When A Stranger Calls got a bit of a critical bashing when it was released back in February. I guess it was to be expected since most critics are a little hard on the horror genre in general but I was a bit surprised by the bashing it got from regular movie goers like you and I. It has a rather low 4.2 rating at IMDb and if you go to the message board on the site for this film the comments aren't too pretty. Despite this bashing it didn't stop the film from opening at number one and grossing almost 50 million dollars.
I may be the minority, but I really think that most people were wrong about this one. It is by no means a perfect film but as a remake to an already flawed production i think it succeeds by being better than the original. Again I may be in the minority on that statement but after watching the original film the night before I saw this, I had a fresh perspective.
The original When A Stranger Calls was released in 1979 ( a year after the superior Halloween) and was a moderate success based on its heart pounding opening 20 minutes. We've all heard the babysitter alone in the house while a madman calls her from inside the house urban legend and the film's opening toyed with our knowledge of this and did a good job of generating tension.
The problem with the original is that once the 20 minute opening has passed, the film slows to a snail's pace. The middle of the film doesn't provide any thrills and you have to wait until the last 10 minutes for things to pick up again. If there was any film that needed to be plucked out of the remake box it was this film.
The new version takes the opening 20 minutes and turns it into a 90 minute motion picture. This does present some problems because things get tedious after awhile but the best moments of the original translate well here and I for one thought it was a decent improvement.
A babysitter, Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle), arrives at the lakeside Colorado home of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings Grant), to care for their two children while they do the "dinner and a movie" thing. Almost immediately, Jill begins to get ominous prank calls: heavy breathing and messages wondering if she has checked the children. Eventually, freaked out and unable to reach anyone by phone (her parents are at a concert and everyone from her high school is attending a bonfire party in a location that conveniently does not have cell service), she contacts the police. They trace the call and determine it's coming from within the house.
This is a set-up that I don't think can get old. Both guys and girls know what it's like to be in the house alone sometimes and get suitably creeped out by every noise, creek, and motion of our home. the film toys with those fears but generating some decent tension early on. Some might get bored by the numerous scenes of Jill just walking around the house but I for one found them necessary to lead up the slam-bang final 20 minutes. It does get a little repetitive after awhile but for the most part it works.
The house is also a character in and of itself. Glass houses tend to be creepy to me in general but since this home is in the middle of nowhere and is grand in stature, it tends to be even more frightening. The production designer should be proud of this creation because it's truly something.
The final 20 minutes are also noteworthy. After all the build up we're rewarded with a nice game of cat and mouse between the Stranger and Jill. It helps that we see very little of him since he's mostly shown in shadow, thus making him truly more creepy. You can tell the original concept of Michael Myers from the first Halloween is a model for this stalker and if you're going to imitate someone, it might as well be the best of the bunch.
The film truly falters on one major level and it's enough for me to bring the grade down to something just slightly above average. The performance of Camille Belle really drags the film down. I haven't seen her other films but she seems out of place here. Her interpretation of Jill is too juvenile and she cannot carry the film on her little shoulders. She seemed amateur throughout most of the film. She redeems herself a bit during the final 20 minutes but by that point it's too late to truly save her performance. Since we're left alone with her for much of the running time she has to win our sympathy and she doesn't. I got into the film merely because i kept wondering what i would do in that situation and not because I particularly cared about her.
Despite this When A Stranger Calls is suitable entertainment. It's not the new horror de jour and it certainly won't go down as a classic by any means but it is better than the source material and for that reason alone I think you should give this film a bit of a chance before you dismiss it.
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