller to stop bothering her. In an instant, a figure appears in the upstairs window and pounces on his helpless victim, her screams silenced by the laughter and noises of the carnival outside. This three-minute prologue, setting up the idea of a psychopath on the loose and portraying how easy it is for him to come and go unnoticed in the unsuspecting world around him, is brilliantly orchestrated, gracefully filmed complete with impressive, appropriately leering crane shots, and ultimately quite haunting.
The story proper begins shortly thereafter and 125 miles away, with Jill whisked off to her babysitting job following a trying day at school. The slick, moody cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. (2005's "Man of the House
") and eerily gorgeous production design by Jon Gary Steele (2005's "The Dukes of Hazzard
") are easily the highlights of this equally effective and flawed potboiler. The house setting is the most memorable character of all, surrounded by forests, mountains and water; covered in mirrors and windows; ultra-modernized with motion-detected lights in every room; housing a closed-in atrium of bird and plant life; with lifelike sculptures that could give anyone nightmares before the calls even begin; and an empty guest house for their college-aged son looming across a small patch of woods. Director Simon West makes crafty use of practically every nook and cranny that the house and its property has to offer, hitting an especially strong stride by the forty-five-minute mark as the calls intensify and Jill tries to keep the stalker on the line long enough for the police to trace the call.
Regretfully, the only twist the movie offers has been close to ruined by being given away in the trailer and television ads. In fact, about 80% (or more) of the scenes have been seen in what has to be the most shamefully spoiler-worthy trailer in recent memory. West also apparently has never met a standard horror movie cliché he didn't like, with the family cat springing out of a darkened room in one scene and a car not being able to start in another. Nonetheless, suspense escalates at a nice clip all the way up to the nearly literal cat-and-mouse climax, with Jill's fight with the killer wickedly juxtaposed with the family cat catching and eating his own preyone of the escaped birds from the atrium.
Essentially a one-person chamber piece, Camilla Belle (2005's "The Chumscrubber") is in every scene (often by herself) and left a little overwhelmed by the demands of the role. Belle is a fresh and likable lead as Jill, but she stumbles when called upon to act frightened. Her alarm and panic sets in too quickly after just one silent phone call, and her face occasionally looks more constipated than scared. The rest of the actors are ephemeral with only a scene or two apiece, and good riddance. As Jill's friend Tiffany, Katie Cassidy (daughter of David Cassidy, making her inauspicious film debut) appears to be such a hopeless airhead that it scarcely seems like acting. The remaining performances are either glaringly inept or instantly forgettable, with the best turn coincidentally coming by way of Lance Henriksen (2004's "Alien vs. Predator
"), who plays the voice but not the body of The Stranger.
As a tongue-in-cheek popcorn entertainment, "When a Stranger Calls" achieves what it sets out to do. There are enough medium-sized thrills to excite the preteen, teen and twentysomething audience, and a big helping of filmmaking style goes a long way in making up for the picture's glaring inadequacies, including a finale that is anticlimactic, and then an ultra-lame epilogue that should have been excised long before the finished product hit the screen. Additionally, this is one case where the film suffers because of the limits of the PG-13 rating. Violence is mild, blood is nonexistent, and there is a safeness to the whole production that makes one long for the days when horror flicks were unequivocally R-rated affairs. An added dose of palpable danger and a shot of gruesome goods could have done wonders for the overall outcome. Judged on its own respective merits, however, "When a Stranger Calls" doesn't pretend to be anything but what it is: a fun, undemanding, frequently exciting hour-and-a-half tour of the oldest tricks in the book.