Movie Review: When a Stranger Calls
by Ted Porter
Published: February 6, 2006
This update of the 1979 movie tries to transport the original's basic premise into the modern horror era--an era defined by "Scream," "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and their sequels and imitators--but in doing so dials a wrong number. Today's audiences, raised on countless hyperaware and ultraviolent horror films, have become more demanding in their desire to be scared. Movies such as "Scream" know how to deliver not only the simple scares but a full array of unexpected plot twists, clever allusions to other horror films, humor, engaging characters, and those all-important ingredients: sex and gore. This movie offers virtually none of the above and joins the ever-growing club of routine, uninspired horror flicks that are all but forgotten a month after they're released. Its aversion to depicting anything truly disturbing--even for a PG-13--turns the movie into a bloodless affair in more ways than one. Even the preteens I saw in the theater (and they made up most of the audience) didn't seem to be fooled by this one. At what were supposed to be the film's most shocking, scary moments, nary a scream could be heard.
The premise of the original movie is intact here: a teenage girl on a babysitting job starts getting scary phone calls from a stranger, who at first taunts her by saying nothing and hanging up, then starts asking her if she's checked the children. But this becomes the whole movie, while in the original it was only the first act (and a scary one). This may have been an unfortunate choice, because what was originally 20 minutes or so of genuinely frightening suspense has been stretched beyond its limits, and with nearly 90 minutes to fill, inevitable dead spots arise in which nothing much happens. There's simply not enough for the babysitter or the stranger to do. The phone rings, she answers. He breathes heavily for a few seconds, then hangs up; she gets scared. (He does a lot of heavy breathing, in fact; is he not sure whether he's a demented killer or just an obscene caller?) She hears a noise, goes to investigate, and finds out it was nothing to worry about. Phone rings again, she answers, the guy says something, she gets a little more scared. Another noise, another false alarm. And so on. One thing robbing the film of any real terror or tension is that the main plot twist that develops from this setup has already been revealed in the ubiquitous trailer, and even those who haven't seen the original have probably heard of the twist before in one way or another, since that film's central taglines have passed into the domain of commonly known horror lore over the years. (When will the makers of movie trailers realize that sometimes less really is more, and you can draw more people in, not to mention leave them more satisfied afterwards, by keeping some of the movie's key plot points secret?) No need to reveal it again here, just in case you've been living in a cave somewhere and haven't heard a thing about either version. As a matter of fact, if that's true, I envy you--it's one thrill you just might get out of the movie.
Camilla Belle does a competent job as Jill, the babysitter. Jill is a fairly typical teenage girl. She's athletic, good-looking, has a couple of best girlfriends, and loves to talk on the phone, which is where her trouble starts. Her cell phone service is blocked because she's run over her minutes. Way over. As punishment, and to teach her responsibility, her parents ground her and demand she babysit in order to help pay off the huge bill. (If that's not a surefire way to hit a teen today where it hurts, what is?) This introductory bit was added onto the original story, apparently as an effort to give some background about the kind of girl Jill is and the kinds of things she's dealing with in her life, but it's all almost completely unnecessary because these strands of the story go nowhere. We find out she's angry with both her boyfriend, Bobby, and her best friend, Tiffany, because the two of them shared a drunken kiss. Bobby and Tiffany both crop up briefly later on, but they have no real reason for being there other than to give Jill something more to do and eat up some minutes of screen time. It's as if the filmmakers had to find some subplot to stuff into the story's many empty crevices just to keep things interesting. It doesn't work. You'd think with everything that's allowed in movies today we'd at least get to see Jill engaging in some heavy petting with her boyfriend, or maybe Tiffany taking off her clothes. (Jill, of course, can't do that, as any horror fan knows that the "good girl" who survives the movie never gets naked.) What kind of horror movie is this anyway?
In the absence of anything else to grasp onto, the isolated house where Jill is babysitting becomes as much a star of the movie as Belle is, if not more so. Sleek, modern and beautiful, the place is straight out of Architectural Digest and is tricked out with all the latest luxury conveniences and gadgetry. Even the filmmakers seem to know audiences will recognize the significant part it's been given: the characters comment more than once on how amazing the house is, and the movie takes full advantage of every chance to show off the building from every angle possible, inside and out. The cinematography is actually one of the best things about the movie, but given the advanced state of film technology today, it's nothing a hundred other movies couldn't do just as well if they had similar material to work with. If it weren't for Belle being such a pretty girl wandering around in such a pretty house, the movie would barely be worth looking at.
Things finally get rolling in the last 20 minutes or so, and after the disappointment of what's come before, you want to believe this will redeem the previous hour's boredom. In a small way it does, but it's almost too late to get properly scared or excited. There is the obligatory cat-and-mouse chase through the house as Jill tries to outwit the stranger and escape, and everyone knows how it will end. We're so eager for something real to happen, so hungry for something serious to be at stake, that it feels like a consolation prize. We've been led on for too long with false promises, and the climax, when it comes, is anticlimactic. A lame, entirely pointless epilogue only adds to the sense that we've just been cheated out of a good, lasting scare. You know you've got a problem when ten-year-olds are making sarcastic cracks on their way out of the theater.