Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

When A Stranger Calls

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 8, 2006

Directed by Simon West/written by Jake Wade Wall, based on the film written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton/starring Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty, Lance Henriksen (voice)/Screen Gems

A babysitter is terrorized by a prank-calling serial killer with the voice of a veteran character actor.

OK, I’ve never actually seen the original 1979 When a Stranger Calls, though I know it by reputation. It’s one of those movies that freaked people out when I was a kid, and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Now, of course, I’d probably find it pretty tame. Ironically, I recall it was my babysitter at the time who told me about it, and its legendary line “the call is coming from inside the house!” Babysitters used to love to freak little kids out, which was the one thing The Amityville Horror remake got right. But I digress.

From what I hear, though, the movie itself really isn’t that great and doesn’t hold up well now. Which is what apparently makes it prime for a remake. I have a feeling that in 25 years today’s adolescents will look back on the remake and have the same reaction that the kids of the late ‘70’s have to the original now. Which is, “we actually found this scary back then? What the hell were we thinking?”

Not that the new version of When a Stranger Calls is a horribly bad film. I almost wish it was, because that would make this review a lot easier to write. Another horror remake, lack of original ideas, Hollywood raping its past for easy profit, blah blah blah. But the truth is, I almost really liked this movie. Almost. There’s just enough there that’s worthwhile that I can’t entirely dismiss it as crap. Partially, but not entirely.

The plot is simple enough, so simple that I was waiting for some kind of twist to come up in the third act and surprise everybody, but that didn’t happen. It’s the story of one Jill Johnson (the unbelievably attractive Belle), a small-town high-school girl who’s been grounded by her parents for – gasp – running up a big cell-phone bill. These kids today, who knows what they’re capable of! Rather than actually making her get a job and pay the damn thing off herself, Jill’s parents decide to punish her by making her babysit on the night of “the big bonfire”, an annual get-together for the popular kids. This apparently involves the kids hanging around a big fire at a place where cell phones are conveniently inconsistent. This is what passes for fun in Oregon.

Anyway, Jill’s assignment initially seems like a cakewalk. The kids are already in bed when she gets there, she has full access to the fridge (sweet) and, except for the maid, there’s nobody around for miles to bug her when she’s studying. Except, of course, for some guy who keeps calling the house and breathing heavily at her. Initially she dismisses this as mere prank calling, but Jill gets more and more freaked out and the situation gradually escalates.

Here’s the thing – you can’t possibly look at a movie like this in the cold light of logic and realism. If you even try, the whole thing falls apart completely. Very little of When a Stranger Calls actually makes any sense whatsoever, and you honestly can’t expect it to. There are tons of questions brought up by the very premise and its introductory exposition. If the maid was going to be there the whole time, why couldn’t she watch the kids for the couple of hours that the parents were going to be gone? There’s some lip service given to “she leaves in the evenings” but then she never does. Why don’t the kids ever get out of bed, for a glass of water or to use the bathroom or something? These are some incredibly well-behaved little kids. How did Jill’s apparently middle-class parents even know the rich doctor and his younger wife needed a babysitter at the last minute? If Jill is grounded because she’s supposedly irresponsible, why do her parents immediately put her in a position of responsibility? They don’t trust her to use a damn cell phone, but they trust her to watch over someone else’s kids?

Then there’s the killer himself, who’s a complete model for convenient movie logic. He seems to be all-knowing and all-seeing, and has superhuman strength at times when it’s necessary for the scene to work. He seems to have no particular motivation, other than he just likes to kill babysitters for the hell of it. Apparently he travels the country on this very particular mission, even going as far as 125 miles from his last murder to this one. How he happened to find this particular isolated house, and knew that the owners would be gone and were hiring a young female babysitter for the night, is left up to one’s imagination. Not to mention how he knew the owners’ phone number. Wouldn’t a rich doctor’s private home number be unlisted? Maybe he just dialed numbers at random until he found the right combination.

