Horror review: When a Stranger Calls



The original When a Stranger Calls from 1979 is best remembered for the scene where terrified babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), tormented by a string of ominous crank calls (“Have you checked the children?”), is warned by police that the calls have been traced and that they’re coming from inside the house! Based on director Fred Walton’s short film “The Sitter”, his Stranger sported some genuinely suspenseful moments and a believable performance by his lead.

The same can’t be said about Simon West’s new version. Since the “he’s in the house” premise has already been revealed in the film’s heavily saturated TV trailers, the only reason to watch this punishingly dull remake is to ogle raven-haired beauty Camilla Belle, who plays Johnson this time around.

There’s nothing else worthy of attention here.

Johnson is your stereotypical 21st-century high-schooler, whose world revolves around her cellphone. She gets grounded by her parents after racking up 800 minutes more than her monthly limit and is barred from attending an everyone’ll-be-there bonfire party. Instead, she gets driven out to a babysitting stint at a wealthy doctor’s remote Colorado mansion.

Before long, Jill is left to slink cautiously from room to shadowy room, getting freaked out by the sounds of automatic sprinklers and icemakers. But West, who is clearly more at home helming big-budget action flicks like Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, brings little tension to the clichéd proceedings. He even flubs the tried-and-true horror-flick trick of startling the audience with the sudden appearance of a shrieking cat.

The house is a stunning two-story structure of wood and glass set on the edge of a gorgeous lake, but after a while its Architectural Digest appeal starts to fade. You keep hoping for something to actually happen within its richly textured walls, but all you get is phone calls-and not just creepy ones that are coming from inside the house! Seems like the entire population of Denver needs to chat with Jill: her gossipy girlfriends, her apologetic boyfriend, his prank-calling pal, the burglar-alarm company, the rich doc’s wife.

Since her two charges are asleep in bed, recovering from the flu, and she’s been instructed not to wake them, you’d think she might want to put a damper on the constant ringing. But that would cut into the valuable screen time spent showing her moving around the house to answer the phone.

Eventually the cheek-scarred bad guy shows up and, as seen in that fun-wrecking trailer, tries to grab Jill as she hides in the fish pond. Much splashing ensues, but without the type of wet-T-shirt action you’ve come to expect from such distressed-damsel affairs.

And gore hounds and slasher-flick fans should note that there is not a drop of blood shed. It’s as if the phone-crazed killer somehow managed to off his victims through a sinister combo of staticy silence and heavy breathing.

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