** ½ Out of 5
Tagline- Evil Hits Home
Release Date- February 3rd, 2006
Running Time- 90-Minutes
Screenplay- Jake Wade Wall
Director- Simon West
Starring- Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Katie Cassidy, Derek de Lint, Brian Geraghty
Some reviews I’ve read cite the PG-13 rating as the problem and I totally disagree. While many of the great horror films are R-rated the problem the horror genre has is graphic violence and gore has become a cheap gimmick to cover up lazy filmmaking. Also if you go back to the original despite its R-rating it isn’t very graphic and more importantly the opening act of the original When a Stranger Calls is what everyone mentions about the film even those that disliked the rest of the film will mention the opening and the opening act featured no violence and no gore it was just an amazing set up with great filmmaking. So the problems of the remake have nothing to do with the rating as it does poor writing and weak directing. Again go back to the opening act of the original it’s downright chilling with zero violence. Even with an R-rating the film would hardly be any better; there are plenty of terrible R-rated films as well so really when all is said and done When a Stranger Calls has much deeper problems besides its rating.
I wasn’t expecting a modern masterpiece, but I did expect more. The babysitter is danger film isn’t anything new as besides the original film we saw this in 1971 with the cult classic Fright starring Susan George as well as the 1978 TV film Are You Alone in the House and both those films (in particular Are You Alone in the House) seemed to have a bit of an influence on When a Stranger Calls and of course the most famous babysitter in danger film is probably John Carpenter’s Halloween, which differs though from the films I mentioned. I’ve seen this film a couple of times and honestly I don’t think the film is as terrible as its reputation, but with that said it wasn’t very good either. Everything you see here is by the books and uses cheap set ups to create suspense, which might have worked well decades ago when these were fresh techniques, but now they just show lack of creativity.
The remake basically takes the opening act and stretches it out to a full length film, which basically leads to a lot of nothing happening. Prior to When a Stranger Calls being remade there were some saying if there ever was one it should base it on the opening and well be-careful what you wish for. Jill Johnson (Belle) heads off to a house in the middle of nowhere to babysit for a rich family. Not long after arriving she begins to get strange phone calls. She than finds out the calls are coming from inside the house and the chase is on.
No offense to Jake Wade Wall, but he isn’t a very good writer and the fact he writes generic titles is perfect for Hollywood. Most people blame the writers and directors for remakes but its mostly the studios behind it as well as some producers. But for young and or struggling filmmakers remakes are a good way to put you on the map. However creativity goes out the window unless its a remake by name only. In the case of When a Stranger Calls as well as Wall’s other remake the Hitcher he already had the groundwork presented and merely does a rewrite, which any screenwriter could have done. The only time the script really differs from the original is the idiotic and tacked on ending. This title is just so generic and again perfect for Hollywood and the reason Wall gets work cause it sure isn’t his talents. Remaking the opening act might sound like a good idea, but it leads to very little happening in the middle, and Wall isn’t good enough of a writer to keep this interesting since his characters lack depth and seem like they’re ripped out from other films like this. Characters have zero personality despite the best efforts of the cast and while I’m never one to trash people in my reviews, but its quite sad so many great writers struggle to get their scripts produced and yet Jake Wade Wall gets his scripts made.
Director Simon West delivers a sluggishly paced film where it seems each scene had the same basic set up as the last. Strange noises, wind blowing outside, which the main character goes to investigate and repeat this over and over again. While a nice idea its far too cliched to really entice any suspense as its horror filmmaking 101. Each scene, West attempts at creating suspense and I won’t knock him for that, but the problem is besides being cliched there is never really any kind of payoff. John Carpenter’s Halloween and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street come to mind on films that had a layer of suspense from opening to closing and even in scenes with just talk had this eerie feel. So I don’t exactly mean the lack of deaths here is why there isn’t any payoff as the two films I just mentioned feature very low body counts, but When a Stranger Calls never has that eerie feel despite an excellent and isolated setting. Without the closing credits the film clocks in at 84-minutes and Jill shows up to babysit at the 13-minute mark, which means about 20-minutes of the original is stretched out to 71-minutes so therefore there is a lot of padding, which can also be blamed on Jake Wade Wall, but Simon West never really sets up any kind of tone despite attempting to. At the end of the day the direction is brought down by being far too cliched, which causes any of the suspense to fall flat.
As much as I enjoyed the original the plot can lead to some problems. Unlike films such as Black Christmas or Scream, which also deal with phone calls, When a Stranger Calls as well as the other films I mentioned such as Fright and Are You Alone in the House feature a babysitter getting mysterious phone calls and how the plot is presented they aren’t body count films (Black Christmas & Scream are better than body count films) but my point is those films are in a different style and I think stretching out the opening act of the original while on paper a good idea, but leads to a whole lot of nothing happening whereas the original had a little more depth.
As for the cast Tommy Flanagan lacks the eerie presence of Tony Beckley who played the stranger in the original. Camilla Belle fairs a bit better as Jill and while she’s very attractive her performance ranges from ok to good, but very much lacks when compared to Carol Kane.
Overall When a Stranger Calls isn’t a very good film, but its also not as horrible as some of the reviews have made it out to be. Again the film is just far too cliched in direction and the very subpar script sink this film. While it can make for a decent time killer I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. With a little more originality the film could have turned out to be a decent remake rather than a bellwether average thriller.