Starring Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty
Directed by Simon West
I remember seeing the 1979 original version of When a Stranger Calls in the theater when I was a kid, and that experience was one of the most frightening in my life. It rated right up there with Jaws in my young eyes. When you look back at the film today, the first 20 minutes still work great. From there it drags for the remaining 70 until the climatic ending. Even though we really don’t need any more remakes, this one had room for improvement. Had director Simon West actually watched the original film, maybe he would have agreed; but as he revealed in the press junket following the screening, he still to this day has not seen it. It would have been easy to take the original and improve upon it; instead he chose to take the script given to him by the studio and make the best out of it that he could. What we end up with is the first 20 minutes of the original film stretched out to feature length.
The film opens at a carnival that for whatever reason is smack dab in the middle of a nice, white, middle-class neighborhood and soon focuses in on the house closest to said carnival. As it cuts back and forth between the house and the carnival, we hear a series of phone calls between a stranger and a young resident. Suddenly a light turns on in an upstairs window, revealing the figure attacking. The next morning a police detective shows up at the crime scene that is described as “nothing they have ever seen before” and notes that the killer had not used a weapon, just his bare hands. Of course we, the viewer, see nothing because this is a PG-13 film. So what was the purpose of the carnival? Is the stranger a killer carny? Nope, this is just one of many pointless bits that are established in the film and never touched on again.
Next we meet Jill, a high school track star, so some time is spent seeing just how fast she can run. Is this ever used again in the film? Of course she is going to be running at some point in this film, but it isn’t her track star abilities that get her out of any particular situation. This is just more unnecessary set-up with no real follow-through. It turns out Jill has been a naughty girl and went over on her allowed cell phone minutes, so her father has grounded her with no phone for a month. Obviously, this is just a plot device to rid her of her own personal cell phone that could come in handy later in the film. As part of her punishment she needs to help pay that cell phone bill, so Dad books her into a babysitting gig.
Jill is dropped off at a house out in the middle of the forest with no other homes anywhere near by. Before Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis leave for the evening, they let Jill know that their two children are upstairs asleep recovering from the flu and their maid Rosa is also home in a room on the third floor. Why they don’t trust Rosa to look after the children is never explained. From this point on it’s just a lot of phone calls and cat & mouse played by the killer, who appears to be doing an impersonation of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 from Terminator 2 Judgment Day.
We are left with one actress alone in a house for almost the entire duration of the film which, unless she is a great talent, can be quite painful. Sadly, I didn’t feel that Ms. Belle was up to the challenge. Her performance is rather dry, and I didn’t find myself particularly liking or hating her character; I just didn’t care about her. Her delivery made me wonder if she was reading her lines off cue cards. I will say, however, that some of that might have been attributed to the badly written script. With the small amount of dialogue in the film, I would have expected much better. The plot is riddled with holes that are difficult to overlook, which only decreased my enjoyment of When a Stranger Calls that much more.
When a Stranger Calls has its problems, but it isn’t awful; it’s visually pleasing and well put together. The main flaw is the script that does nothing to take the story to a new level but instead tries to take the best part of the original and stretch it out over 90 minutes. When this stranger calls, you may want to stay on the other line.
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