When a Stranger Calls (2006)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/03/06 04:32:44
The original version of “When a Stranger Calls” was not the most original horror film on the horizon when it premiered back in 1979–it was an unashamed hodgepodge of elements culled from the likes of “Black Christmas,” “Halloween” and any number of urban legends recounted in breathless tones late at night during suburban slumber parties. However, the film still worked because it was made with a lot of style, it contained characters who were actually interesting people instead of the one-dimensional cardboard creations that genre fans had grown used to (even the killer engendered a certain amount of sympathy as well for the way in which he was a helpless slave to his insane desires) and, perhaps most importantly, because director Fred Walton knew how to ratchet up the tension in a subtle but insistent manner so that when he finally sprung his scares, viewers were so caught up in the proceedings that they really were jumping in their seats. Now we have the inevitable remake of “When a Stranger Calls” and while the filmmakers have retained the title and certain narrative elements from the original, they don’t seem to have any real idea as to why that film worked so well in the first place and the result is yet another in the long recent string of pointless revisions that cannot even manage a fraction of the power of their original versions.Those who have seen the original will recognize the set-up. Camilla Belle, the young actress who more than held her own against Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and who possesses perhaps the greatest set of eyebrows seen on the screen since the days of Brooke Shields, stars as high-school babysitter Jill Johnson, who, as the film opens, is being driven to a remote house by her father to babysit for the night in order to pay off the overtime cell phone charges. Once she settles in for the night, she begins to receive a series of mysterious phone calls consisting of little more than heavy breathing. At first, she assumes that someone is pulling a prank on her but the calls continue to come and become increasingly creepy, especially when the voice asks “Have you checked the children?” Eventually, she calls the cops, they trace the call and call Jill with some shocking information about its origins.
Fans of the original will recall that while what I have described is primarily what people think about when they recall “When a Stranger Calls,” it only covers about the first 20 or so minutes of the film and it goes from that point into different sinister situations. Here, those 20 minutes have been stretched out into the entire story and it is a fatal mistake. For starters, the incessant ringing of a phone will only remain spooky for so long until it just becomes irritating and that point occurs here long before the end credits begin to roll. In order to stretch things out further (and to also provide both red herrings and potential corpses to pop out of nowhere in the final reels for cheap shocks), some additional characters–a housekeeper, a slutty friend, a faithless ex-boyfriend–are brought in and their business only serves to lessen the tension even further. And once we realize that this is the entire story and that nothing of consequence is probably going to happen until the last 15-20 minutes, even the most forgiving viewers are going to stop focusing on the story and start idly thinking about the various plot holes that director Simon West and director Jake Wade Wall have desperately tried to explain in a manner that only underlines them further.
Another problem with the film is the house itself. First of all, it is ridiculously huge–you could comfortably hide all the Bedouin on display in “Lawrence of Arabia” within its walls without noticing them for a week. Next, it seems to have been designed by an architect who knew he was building a house that would one day be the setting for a cruddy horror film–there are endless dark hallways, dozens of shadowy corners and an astonishing number of places that seem to have been added on simply to give a psycho killer a place to lurk and slowly emerge from behind the nubile heroine. Most ludicrously, there doesn’t seem to be a single light switch anywhere in the joint. Instead, the lights turn on and off whenever someone enters or exits a room–perhaps not the wisest purchase for a house in which a frisky cat also resides. (And if you think this leads up to a scene in which we see a light and think it is the creep and it turns out to be the cat instead, you would be wrong–they actually pull that one twice!)
The biggest flaw in the film is the simple fact that the basic ideas have been done so many times in the 25+ years since the original–not to mention the spoofs that have cropped up in the likes of “Scream,” “Scary Movie” and “Student Bodies”–that they just aren’t that scary anymore. Nevertheless, it presses on and gives us more of the same without any fresh twist or slant on the proceedings–it even contains a pointless prologue that helps to raise the body count and an epilogue with a gimmick so hoary that I had assumed it had been retired years ago. In Belle, it had an actress who could have helped provide such a flip but she is so straight-jacketed by the confines of the role that it becomes impossible to feel much empathy for her–she seems way too smart to be doing the dumb-ass things that we see her do here.“When a Stranger Calls” is another crappy remake that has been produced not because someone had a new way of presenting the story to a contemporary audience (in the way that Philip Kaufman, John Carpenter or David Cronenberg did when they rejiggered “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Thing” and “The Fly), but because it has a familiar title that can be easily marketed and it can be used to promote a “special edition” of the original on DVD. As a result, it goes wearily through its all-too-familiar paces without ever striking any real sparks of its own and viewers are more likely to be slumping in their seats towards the end instead of jumping out of them.
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