Review: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (2006)

If you’ve seen the first 10 minutes of Scream, you’ve seen the first half of the movie (but with louder and more pointless “scary” music). If you can suffer through that, director Simon West rewards you with too few treats before sending you home.

Young, nubile, athletic, barely legal, and oh-so ripe for the terrorizing, student Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is sentenced to work off a high cell phone bill by babysitting the ill children of Dr. & Mrs. GotsPlentyCash. In a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mostly-glass superhome deep in the middle of NobodyForMiles Forest, Jill has her choice of rooms to snoop through, top-shelf booze, and state-of-the-art entertainment, all of which she passes up to play phone tag and giving the villain the opening he needs to start get under his victim’s skin… literally, if he can.

Character development for the film’s opening are footnotes, maybe less. All we know about Jill is that she can run pretty quick but not as fast as her (track?) coach thinks, and she really doesn’t want to be where she is doing what she’s doing (babysitting). The cinematography lingers over Jill as if the audience were her stalker, even to the point of wanting the titular madman to leap out and just get it over with. To West’s credit, if you can suffer through all the red herrings, you realize that whoever is really doing this to Jill isn’t going to be explained away; how the bad guy knows what he does remains as much a mystery as the stranger’s identity does.

The house itself is also a funhouse of creepy backdrops at night. Lights that seem to sense when you’re there and plunge you into shadow as you leave. A dim footpath through the backyard woodland to the guesthouse. Remote-controlled everything and even an indoor atrium complete with fish, birds, and jungle growth. Lots and lots of places to sneak, hide, stalk, fall down, and run through. Truth to tell, you get to know the house better than any of the characters in this film.

It can be argued that, with the exception of twenty-five years worth of scary angles and fake jump ploys all summed up and set to inappropriate levels o in the first half of the film, maybe West was setting us up for, “And now for something new!” Then again, it may have all just been padding, because there are exactly two infamous lines West has to get said and neither are spoken by Jill. Once the beans are spilled, the character of Jill had better prove she’s wants to live badly enough to do whatever it takes to survive; if not, horror fans can only hope that West got something bloody or gratuitous past the PG-13 committee and that the stranger will live to call again.

The good news that the last third of this remake isn’t terrible, but you know exactly when the director runs out of tricks when all the foreshadowed bits start going off like the end of a high-school fireworks display. Camilla Belle manages to hold your attention throughout, but the final reveal of who the stranger is (and who he looks almost exactly like) doesn’t do a whole lot for the film’s originality score and firmly prevents me from recommending it.

(a two skull recommendation out of four)

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