ďThe call is coming from inside the house!!!!Ē
Itís a line thatís frightening regardless of whether you know its coming or not. The quintessential urban legend, the tale of the babysitter harassed by the maniacal killer who, yes, is calling and taunting from inside the house, strikes fear into the heart of every teenager. Itís scary because it gets right at the heart, the very marrow, of our fear of the unknown. Iím sure cavemen had similar tales to frighten the unwary, the naÔve. ďThe growling was coming from inside the cave!!!!Ē Article continues below
While the first version of When a Stranger Calls has become a staple of slumber parties, itís a bad film that is only remembered for its excruciatingly frightening first 15 minutes. The screenwriter of this new version, Jake Wade Wall, knows that. So, heís gone ahead and made the entire film those first 15 minutes, and it works for the most part. This modern remake is more a retelling, a slick exercise of slow-boil terror and when the pressure boils over in the last 15 minutes of the movie itís palpable. Kids in the audience will scream. Seriously.
The story takes place in an idyllic Colorado mountain town that doesnít exist outside California. (What were they thinking?) Jill (Camilla Belle) is your typical grounded teenager who went over her minutes and is forced to babysit to pay her parents off. Yeah, thatís the setup. Her dad drops her at an insanely large mid-century lakefront house that is as isolated as it is modern. The children, she is informed by parents eager for a night out, are asleep upstairs. The Latino housekeeper is tending to the flock of birds kept in the houseís atrium. All is well. That is until the phone calls starts. Most are red herrings (the rotten boyfriend, the bitchy best friend) but there are a few really creepy ones that start to freak Jill out.
And the tension is cranked up slowly, notch by notch untilÖ well, you can guess what happens. Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider) has an eye for detail and mood lighting. The entire film is simply a prolonged exercise in tension, and West handles it adeptly. The filmís greatest asset, its bare-bones structure, is also its largest, nearly hobbling, flaw. The characters are so simply drawn they donít exist; they are simply bags of meat sacrificed to the voracious tick-tock of terror. I can see that working for a one-hour television special, but itís awfully drawn out at 90 minutes. And just how many times can we watch someone anxiously answer a telephone? Apparently, there are never enough times.
When a Stranger Calls is rated PG-13 and that is one of the most appropriate rating choices Iíve seen in quite a long time. The film is engineered for teenagers. A very innocuous thriller, there is no blood and maybe one word of profanity. Itís actually quite refreshing after a year of bloodthirsty crapfests like Saw II.
There are numerous genuinely terrifying moments in When a Stranger Calls, but as a film itís just a sketch in terror Ė a freakout sugar rush Ė and after the last burst of shaking-shock itís easily forgotten.