This is what really kills me about the whole thing – let’s look at this logically from the killer’s point of view. OK, let’s say you’ve found a house with a babysitter in it, and you intend to kill said babysitter. You have no idea where the house’s owners are or how long they will be gone. Why in god’s name wouldn’t you just break into the house, kill her and get it over with? I mean, the parents could come back at any time! Why spend what seems like hours toying with the girl on the phone, when anything could happen in the meantime? The owners could come back, the police could come, her parents could show up to check on her. Hell, the bonfire could spread and burn down the woods he’s hiding in for all he knows. Obviously he enjoys fucking with her head and freaking her out, but it doesn’t seem like a very efficient way to go about it. He’s also basically giving her time to formulate a plan of defense, if she’s levelheaded enough to pull that off. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier and quicker just to get in, attack and get out? Yeah, I know, then the movie would be over in 30 minutes. But at least it would make sense.

For such a simple storyline, the movie also spends an inordinate amount of time telling us stuff we don’t particularly need to know. There’s a whole subplot about Jill and her estranged boyfriend, who she apparently caught kissing her best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy, who I guess is David Cassidy’s daughter, if anybody cares). This is how ridiculous and out of touch this movie is, that Tiffany is labeled a “slut” just for kissing a guy. Jesus, even John Hughes wasn’t that naïve. Do the filmmakers have any idea what high-school kids are up to these days? I guess not, or else this movie would be called When a Stranger Instant Messages. Anyway, we’re supposed to think this will all lead up to said boyfriend coming to the house and either coming to her rescue or getting killed off himself. Nope, instead he disappears from the second half of the movie completely. Tiffany does reappear, but the entire subplot serves no purpose, since Jill and Tiffany make up and Jill wants to reconcile with her boyfriend anyway. What was the point? Was the whole thing set up to keep the boyfriend away from the house? If so, why? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to bring as many people as possible to the house? That’s where all the action is, after all.

So yeah, logic isn’t exactly this movie’s strong suit. But they more than make up for it in atmosphere, which is something that’s sorely lacking in most horror films these days. I’m always saying that good horror movies need atmosphere, and a ton of it, and somebody finally delivered on that. If you happen to like old-fashioned “dark creepy house” movies with lots of shadowy lighting, you’ll dig the look of this one. It’s kinda cool to see action director West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) dial it down a bit and try to approximate the style of the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s slasher movies, with long takes and deliberate pacing replacing the overcaffeinated style of his earlier work. Sure, it’s all been done before, but it’s nice to see someone remembers how to do it.

I just wish the damn thing wasn’t so freakin’ predictable. It’s not hard to figure out right from the beginning who will die and who won’t among the movie’s main characters (especially when so few of them actually go to the house). I get that it’s not meant to be a high body-count movie, and that’s fine. But there’s never a sense of genuine danger here – I never really felt like Jill or the kids could actually be murdered by this guy. Not in this movie, anyway. While I admired the style of the film on one level, on another I couldn’t help but feel like it was all one long, drawn-out tease without a particularly satisfying payoff. I was never seriously creeped out or disturbed in any way by this film – it’s too safe for that, like a horror movie with training wheels. If you’re a preteen who’s never seen a horror film before in your life, it may freak you out on a primal level. But the rest of us have seen it all before, many times over.

Still, you gotta give West and company points for trying. And it doesn’t hurt to have an attractive young cast either. I’ve never actually seen Belle before (at least not in a major role), and I thought she tried her damndest to bring life to what could have been a stereotypical teen-girl-in-peril role. Yes, she’s model-quality gorgeous, but she doesn’t seem overly aware of it (in character, at least), and she displays a prototypically teenage awkwardness at times that’s entirely appropriate. She reminded me of a young Anne Archer (wow, that dates me), all brown hair and eyebrows (I mean this as a compliment). Cassidy, who looks more like Sheryl Crow’s daughter than David Cassidy’s, brings a sympathetic edge to her “look, I’m a bitch and I know it” part. Tessa Thompson, best known as the villainous Jackie on Veronica Mars, shows some range here as a nice friend of Jill’s (though they missed an opportunity to bring in tons of VM fans who’d love to watch her die horribly).

But for longtime horror fans, the best reason to see When a Stranger Calls is the vocal work of genre veteran Henriksen. As the Stranger’s phone voice (he’s played in person by Geraghty), good ol’ Lance provides the only genuine sense of menace in this entire enterprise (even if he’s maybe 30 years older than Geraghty). Now that’s kickin’ it old-school, boys and girls.

**1/2 2/8/06

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