The scary moment payoff from the original “When a Stranger Calls” went from jolt to joke in contemporary American pop culture long ago. What started as the ultimate babysitter nightmare, the line “The calls…they’re coming from inside the house!” is as much a part of our modern movie lexicon as “You had me at hello” or “This…is my boomstick!” Even the concept of a killer calling his victim has been done to death, thanks mostly to Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Scream”), so the idea of remaking “When a Stranger Calls” when 99% of the Western world are already aware of the punchline wouldn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Where exactly is the suspense if we already know the guy’s in the house?
Then again, Hollywood never met a logical consistency gap it couldn’t widen. Doubtlessly greenlit by a couple of guys who weren’t even toilet trained when the 1979 original came out, the “Stranger” remake completely eliminates the original’s third act, in which the adult Jill and her family are victimized by the crazed killer. The decision to set almost the entire movie in the house isn’t a good one, dragging the supposed tension out far longer than necessary, and makes a bad idea that much worse.
As plots go, we’re not in Raymond Chandler territory here: Jill (Camilla Bell) is stuck babysitting for Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis instead of going to the big high school gropefest thanks to going over her minutes on her cell phone. All alone (except for two sleeping kids) in a big, creepy house on the lake, she starts receiving disquieting calls. Apprehension allegedly mounts until the climactic moment when she realizes she has an uninvited guest and has to make her escape.
Director Simon West, director of such quality offerings as “Con Air” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” unwisely decides to take a page from last year’s “Boogeyman” and use the first 2/3 of the movie to show, well, nothing. Jill spends her time between phone calls wandering in an out of various rooms, getting startled by strange noises and wayward cats, and generally behaving completely unlike any adolescent I’ve known in the last 20 years.
West also adheres to the modern American horror theory that anything – including bumper cars and children’s drawings – are scary if you play minor key music in the background, even though this tends to lose its effectiveness around 45 minutes or so. He also loves the “jump scare,” where something suddenly appears on screen paired with violent orchestral accompaniment. It’s a cheap trick, used increasingly in PG-13 fare like this, and ineffectual when used a dozen or so times with no payoff.
How insulting is it to teenagers that Jill is such a trembling weenie when it comes to these phone calls? Only in the movies would a 21st century teenager not let loose with a stream of expletives at the first hint of an obscene/prank caller and then use the Mandakis’ phone system to block the number. Bell is reminiscent of Anne Hathaway, only without the talent. She captures the petulant teenager thing pretty well, but has little range otherwise. Her reaction to the caller when he says he wants “your blood, all over me” is more like what you’d expect from someone who had an earthworm dropped on her desk in Biology class than someone just threatened with evisceration. The original may have been a cheap exploitation fest, but at least Carol Kane knew how to freak out.
In the end, “When a Stranger Calls” disappoints on so many levels it’s hard to pick just one: it’s an inferior remake (of a movie that wasn’t that great to begin with), it’s poorly acted, and it’s yet another in an unending string of PG-13 “horror” movies that do nothing to build even the most rudimentary sense of real dread. In another couple of weeks, when the studios start bitching about lackluster blockbuster performance again, feel free to point out that brainless crap like this is a big reason for it.