Reverse the Charges
Back in 1979, when the original When a Stranger Calls was released, cell phones, Call Waiting, and Caller ID -- while not necessarily unheard of -- were not part of everyday lives. Ma Bell was still a powerful business icon, Charles Durning could pass for an active-duty cop, and Carol Kane was young enough to baby-sit.
Incorporating 21st-century communication tools into a remake of what many consider to be a classic suspense film is a reasonable proposition. 2004's Cellular neatly integrated mobile phones into an action format. They were a source of humorous observations about contemporary lifestyles and played a vital role in the kidnapping plot.
In contrast, one reason this remake fails to get through is the ubiquity of communications devices in our high-tech era. By not heightening the psychological tension, they lessen the thrills and tension quotient (and could be used to dispel it altogether). In the hands of a suspense master such as Hitchcock or De Palma, this scenario might work, thus deterring teenage girls from babysitting gigs and dampening the social lives of thousands of couples with kids.
Resist the urge to hang up however, and you'll experience a scary final fifteen minutes. How scary? Not enough to be spoofed, as the 1979 original starring Kane and Durning was in Scary Movie, or to justify picking up in the first place. Holding for the climax of this monotonous movie has more in common with being harassed by a persistent telemarketer than being stalked by a homicidal maniac.
Camilla Belle, last seen opposite Daniel Day Lewis in the arty father-daughter film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, plays Jill Johnson, a sitter terrorized telephonically in a Colorado residence. Belle's career won't suffer. She's the clearest tone in the picture, bringing beauty, sensitivity, and intelligence to bear. It's not an easy job since she must shoulder the entire burden and Jill has no personality to speak of.
Not only has she caught her boyfriend kissing her best friend, but she's been grounded for a month -- barred from driving the car and using her cell -- because she exceeded the monthly minutes on her mobile plan by 800. She's looking after the two children of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis to earn money to pay back her parents. And she’s missing a big bonfire party to boot.
This state of affairs ranks as the third most frightening aspect of When a Stranger Calls. The opening sequence about the murder of a baby-sitter and her charges makes good use of horror tropes like red balloons and a carnival. But until the climax and epilogue, we're confronted with mostly dead air. Jill is 125 miles from that crime scene, in the lakeside Mandrakis home, which is tricked out with a fancy lighting system and sophisticated artwork. A black cat and Rosa the live-in maid are present, and the kids are asleep upstairs. Naturally, it's stormy outside and the crank calls come fast and furious.
All you need to know about the body of the film is that the ringing phone destroys any chance for rhythm or subtext. Yes, there's a surprise visitor and Rosa decides to putter about in the avian enclosure and fish pond at the center of the house. Not every call is from the creepy perp, but basically he has his finger on the redial button and likes practicing his heavy breathing. A kindly cop traces the calls; his pronouncement that they're coming from inside the house is infinitely more chilling in the trailer. The screenwriters lift the best exchange from the original: When Jill asks the caller what he wants, he replies, "Your blood all over me."
The familiar LCD message "Unknown Caller" is taken too literally and his ultimate anonymity is deflating. Jill must avail herself of old-fashioned pluck rather than any gadgetry. The original spawned a 1993 sequel -- When a Stranger Calls Back. Fingers crossed, we won’t be faced with When a Stranger Presses *69.
(Released by Screen Gems and rated "PG-13" for intense terror, violence and some language.)