The original version of this psycho-thriller was released back in 1979, just one of a spate of low-budget slasher flicks about maniacal serial killers–usually stalking high school girls–that followed on the enormous success of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (the original draft of which, after all, was titled “The Babysitter Murders”). It was a bit different from most of the bunch, though, in having not only a nerve-wracking opening (in which a babysitter is terrorized by the wacko, who repeatedly phones her from inside the house where he’s killed her charges without her knowing it) and finale (set years later, when he resumes his efforts after escaping confinement, just like the older but no wiser Michael Myers) but a more sedate, grim midsection, in which a disillusioned cop tracks the guy down not to arrest but to kill him. And it boasted a more talented cast than the norm, with Charles Durning as the cop, Coleen Dewhurst as a woman he enlists to help him, and a very young Carol Kane as the babysitter. It also spawned a 1993 sequel, though that was made for cable and never released to theatres.
Since 1979 many viewers have complained that while the beginning and end of “When a Stranger Calls” were effective and scary, the long track-down sequence plodded. So in remaking it scripter Jake Wade Wall and director Simon West have jettisoned the midsection and shown us what results when the initial ten minutes or so of the original are simply stretched out to eighty-five or thereabouts. And the answer is an excruciating bore, despite the director’s desperate efforts to instill some thrills with his roving camera and lots of abrupt sound effects. After a brief prologue that’s connected with the bulk of the movie only by a voiceover at the end, the plot that follows is the thinnest imaginable: teen Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is dropped off at the grandiose lakeside home of Dr, and Mrs. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings Grant) to wander around while the kids are asleep upstairs and the live-in housekeeper (Rosine ‘Ace’ Hatem) is engaged in more important things, like feeding the animals that inhabit the elaborate “wildlife” room, complete with chirping canaries and fish, that forms the centerpiece to the living area. (Under the circumstances it’s curious that the couple need a babysitter at all, since the housekeeper’s there and their college-age son might be out in the guesthouse, home from school.)
Anyhow, Jill soon starts getting weird phone calls and becomes increasingly frightened by them. She begins checking out the place and ultimately calls the cops, who inform her–after an hour or so of blather–that the calls are coming from inside the house. During this sixty minutes the running time is composed of a hopeless hodgepodge of the hoariest imaginable horror movie cliches–heroine wandering into darkened rooms and getting spooked, cats jumping out of closets, phones suddenly ringing, shadows moving ominously against closed curtains, vaguely menacing offscreen sounds (wind tossing about branches, unidentified bumps in the night), apparent figures looming behind doors (just clothes on hangers, of course), keys dropped by a frightened girl as she tries to open a car door, and a car engine that refuses to start when the ignition’s turned on, not to mention the insistently “scary” music that James Michael Dooley ladles over the images with a cruelly heavy hand. No explicit gore, though, if that’s unimportant to you. Unfortunately, none of what is included works in the slightest; the action throughout this “prefatory” hour remains dull as dishwater, with a momentary intrusion by Jill’s “best friend” Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), with whom she’s quarreling over her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty), even more tedious than the norm. Then for the next twenty or so minutes we move into cat-and-mouse chase mode, complete with plenty of moments of children in jeopardy and near-escapes from a guy who’s got to be the most inept serial killer in history, given the number of times everyone involved eludes his clutches. (His voice on the phone is provided by Lance Henriksen, who’s fortunate enough not to have to appear on the screen in person, but when he’s finally unmasked at the close, he’s played by one Tommy Flanagan–a thoroughly bland fellow who looks a bit like a gloomy Robert Patrick.) An epilogue set in a hospital is an exceptionally cheap shot, one of those “Carrie” ripoffs that were already over-the-hill when the first movie was released.
And if the villain is bland, the heroine’s even more of a blank. As written Jill’s nothing more than a generic teen, but what’s worse, she’s played without the slightest trace of energy by Belle, who remains stiff and inexpressive throughout. She’s such a stick that one can easily understand why Bobby has dallied even with a total airhead like Brittany.
So is there anything good about “When a Stranger Calls”? Well, for a picture like this it’s surprisingly upscale, with a handsome production design by Jon Gary Steele and art direction by Gerald Sullivan and lush widescreen cinematography by Peter Menzies, Jr. The sound team also does yeoman service.
But all their effort is in vain against the ineptitude of Wall, West and Belle. When this “Stranger” calls, just hang up.