A STRANGER CALLS (2006)
Director: Simon West
Remakes aren't always a bad thing. They can present a fresh take on old material, or improve upon a movie that might not have been so great the first time around. And likewise, a PG-13 rating isn't as much of a death knell for horror movies as some people like to proclaim. Depending on the story the movie is trying to tell, there actually can be PG-13 horror movies that are scary and suspenseful. But unfortunately, someone had to go and make an example of everything that's bad about remakes and PG-13 horror movies. The end result of that horrible experiment in filmmaking is the remake of the 1979 semi-cult classic When A Stranger Calls. While the movie had plenty of promise, what we finally got was an 87-minute definition of the word "tedious." So let's dive into the review, so I can explain just how bad When A Stranger Calls is.
Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is an average teenage girl with average teenage drama. She caught her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty) making out with her drunken best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), and she's been grounded for a month after running up an astronomically high cell phone bill. As punishment, Jill's father is making her miss her high school's bonfire which looks more like Burning Man than a normal high school bonfire, if you ask me so she can babysit for Dr. Tim Mandrakis (Derek de Lint) and his wife Kelly (Kate Jennings Grant) while they enjoy a night out on the town. The Mandrakises live out in the middle of nowhere, but the kids are already asleep, the refrigerator is full of food, and Jill is free to explore their massive house.
But because this is a horror movie, things don't go as easily as one would like. As the night progresses, Jill begins to get odd telephone calls from someone whose number doesn't appear on the Caller ID or Star-69. Every time, the caller simply breathes heavily for a few seconds before hanging up. Jill grows confused and frustrated, wondering who it could possibly be. Perhaps it's Bobby's friends messing around. Or maybe it's Tiffany, who swings by the house at one point to apologize for kissing Bobby. Maybe it's Dr. Mandrakis's college-age son, who lives in the nearby guesthouse. Perhaps it's even Rosa (Rosine Hatem), the family's live-in housekeeper who is supposedly out caring for her ill mother.
The calls end up becoming bothersome enough that Jill eventually calls the police about it. The answering officer, Officer Burroughs (David Denman), tells her that unless this anonymous caller has been threatening her or being obscene, there's nothing they can do. The calls keep on coming, and we finally hear the stranger's voice (the voice of Lance Henriksen) as he asks, "Have you checked the children?" I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like an awfully odd request coming from a prank caller. But regardless, Jill goes and checks the children like any good babysitter would, and finds that they're both sleeping peacefully in their beds. The phone rings again, and the stranger is on the other line. And what he says chills Jill to the bone: "How were the children?"
The very frightened Jill shuts all the curtains, makes sure the doors are locked and the alarm system is set, then calls Officer Burroughs back. She explains what happens, and he agrees to put a trace on the phone; Jill just has to keep him on the line for no less than sixty seconds. The stranger does call back, of course, and Jill manages to keep him from hanging up after a few seconds. Jill, exasperated, asks him what he wants, to which he gives the classic reply, "Your blood... all over me." She disgustedly throws down the phone, but it immediately rings again. It's not the stranger calling, but Officer Burroughs, who reveals that the stranger's calls are coming from a second line inside the house. This segues us into the finale, as Jill and the Mandrakis children (Arthur Young and Madeline Carroll) must evade the stranger in the enormous labyrinth of a house, as they fight a homicidal maniac (Tommy Flanagan) for their own survival.
Folks, I'm going to come right out and say it: When A Stranger Calls is a horrible, awful, wretched waste of time and brain cells. And really, you could tell the movie was going to be bad from the very beginning. The movie shot itself in the foot big time, as every one of the trailers and television commercials blatantly gave away that the calls were coming from inside the house. It's one thing if you already knew the twist from having prior knowledge about the original When A Stranger Calls, but Sony Pictures promoting the big twist for the whole world to see right there in the advertising campaign is insulting. It would be like the commercials for The Sixth Sense proclaiming that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time, or Twilight Zone host Rod Serling telling the audience that "To Serve Man" is a cookbook at the beginning of the episode. Giving away the big twist effectively ruins any sort of tension or suspense the movie could have ever hoped to build, and that's terrible.
