AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 87 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A killer is murdering young women whom he rings up and pesters first. Teenager Jill Johnson is annoyed because her best friend Tiffany kissed her boyfriend Bobby, then is even more irritated when she’s told by her father to babysit for a wealthy family to pay off the debt of going over 800 minutes using her mobile phone, causing poor Jill to miss out on a high school bonfire party. Jill arrives at the expansive house and after being shown around begins to make herself at home – until she starts to receive creepy anonymous phone calls from a stranger….
So as promised in my review of the original When A Stranger Calls, here’s my write-up of the 2006 remake which was also a film that I hadn’t seen up to now. It doesn’t have a very good reputation, and I’m sorry to say that this reputation is mostly justified. It doesn’t actually remake all of the older film, just its notoriously frightening 20 minutes, stretching them out to feature length. The idea of a minimally plotted suspenser set almost entirely in a house consisting of somebody being terrorised by a phone caller could certainly work in the hands of a really good director who’s a master at creating tension, and with a strong actress in the lead role, playing a character who’s almost always on screen. But Simon West, despite my undying love for Con Air [and it’s really the script and the cast that make that such a joy], is basically a journeyman filmmaker so he’s just not capable of putting the viewer on the edge of his or her seat enough in a film which largely consists of one person alone, while Camille Belle is frankly appalling as the heroine – in fact she gives the worst performance by a horror or thriller film heroine I’ve seen in some time. Meanwhile the writer of the script Jake Wade Wall understandably adds a few extra things to the story but also creates several silly plot holes and one especially dumb moment towards the end of the film that gobsmacked me and made me wonder if he’d ever studied screenwriting. Of course it’s hard to entirely waste such a good premise and there are indeed a few edgy moments and a decent climax despite the restrictions of the ‘PG-13’ rating. There are worse horror remakes, even from around the same time. But there are also a hell of a lot of better ones.
Screen Gems first announced a remake of When A Stranger Calls in 2004, but when Mary Harron turned down the offer to direct, things stalled until West took the job. He offered Evan Rachel Ward the lead role but she didn’t want to do it, while even Belle had to be talked into starring as she didn’t like horror films. To prepare, she had to do two months of weight-training and running, but was still injured on set, scarring her hand when she hit a wooden bridge instead of another cast member and slamming her head against a glass window, both of which you can see in the film. Despite the stranger being played by Tommy Flanagan, it was none other than Lance Henricksen who supplied the voice on the end of the phone. The film was shot mostly in Vancouver, Canada, the interior of the house built in Culver studios while the front was created at an unused reservoir. For the film’s release, AOL Instant Messenger ran advertisements asking users to text Jill 1020306, who would talk, then panic as she received phone calls from someone asking her to check the children, and a similar gimmick for the DVD release where Jill directed users to a video security system on the film’s website where the shadow of the stranger passed by frequently. What with MySpace also getting in on the action, advertising a profile for Jill 1020306, it’s little surprise that the film was a hit despite a negative critical reception. However, an announced sequel entitled When A Stranger Returns was scrapped.
Beginning the film with a murder is an obvious but good way to expand matters, especially as it gives us a chance to hear a menacing phone call to a poor victim some time before our heroine begins to be pestered. Unsurprisingly, we don’t get to see any of the kills in the film, but that’s not really the problem with the opening scene – the problem is that we keep cutting to several people living nearby, wind chimes, and various things happening at the neighbouring funfair, the silhouette of the killer seen through bedroom blinds prompting shots of bumper cars slamming into each other and a balloon floating higher and higher. West just doesn’t do this MTV-style of filmmaking very well and the murder has little impact. Cut to Jill in high school, pissed about her boyfriend and best friend kissing and being grounded and not being allowed use of her phone for a whole month [oh the horror]. It’s almost painful to watch the inexpressiveness of Belle as soon as she appears on screen – I can only assume that West must have fancied her or something because I can’t imagine any director being okay with her acting. Anyway, Jill has to take up this babysitting gig, and the house is certainly impressive with its huge windows that dwarf poor Jill and beams and panels everywhere. The camera of Peter Menzies. Jr goes all over the place showing off the interiors, while James Dooley’s score brings in the suspense music as soon as she arrives, but this lessens its impact when scary things begin to happen, and there’s an annoying restlessness, an impatience, here. West seems to be too worried about the teenagers in the cinema getting restless to allow any room for real atmosphere, for quiet, for real suspense building in the classic manner.
She’s soon getting spooked by Chester the Cat as well as seemingly setting off alarms and sprinklers and even trying on a necklace belonging to the mistress of the house and almost putting on one of her dresses before being surprised by a sound and the first of the calls. It’s the garage door being open that allows her friend Tiffany to get inside and surprise Jill. As she leaves, a tree branch, knocked down by the storm outside, blocks the road, and you know that something bad is going to happen to her. The calls continue and Jill rings the police who initially don’t seem that bothered, though they do eventually reveal to Jill something that was apparently intended as a big plot twist despite the existence of the original film and the trailer, marketing and DVD covers totally giving it away. There are a few genuine scares, notably the stranger seemingly looming behind Jill only it’s really a coat and hat hanging up, though the sickly green and brown-dominating look isn’t too appealing. At least we get a decent showdown, and one of the better rip-offs of Friday The 13th’s ending [or is that Carrie’s?] from around the time this film was made.
However, one can’t but help but make unflattering comparisons to the original’s opening, or indeed the short film The Babysitter that writer/director Fred Walton made first, and which achieved more in its meagre running time as this film did in an hour and a half. And there really are some plot howlers. Somehow the stranger is able to kill somebody outside and drag the body into the house without Jill knowing? When the police trace Jill’s calls, why don’t they tell her that the culprit is most likely the serial killer who’s been racking up victims? How the hell did Tiffany know where the house is? And try this for size – SPOILER – Jill learns that the stranger is inside the house and goes upstairs to check the children, who are hiding in a cupboard and have put pillows in their bed to make it look like they’re asleep despite the fact that there’s no darn way that the kids could have worked out what was going on – SPOILER END. For f***s fake, how on earth could the writer have concocted such an awful scene and not noticed its stupidity, and how on earth did the director either not notice or not seem bothered? Of course Jill glimpsing somebody moving about in the guesthouse [not a bad eerie little moment this] and heading straight over there to investigate is a familiar silly horror film moment, but a reasonable actress could have at least partly sold this. However, Belle fails to sell anything. I don’t like to go on about something like this too much as it almost sounds like bullying, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Belle’s a nice person, but – love – you can’t act for toffee. Readers, check out 10, 000 BC if you want further proof.
This When A Stranger Calls isn’t entirely worthless, and despite my criticisms [which I entirely stand by] may even work quite well for viewers who haven’t seen the original or would rather watch a more recent film, even if it’s never as scary as it ought to be. It’s fine for younger teenagers who are just getting into horror but maybe aren’t ready for the grisly stuff, though I would say that they’re better off checking out some of the classic Dracula, Frankenstein etc. films, and the opposite way of looking at it is saying that it’s also doubtful that many young people watching it on TV for the first time will be scared shitless and scarred badly by it – which is not at all the case with the original movie. I didn’t hate it, but I reckon that I won’t remember much about it in a few weeks time. Saying that, I do believe that there’s still potential for a truly frightening expansion of the opening section of the first When A Stranger Calls, a film that will truly milk the utter terror of the situation. Though it doesn’t place as much emphasis on the phone calls, check out 1971’s Fright which has a lot of similarities to this but which does it much better despite the obligatory side burns.