I’ve never seen the original 1979 film, so I don’t have that point of reference. However, there are years worth of films that have taken inspiration, at least in part, from it. The trailers did not instill much confidence in me, it looked like Scream, and had one of the worst line deliveries I have heard in some time. That line being the fear inducing “The call is coming from inside the house!”
The opening credits play while the camera cuts around a small town and a neighboring carnival, while we hear a cluster of phone calls with no one on the other end. It ends with a murder and then the police removing the remains in a number of plastic bags. The scene cuts to another town, where we are introduced to Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle). In short order, her life is given a little drama and she is dropped off at the big, creepy, antiseptic home where she is to babysit. Before long, she is getting hang ups and false scares. We scream towards the conclusion in a brisk 83 minutes.
When a Stranger Calls fails to take off. The tension never builds, I mean, we watch her get these calls, we see her as she wanders around the house, but I never get any sense of actual danger, except when we get a music cue. The musical score looks to fill the role of tension builder, it is always there, intruding on the action, informing you how you should feel. It is one of the most obtrusive and annoying scores I have heard in some time.
On top of the score, the script does not allow for any development. It is lean and mean, and while in some cases that is admirable (see Red Eye and Good Night, and Good Luck), that is not the case here. Relationships and issues are set up for Jill to get through, yet there is no payoff to them. I don’t get the sense of any desire on the part of the filmmakers to flesh out any of these characters. Granted, the centerpiece and focus is, and should be, on the phone calls and ultimate showdown. It is a shame that we are saddled with a pared down vision with lack of scope. This also extends to the direction–there are some nice shots, but most of it is intent on getting closeups of the lead’s face, and pretty shots of the cold home.
The acting is no better. Camilla Belle, as lovely as she may be, is just not ready to carry a film. She does not have the strength or presence, nor the range to really make me care about her. The supporting cast is even worse, just a few cardboard characters tossed in to try to flesh out the lead while not adding much in the way of substance.
Essentially, When a Stranger Calls is all setup and no payoff. None of the setup that is gone through so tortuously early on is resolved, or even given a hint that there is a continuing story. Bad guy shows up, they fight and run around for a bit, then it’s over. There is no connection between these characters other than blind chance. I know that the idea of randomness in violence can be frightening–here it just flounders and sinks.
Bottomline. Don’t bother with this stinker of a thriller. I now plan on taking in the original; perhaps I would enjoy that. In any case, director Simon West should go back to the slick action films–he seems to fare better with them. This film is an 83 minute trailer for a better film which never got made. Avoid the boredom set to annoying music.
Not Recommended. *.5 / *****