When A Stranger Calls (2006)

When A Stranger Calls (2006)
A teenager is terrorized by a maniacal killer.
Updated: 02-03-2006

Pretty much only genre geeks are familiar with the 1979 horror flick of the same name that brought to life the terrifying urban legend of a babysitter (Carol Kane) trapped inside an unfamiliar house with a crazed killer (Tony Beckley) who uses the phone to do more than "reach out and touch someone". The film costarred Academy Award nominee Charles Durning and multi-Emmy Award winner Colleen Dewhurst, and while it's still not critically acclaimed, nearly everyone agrees it's got an unforgettable first act.


Those who saw the original back in the day usually remember the first 20 minutes and not much else, so why not reimagine and update the film, then stretch those moments into a full length feature? I'm sure it sounded like a brilliant notion to some mover and shaker who wanted to cash in on the horror remake fad — and actually, it's not a bad idea. The original film has its moments and did not shy away from the violence, but it's undeniably dated and was a good candidate for a new version.


The 2006 When A Stranger Calls, directed by Simon West and starring no one you've heard of, is a PG-13 thriller made for teenage girls. West's previous hits, Con Air and Tomb Raider, are heavy on action, explosions, and expletives — When A Stranger Calls has other priorities. It's more about the cat and mouse game between young Jill (Camilla Belle) and the mysterious, malevolent Stranger (voiced by Lance Henricksen, physically portrayed by Tommy Flanagan) which at first takes place over the phone, then culminates in chases throughout the spacious home of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis.


While West doesn't quite have the upper hand when it comes to ratcheting up the suspense, he does a decent job of expanding the story and adding some cool visual cues. Some might find the whole setting too "slick" — and it's been proven that directors who cast horror movies shouldn't set them in glass houses (Thirteen Ghosts, The Glass House, both bombs from 2001) — but at least you have some fun stuff to look at while you're waiting for the phone to ring again.


Contrary to what you might think, the technological aspects are not played up too much. There are no picture-phones and VOIP isn't even mentioned in a whisper. The isolated fishbowl of a mansion is alarmed, but there aren't any surveillance cameras. Apparently this killer has dispatched several other baby-sitters, but there's no APB out on him. So the hi-tech facets of the story are ancillary, narrowing the focus on our heroine and her plight.


There are some pretty trappings — a black cat, yellow canaries, life-sized sculptures — that come into play, but they're only toyed with and never fully exploited. There are the usual head-scratchers and duh! moments, but nothing any more egregious than other teen horror movies. Belle is sympathetic enough as the babysitter in peril, but her acting is hampered by rather poor dialogue (no one else in the movie will likely be picking up anything other than a Razzie for their performances, either… but that's why West is known as an action director not an actor's director).


When A Stranger Calls is a wholly inoffensive film; the National League of Babysitters will not be picketing outside the theater, no teens will be storming their schools with semi-automatic cell phones, and it's safe to say the movie will come and go without much hubbub. There are no boobs, no blood, and no bold bids. Is there anything wrong with that? Some with more cynical mindsets than I might say yes, there is a lot wrong with that: A horror movie should be visceral and thought-provoking. It should inspire something other than complacency. I agree with that, but I think there's room for the fluff too. As the fluff goes, When A Stranger Calls isn't a bad way to spend an hour and a half.


Heavy duty horror fans will not be willing to pay this phone bill, but the core audience for this PG-13 thriller will more than likely take the Stranger's call this weekend.


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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson

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