When a Stranger Calls
May 18, 2006
When a Stranger Calls (2006) is an unnecessary contemporary remake of a memorable little B-horror movie based on an urban legend known as “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.” It starred Carol Kane and came out in 1979. It was a modest hit and the studios, always looking for a property to remake and a sequel to kick start a franchise, decided to resurrect this film for a new generation.
High school student Jill Johnson (Belle) leads an average existence in your average small town in America. She has just broken up with her boyfriend (Geraghty) who cheated on her with her best friend (Cassidy). In the ensuing drama she used up too many minutes on her cell phone and it no longer works due to a whopping bill. This will play a critical factor later on.
To pay off her outstanding debt, Jill has to baby-sit later in the day. Conveniently for the purposes of the movie, the house she’s sitting for is out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a large place owned by a wealthy doctor (de Lint) with an indoor garden and goldfish pond. He and his wife (Grant) have two children (Carroll and Young) who are already asleep, a live-in maid and a guest house.
Director Simon West quickly establishes the layout of the house and its inhabitants (a.k.a. potential suspects and/or victims) at the same time as Jill does. Of course, she explores some of the house, tries on jewelry, samples of the wife’s perfume and admires her dresses. The phone rings several times that initially seem like prank calls but one anonymous caller is very persistent, scaring her without making any actual threats. This becomes an unsettling game of cat and mouse that goes even further once she realizes he’s in the house with her and the children.
West employs most of the cliches of the thriller genre: the cheap, false scare tactic (the family cat startles Jill) and the foreboding weather (the wind howls outside putting the girl on edge). However, one has to give credit to the screenplay by Jake Wade Wall in that it wastes little time getting Jill up to the house and setting up the premise in refreshing economic fashion.
Camilla Belle, who was so good in The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), is wasted in this film. She’s given a pretty generic character complete with a generic name and little to work with. At least, Jill isn’t dumb. She has enough sense to try calling the folks who own the house when things start getting too creepy, followed by trying the maid and then the police when things finally go too far for the young girl. Jill is actually pretty brave and resourceful a character it’s just a shame that the rest of the film isn’t as clever.
The power of the original and what this version also tries to capitalize on is that it takes a basic premise that anyone can relate to or is familiar with – babysitting alone in a strange house – and give it a terrifying spin. Or, in the case of this movie, tries to. The Scream films pretty much played out the scary, anonymous killer calling on the phone and terrorizing the heroine bit and even more recently Panic Room (2002) set the bar pretty high for the scenario of the protagonist and their charges trapped in a hi-tech house with a killer (or killers) on the loose. When a Stranger Calls isn’t nearly as good as any of these films but as far as generic thrillers go it is pretty well made. There is just nothing to really make it stand out from other movies of its ilk. It’s one of those movies you’ll forget about right after you see it – the cinematic equivalent of junk food.
There is an audio commentary by director Simon West and actress Camilla Belle. An indicator of what we are in store for comes early on when West describes the significance of the “red balloon” motif without a hint of irony. Belle provides such fascinating factoids like how she trained for two months for her 40 second running scene that introduces her character. West “grills” Belle on her non-existent arts and crafts skills and in response mentions that she knows how to cook. Much to Belle’s dismay she was not given a scene to show off these talents so I guess we will never know. If you haven’t gnawed off your leg by this point then you have probably already turned off this dull commentary.
Things improve greatly with an additional commentary by the film’s screenwriter Jake Wade Wall. Initially, he was hesitant to write a remake of a movie he considered a classic. However, after watching it again, he realized that a reinvention was possible and it allowed him to write a thriller where the audience had to use their imagination. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the studio also wanted a PG-13 friendly movie as well. Wall goes into detail about Jill’s character traits and how he wanted to subvert the traditional virginal stereotype. This is certainly a more informative track as he explains the differences between his original screenplay and the finished film.
There are two deleted scenes that show things that we only heard in the finished film, like the cop who takes Jill’s call early on. While we see him make coffee, his colleagues talk about the string of murders that have been happening in the area. We also see the source of the prank phone call. It is pretty easy to see why these scenes were cut.
Finally, there is “The Making of ‘When a Stranger Calls’” featurette. West had shot a lot of big budget action films and dramas and looked forward to doing a film like this on a much smaller scale. Belle was drawn to the film because she saw it as a psychological thriller. Wall sees the film as a morality play. Cast and crew talk about their intentions in this fairly standard featurette.