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When a Stranger Calls
2006 - PG-13 - 83 Mins.
Director: Simon West
Producer: John Davis
Written By: Jake Wade Wall
Starring: Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy, Brian Geraghty, Tessa Thompson
Review by: Joe Rickey
Official Site: www.sonypictures.com/movies/whenastrangercalls/
   

Stop watching me!
'When a Stranger Calls' faces an uphill battle on its mission to thrill audiences as most are aware of the film's surprise twist before the studio logo even unfolds. Whether the viewer has seen the '70s film it's based on, heard the around-the-campfire spine-tingler it inspired, or seen one of the ads studio Screen Gems is running to promote the new, spruced-up version, they know this all-important line - "The calls are coming from inside the house!" It is delivered midway through the film, which depicts babysitter Jill Johnson's (Camilla Belle, 'The Chumscrubber') night of terror as she is harrassed by a nameless caller whose contacts increase in menace as time progresses, and sets in motion the events of the action-filled climax. We know this line is effective (the murderer who we thought was terrorizing from afar could be in the next room sharpening his blade, it's enough to send a series of chills down your spine), so the question is: Does the rest of director Simon West's ('Con Air') redo scare or bore?

The answer is: It does both with style to spare. This is a definitive cinematic mixed bag, a film which rises due to atmosphere and a strong lead performance from a dedicated actress, but then falls due to a painful scare deficit and an uneven pace. The film opens on a bland note with a condescending prologue there to introduce the idea of a villian who hunts babysitters, but which fails to enlighten or scare. The problem is the film's rating, "PG-13," which allows the coveted teen audience who could be deterred by a hardcore "R"-rating to see it. It's never so apparent West is restraining himself than in the prologue, which uses the sound of the stranger calling and then murdering a victim, but sets it to an image of a carnival attendee losing a red balloon, the balloon symbolizing the victim (we later see this balloon ravaged on the side of the road), which is more amusing than it is chilling. And then when a police officer arrives at the crime scene, he's told there's a pile of gore in the next room so horrifying even the coroner is unsure of how he should approach it. But instead of seeing this wretched corpse, we're treated to the police officer's awe-filled face. I do believe there is a time when imagination should be employed in a horror film, but this is a "Z"-grade slasher and we know it, so this entire scene, instead of terrifying us, bores us with its' cowardice.

It improves when actress Camilla Belle appears. In the role of terrified, determined babysitter Jill Johnson, Belle awards the thin proceedings a dramatic power and sense of innocence-being-bloodied not in the script, but in her eyes and her depiction of Jill's reactions and emotions. She's in most shots and uses each to carve out a character we can sympathize with and root for. In fact, she's so great we can almost forgive the first 25 minutes with Jill which serve to set up a home dispute between her and her parents, a high school relationship drama she's part of, and a bonfire party she's missing to babysit, all plot elements which are shoved into the spotlight for a gigantic amount of time, but never pay off in a significant way.

The rest of the performers fail to register, as the no-name actors fall short in their attempts to bring vivid life to the (often nameless and emotionless) peripheral characters. I was rather disappointed, though, by how West handled the children actors. Placing children in harrowing situations is a great suspense-builder, but these actors aren't even given much dialogue and spend most of the film in bed recovering from the flu.

But while his misuse of dedicated children actors is disappointing, his control of suspense, atmosphere, and villian-hinting is strong. The house in which Jill is babysitting is amusing in an unintentional way, due to how goth it is (how many people do you know who have multiple statues of deformed tribal beings in their home?), West shoots it with shadow-covered menace and when action does arise, it's shot with an urgent taste for claustrophobia. His pacing isn't the best, though, as the film spends an untold amount of time showing Jill wandering the home, answering the phone to hear the stranger breathing, and hearing odd noises which, after an investigation, result in nothing, while the last 25 minutes include tons of action (the rest has next-to-none). Also, he should have cut the prologue and the nightmare hospital-set epilogue, as both are useless filler and add nothing to the film's message or suspense. In fact, they lessen both by forcing it to begin and end with a whimper.

Overall, 'When a Stranger Calls' is not a great film. It's also not a bad one. Depending on your preferences, it is worth a matinee or at the very least, a rental once it hits DVD.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental.
  3.5 out of 5 stars

 
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