‘Can you hear me now? Good!’
The trouble with “When a Stranger Calls” is it’s all about suspense, and it’s hard to build much of that in an 83-minute rush job. It doesn’t help that when the stranger calls, he doesn’t really do anything that terrifying – such as keeping teenage baby-sitter Jill Johnson (actress Camilla Belle) on the line after she’s already exceeded her cell phone minutes.What she hears is mostly just a lot of heavy breathing. That unnerves Jill, but when I was a sportswriter, I usually received nastier phone calls, and more of them before I had my coffee than Jill heard all movie. (I might’ve appreciated a little heavy breathing, though: Vail’s a lonely town.)But since there’s only an hour and 20 minutes to build the alleged suspense, Jill’s freaking out and dialing the cops by about call No. 3. Is the mystery caller jilted boy-toy Bobby (Brian Geraghty), eurocreep Dr. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint), her own vaguely scary dad (Clark Gregg), or none of the above? A better question is, did no one involved in this after-school special see the original “Scream,” which 10 years ago achieved in its first 15 minutes what “When a Stranger Calls” couldn’t do in its entirety?(By the way, if none of those names sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve never heard of any of these scrubs, and you probably never will again. At least until Belle shows up in Maxim.)Forget Hitchcock, or even Craven or Carpenter: This script needs a hip, smart update to acknowledge at least one or two of the changes in communication technology that have occurred since 1979. But “When a Stranger Calls” is so out of touch it makes 2004’s dopey “Cellular” look like an Orwellian masterpiece by comparison.On the other hand, director Simon West does deserve a lot of credit for correctly placing the 719 area code in Colorado.Despite the killer line I found chilling when my sister told me about the 1979 original – “Have you checked on the children yet?” – the remake of “When a Stranger Calls” lacks any kind of scary punch except for a couple of cheap quick-cut scares from its checklist of horror-movie clichés. It has the black cat, the carnival rides, the glass-walled house, the automatic lights, the many possibilities that would explain who the titular stranger might be. I kept waiting for one of the random scare tactics to relate to another one. Maybe I’ve watched too many sophisticated horror movies along the lines of “The Blair Witch Project” or the “Evil Dead” cycle. But they seem to work better when it isn’t random, when one of the herrings isn’t red, when the director brings one of the setups he painstakingly crafted to fruition.Luckily, though, a movie doesn’t have to be good to spawn a sequel these days, so they can always iron out the kinks in “When a Stranger Calls Back.”Or “When a Stranger Calls – And You’re Roaming.”Now that’s scary.
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