Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2021)
When a remake appears, there’s a tendency to lionize the original and attack the new version. But what does one do when the first edition wasn’t very good?
It’s altogether possible that a remake can improve on its predecessor. I thought that was the case for the modern versions of Dawn of the Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I hoped it might prove true for the 2006 edition of When a Stranger Calls.
After all, I referred to the 1979 original as “dissatisfying and hokey”, so there was lots of room to grow.
Too bad the 2006 Stranger fails to fill those gaps. “Dissatisfying and hokey” looks really good compared to this atrocious piece of horror nonsense.
As Stranger starts, we get hints of a violent attack, as someone slays a babysitter and her charges in a gruesome manner. After that short prelude, we head to a town 125 miles away from the crime scene to meet teenage babe Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle). When she goes over her cell phone minutes, her dad (Clark Gregg) makes her work off the bill as a babysitter.
This night she works for the Mandrakis family in their enormous estate. While Jill settles into the place, she receives periodic odd phone calls.
At first these consist of little more than static, but eventually the mystery voice asks about the status of the children. Not surprisingly, these creepy calls start to scare her, and the film follows her evening of terror.
Scary films aren’t often known for their subtlety, but Stranger takes things to a ridiculous extreme. Nothing here comes from the real world, as from minute one, director Simon West portrays all the environments as terrifying and foreboding. Scenes of happy kids at the carnival threaten us and Jill’s high school looks like a place where the Manson family intersects with Columbine.
Matters get no lighter when Jill hits the Mandrakis estate. An enormous and exceedingly posh place, the film treats it like a haunted house and gives us the impression Jill’s about to enter hell when she gets there.
James Dooley’s score creaks and swarms as it leaves the most foreboding of impressions. The girl turns on the TV and the movie treats this like a violent attack!
What’s the point of this constant attempt to spook the audience? Shouldn’t the film earn its scares in a natural manner and let us follow the events as they occur?
Sure, that’s the way it should be, but a hack like West doesn’t trust the material enough to allow it to progress that way.
Instead, he figures that if he doesn’t beat us into submission with Big Scary Stuff, then we’ll lose interest – I guess. The inherent story of Stranger offers enough primal chills to succeed on its own.
Who doesn’t get freaked by the notion of being stuck in the house with a killer? Why not let that premise work for itself?
That’s an excellent question and one that I can’t answer, and Stranger feels more like a true horror movie than the psychological thriller it should be. Perhaps West thinks that if he keeps the audience on edge before the scary parts occur that they’ll have more impact, but the opposite is true.
Lull us into a sense of complacency and the jumps might happen. Telegraph everything and we’re numb before the first act ends.
West’s constant use of fake scares doesn’t help. From early in the film, it often tosses potential menaces at us, most of which inevitably prove to be nothing much.
West does so to keep us off-guard for the real events, but instead, we cease to care. By the time anything potentially frightening occurs, we just want the nonsense to conclude and let us go on with our lives.
At least Belle is about 1000 times hotter than the original flick’s Carol Kane. However, she proves to be a much less effective actor.
Belle has one expression: vaguely peeved. That’s it. No matter what happens, she shows this single look and never varies.
Combine this with her wooden line readings and it’s impossible to care about Jill. Sure, we hope that she’ll lose her top at some point, but given the movie’s “PG-13” rating, even that seems unlikely.
The thriller elements of the 1979 version never seemed too logical, and the 2006 take doesn’t fix those problems. Technology should make it a tougher story to tell, but the modern Stranger simply ignores those advances except when convenient.
Why does Jill so infrequently think to check called ID? At first it looks like the Mandrakises don’t even have that feature, which seems absurd - they own a million dollar home but can’t afford a simple add-on?
Later we see that they do have caller ID, but Jill’s too dense to utilize it. The movie loves leaps of logic and lets them abound rather than offer a story that makes sense.
I suppose I should give the 2006 Stranger credit for the fact it doesn’t simply offer a literal remake of its predecessor. In that film, Jill’s babysitting assignment only occupied the first act.
The rest of the flick leapt seven years into the future as it looked at the murderer and the aftermath of the slaying. The 2006 flick goes the straight horror route and only follows the events of the single evening.
That’s what I – and probably a lot of people – thought the story of the original would be, so I don’t see the narrow focus of the 2006 When a Stranger Calls to be a problem. I do dislike the flick’s heavy-handed storytelling and lack of any drama, real scares or reason to exist. It takes an intriguing premise and turns it into nothing more than just another cheap slasher film.
Trivia note: two years before the formal launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we find Tessa “Valkyrie” Thompson and Clark “Agent Coulson” Gregg in supporting roles.