When A Stranger Calls

Movie Review by Dr Kuma

Starring: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty

Director: Simon West

A number of critics at this film’s screening seemed to remember the 1978 original on which this tale is based to be far better than it was, which is strange as this 2006 version is far better than it should actually have any right to be.

I remember seeing the original myself when it was re-released on a double bill with the classic Roger Corman film HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP aka MONSTER, starring the great 70’s hero Doug McClure at my local flea pit in 1980, the poster of which adorned my bedroom wall after I “claimed” it from the current attractions hording after the show (it was raining and was falling off anyway I said to myself). Bar the classic line “the phone calls are coming from inside the house” I thought WHEN A STRANGER CALLS was a mere time filler while we waited for the second feature, which became a favourite. I even folded the poster in half so only the MONSTER artwork on the double bill poster showed when I blue tacked it to my wall as I thought the original film was so poor. Strange then that a great many critics thought so highly of the original in pre-movie discussions and weren’t really cherishing what they (and I to be honest) thought would be a rehash of done to death idea, trying to carry it off in the day of the mobile phone. I thought the same but it’s the ingenuity the scriptwriters use to get round the fact that breakthroughs in all things technical (house alarms/police call out links/tracers and the aforementioned mobile) that make this film work.

The story, which I condensed to nine words earlier, is as follows. Jill Johnson (the aptly named Camilla Belle) is your average teenage girl. When she goes over her cell phone bill by 800 minutes she has her mobile withdrawn by her parents. She is then grounded and forced to babysit in a house in the middle of the hills overlooking a lake. After the owners of the home leave for the night, Jill is left alone with the two children. After a short while she begins to get awkward prank calls which become darker with each pick up. Jill begins to worry and calls the police. They tell her that she is safe inside the house, but they will still watch the phone line and trace the call if she can keep the stranger on for more than a minute (this after being grounded for being on the phone too long previously! Adults eh?) When Jill finally succeeds in keeping the stranger on for more than a minute she is told by the police that the call is coming from (spooking voice and as mentioned) inside the house…. Now Jill and the children must escape this nightmare before it’s too late and the game of cat and mouse with the killer begins.

The people who really deserve the credit here are the director Simon West (LARA CRAP, sorry CROFT and CON AIR) for giving us the kind of stalker movie that John Carpenter used to make while the others are the set designers as the main star of the film is the incredible house itself. Its design and construction wrings every drop of suspense out of a tired cliché. This is no ordinary house and it is the fact that it is so well conceived that helps drive this movie along. It’s not a Gothic mansion but an ultra modern 11,000 sq ft of well thought out and executed fineness. Each room in this house is used as a plot device, especially the menagerie. Indeed, to quote a sci-fi title, the designer Jon Gary Steele (another apt name) and his team are indeed The Architects Of Fear.

Dr Kuma’s verdict: This, as said, is far better than you would come to expect. On leaving the screening the same said critics said that, “they had seen that film many times before”. The fact is though that this is easily one of the better versions and for style alone, is far more creative than the original on which it is based. But how, if the calls are made from inside the house does the pick up extension ring? Surely it would be engaged?

4 out of 6 stars

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