The original movie's opening act is the best and most memorable part of the movie, so I can't say that I blame screenwriter Jake Wade Wall for eschewing the plodding remainder of the original film for this remake. However, the remake suffers somewhat because of it. As I said in my review of the original, the plot would be better suited for a short film. I suggested the original's opening act could have been better suited as a segment in a film similar to Creepshow or Trilogy of Terror, while the remake perhaps would have been better if it were shortened down and used as an episode of something like Tales From The Crypt or Masters of Horror. But the plot ultimately wears itself way too thin as it tries to stretch itself over an 87-minute frame. The movie's anemic structure only sets it up as a victim for nearly every possible cliché a film like this can suffer from. The Mandrakis house is at a lake in the middle of nowhere; Jill has a hard time contacting any of her friends due to poor cell phone reception; Jill goes outside and walks around instead of staying put; a secondary character's car won't turn over on the first try; there's a little black cat that's prone to causing cheap scares; they throw in some kids to give Jill a reason to stay inside the house and look for them instead of running as far away as her legs can carry her. There's even one final jump scare that looks shamelessly ripped off from Carrie and Friday the 13th.
Even if you can manage to look past all the clichés, Wall's script is appallingly bad. In my review of the original When A Stranger Calls, I complained that Carol Kane's version of Jill Johnson was kinda stupid. She just sat on the couch and cried while the stranger kept asking over and over if she'd checked the children. However, that was justifiable for the sake of the plot. The new Jill is even stupider, but this time, there's no excuse. It's a given that horror film heroines are relatively dumb, but Jill is so incredibly vapid that it's nearly offensive. While I do respect Wall's attempts to give Jill a little more depth than her 1979 counterpart, Jill is still unfortunately flat. Never once did I feel any sympathy for her, and as the movie dragged on, I was almost cheering for the stranger to bash Jill's head in with the first blunt object he could get his hands on. Though in the character's defense, I will say that 2006's Jill does a minimally better job at being a babysitter than 1979's Jill. She actually DOES check the children, even if she has to be prompted by the stranger two-thirds of the way through the movie before she actually does so. At least she does the first time he asks, instead of the stranger having to ask three times like in the original.
The secondary characters Wall adds to the script are utterly useless as well, as none of them make any sort of real contribution whatsoever to the movie. I mean, most of these characters are completely superfluous, and eliminating them would have bore no consequence on the narrative at all. And just like the movie itself, most of the characters are clichés that have been done in hundreds of movies. The character of Scarlet, played by Tessa Thompson, serves no purpose outside of filling the "sassy black friend" role that is all the rage in movies aimed towards a teenage demographic. Meanwhile, Jill's boyfriend Bobby, played by Brian Geraghty, has maybe three scenes in the entire thing. He apparently only exists to plant a red herring that's more silly than it is mysterious. And then there's the Mandrakis children, who are nothing more than two little wastes of time and space that do nothing more than whine, cry, and cause Jill to look all over the house for them, wasting time that she could be using to get the hell out of the house.
And let's not forget Katie Cassidy's character, Tiffany. The character bears almost no importance at all on the movie at large, outside of breaking up the monotony of Jill sitting on the couch by herself. Tiffany is another cliché: the party girl that drinks heavily and makes out with her friend's significant other. Frankly, if this were an R-rated affair, she'd probably be the movie's token naked girl. Though I wonder if the character was Wall's way of making a point about just how worn out this cliché is, as he has Tiffany come right out and say, "Jill, I'm a bitch. I know that, you know that, everybody knows that." But the thing is, Cassidy delivers that goofy line with a straight face. Nobody with half a brain spouts off stupid lines like that in real life, so either Wall was making a "wink-wink, characters like this are stupid" joke, or he just can't write his way out of a paper bag. I'm leaning towards the latter, personally.
