When a Stranger Calls (2006)
By: Craig Villinger on October 5, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Sony (Australia).Region 2 & 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. English, Hindi, English FTHI Subtitles. 83 minutes
The Movie
Director: Simon West
Starring: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Katie Cassidy
Screenplay: Jake Wade Wall
Music: James Dooley
Tagline: Evil Dials Home.
Country: USA
While it is hardly a genre classic, 1979's moderately effective When a Stranger Calls does feature a recognisable title and one or two interesting hooks, and those ingredients alone it would seem are enough to make it perfect remake fodder for today's multiplex audiences. Like it or not folks, this movie had to happen sooner or later.

As punishment for her excessive cell phone chattering all American high school student Jill Johnson is lumped with a boring baby sitting gig on the night of the years biggest bonfire bash. At first it looks as though she has scored a cosy job however as the house is swish, the kids are in bed, and the fridge is well stocked, but her plans for a lazy evening on the couch are shattered by an anonymous telephone caller whose intrusions become more and more intimidating as the film progresses…

Director Simon West – who usually handles more extravagant action fare like Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – has served up an exceptionally well polished piece of cinema with this update of a minor 70's classic, but right from the opening credit sequence it is obvious that we are in for nothing more than a clichéd and unoriginal thriller. At the very least though the film does try to do something different with the original formula, and in some respects this fancy pants update is more effective than its 70's predecessor. The original When a Stranger Calls wasted a lot of time outside the house, which killed much of the tension the filmmakers had worked so hard to establish, whereas the remake tries to keep us firmly in its clutches by focusing solely on the tormented baby sitter as her fear escalates over the course of the evening. As a result much of the film hinges on the performance of star Camilla Belle, (who is in virtually every frame), and she does a solid job, giving us a likeable leading lady who is vulnerable enough to warrant our sympathy, yet feisty enough to fight back when the going gets tough. The proceedings aren't harmed any by the fact that she also happens absolutely gorgeous; and in fact, pretty much everything in this film is pleasing to the eye, from the lavish set design (the house looks spectacular), to the moody cinematography, but if you look underneath the flashy exterior you'll see something less appealing.

For a thriller, When a Stranger Calls is not very thrilling. There are loads of cheap scares and several drawn out sequences where I assume I was supposed to be biting off fingernails while perched precariously on the edge of my seat, but they just didn't quite work. Seriously – if I see a black cat jump out of the shadows one more time I'm going to puke. It's been done to death already! The family friendly PG-13 approach has also damaged the films effectiveness. An opening credits stalk and kill sequence is set up to show us just how nasty the stranger really is, and hardened police officers attending the aftermath of this supposedly vicious murder (I say "supposedly" because it occurs off screen) are sickened by the sight of the victims remains, yet we the audience don't even get to see so much as a drop of blood on the walls. That hardly has us trembling in fear of the stranger, does it? And to make matters worse this is followed directly by a high school gym class scene which concludes with the teacher telling the girls to "hit the showers", but are we treated to gratuitous shots of these nubile young ladies lathering up their naked bodies in a steamy shower room? No, of course not! It cuts straight to a shot of our dried-off and fully clothed heroine much later chatting with her boyfriend in the hallway about their relationship hassles. What a jip!

The screenplay does have one or two neat twists up its sleeve, but since this is a remake, ninty five percent of viewers will already know what's coming. One moment in particular which reveals the origin of the stranger's phone calls might have had audiences saying "Holy fucking shit!" were it not for the fact that it has practically become a part of cinematic history and has been imitated and parodied for over twenty five years (and just for the five percent of viewers who didn't know that the calls were coming from inside the house the marketing guru's decided to give the twist away in the theatrical trailer!). Another somewhat shocking plot twist in the original might have been effective today, but was ditched completely for this remake as dead kiddies have no place in a PG-13 movie. A shame too, as a murdered juvenile or two might have actually given the film some teeth and made it something other than a generic Hollywood money spinner.
As you would expect from a recent studio production the image quality here is excellent. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement, the picture is razor sharp and boasts stunning, natural colours.
An English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is the only option presented to us, and again it is ever bit as good as you'd expect from a slick Hollywood production. When a Stranger Calls is hardly the sort of film that employs constant audio fireworks, but when needed the full sounds stage is used to great effect, particularly during a vicious wind storm which almost had me battening down the hatches.
Extra Features
Director Simon West and star Camilla Belle provide the first of two audio commentaries, and their talk-through is lively and often amusing. West provides the technical trivia while Belle demonstrates more production knowledge than most actors, often pointing out things that were added to the film during post production and sounding like she generally had a good time making the film throughout. Screenwriter Jake Wade Wall goes solo for the second commentary, which is a slightly more in-depth talk-through as he analyses the film and explains the differences between his original screenplay and the finished product.

An eighteen minute making-of is also provided which is little more than your average Hollywood promo piece. Simon West stresses that he is making a thriller as opposed to a horror film while Camilla Belle loses genre cred by revealing her distaste for gore movies. Wuss! Everyone had a great time working on the film apparently, and they all have the utmost respect for everyone involved with the production. How lovely. This fluffy making-of is followed by two and a half minutes of unspectacular deleted footage, and trailers for The Da Vinci Code, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Monster House, Population 436, and Ultraviolet.

We also get that fucking annoying anti-piracy trailer at the start of the DVD, just in case you need to be reminded of the fact that movie piracy is stealing, and stealing is against the law. Thanks. I got it the first time guys.
The Verdict
When a Stranger Calls is a hard film to judge because I was rarely bored, and there was nothing I particularly disliked about it. It's slick, well acted, and it tries to please just about everyone – which is probably its biggest problem. It's very much the cinematic equivalent of fast food, and the fact that this particular film was a number one box office hit in just about every county in the world will only encourage the studios to repeat the formula. Good enough to warrant an overnight rental maybe, or a bargain bin purchase.
Movie Score
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