The characters are awful, as are the cast. With the exception of the lead roles, every cast member is a complete non-factor. They really could have easily just pulled any random nobody who happened to be walking by the studio at any given time and stuck them in the movie. The only real redeeming factors in the entire cast are Lance Henriksen and Tommy Flanagan. Henriksen is a very talented actor whose work I enjoy very much, and it's my belief that the one true saving grace of the movie is his appearance as the voice that haunts Jill. Though he isn't utilized as often as I would have hoped, Henriksen casts an intimidating presence that the stranger's voice needs. The same can be said for Flanagan, who doesn't make an appearance until nearly seventy minutes into the movie. We very rarely see his face, but thanks to his very physical performance combined with Henriksen's work, the stranger is more terrifying than the script allows him to be. However, the other main part of the movie's equation isn't as good as Henriksen and Flanagan. There are some actors who can take a poorly-written role and make it better with their performance. Camilla Belle is unfortunately not one of them. The character of Jill is alone for the majority of the movie, which requires a strong actress in order to fulfill the role's needs. But Belle is unconvincing, doing nothing to make Jill look like anything more than an ignorant clod. She doesn't draw any emotions outside of indifference from me. I didn't care if Jill lived or died, I just wanted her to go away. Her second-rate performance could be caused by the horrible script, or the director not getting the proper performance from his lead actress. But either way, if this performance is any indication, I doubt Belle will earn any kind of cult status as a "scream queen" in the future.
Since the movie is completely devoid of substance, it's up to director Simon West to at least give us a little style. And sadly, we barely get that. Previous entries on West's résumé, such as Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, had no need to build suspense. There is a need to build it here, but there is nearly none at all to be found. If anything, what West presents us with is a generic, paint-by-numbers movie that is thoroughly unsatisfying on almost every level. West only manages to work up two moments in the entire movie that I believe came across as being effective (the big reveal of the stranger hiding in the rafters, and a "boo!" scare shortly afterwards in the house's atrium). To be perfectly honest, you could walk into the movie an hour late, and not have to worry about missing anything important. Nothing truly exciting or suspenseful happens until the last seventeen minutes of the movie, which only makes things drag on for far too long. And really, all that happens in the finale is some lame, drawn-out chase sequence that's been done a lot better by numerous other movies of this ilk. There is some decent cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr., but outside of that, the movie's direction is as uninspired as its screenplay and acting. It isn't helped by James Dooley's musical score, either. The score is good, don't get me wrong, but it's much too invasive and overbearing. Its schizophrenic violins would have worked much better had the the guy running the sound mixing board turned the volume down a few notches during the editing process, but instead, the movie is just as painful on the ears as it is on the eyes.
The biggest compliment I can give the movie is that they didn't go the Scooby-Doo route and make the stranger some secondary character we forgot about. He's just an anonymous psychopath. But because the movie tries too hard to remain within the parameters of a PG-13 rating, we don't really get a sense of just how dangerous the stranger truly is. We hear that he's ripped fifteen people to pieces with his bare hands, we see a number of police officers hauling quite a few body bags out of a crime scene, but never do we attain a real sense of comprehension in regards to what he is capable of. Instead, the stranger plays a pseudo-elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Jill that just draws on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on until you just want to see something ANYTHING to give you a reason to keep watching the movie. Nearly every single attempt to build suspense in the movie is fruitless, because we know the stranger is just going to keep jerking Jill's chain until the cops call and tell her where he's at.
In their interviews on the DVD's "making of" featurette, West, Belle, and Wall explain how they apparently don't like horror movies, and defend actually making a horror movie by describing it as a "psychological thriller" instead. If that's the case, then the movie is an absolutely abysmal failure as both a horror movie and a thriller. (And really, most psychological thrillers ARE horror movies, but are too damn pretentious to describe themselves as such.) The movie has no suspense, almost no worthwhile scares, and a cast that would probably be better suited doing commercials or crappy soap operas instead of theatrically-released feature films. And I sincerely hope that Lance Henriksen only did this movie because he had some overdue bills that needed to be paid, because someone with his talent shouldn't have to be relegated to bottom-of-the-barrel rubbish like this. I cannot justify giving When A Stranger Calls anything higher than one and a half stars. If this was a remake that needed to be done, it could have been made a whole lot better.
Final Rating: *½