When A Stranger Calls Review
Has there ever been a movie with a louder, more intrusive and more overbearing music score than When A Stranger Calls? James Dooley's score booms and rumbles and shrieks at an incredible decibel level from the opening logos till the end credits. If you go and see this, make sure you're not sitting near the speakers. The music drowns out the dialogue and makes it difficult to concentrate on what's happening onscreen. Maybe that's the point.
Virtually nothing happens in this film. For at least two thirds of the running time, we're simply watching a teenage girl wander around an enormous, luxury house. The house looks fantastic (I'll come back to that) and the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr is at times quite stunning. However, as pretty as the film looks and as noisy as the music score is, still, nothing is happening.
When A Stranger Calls is a seventy-five minute build-up to a slasher movie finale we've seen a hundred times before. This might work if the film's creators used that seventy-five minutes to establish interest in the teenage girl and in the creep who keeps calling her, if they'd got us emotionally involved in the girl's situation and if they'd created some actual suspense. They do none of those things.
We never find out anything about the killer, the Stranger of the title, except that he's sadistic. Two good actors are thrown away on the role - Lance Hendriksen provides the killer's telephone voice and Scotsman Tommy Flanagan plays him in the flesh. I assume Flanagan was cast simply for the scar on his face.
All we learn about the heroine, Jill Johnson (played by the fetchingly pouty Camilla Belle) is that she's recently split up with her boyfriend after he kissed her best friend. And her father has grounded her and taken away her mobile phone for a month because she ran up a large bill during the break-up. And she babysits. Jill is onscreen for almost every frame of this film, usually alone. Couldn't screenwriter Jake Wade Wall have done better than this?
In what little character development there is, the details don't ring true - Jill is unhappy with her dad's strictness but then, when he drops her off to babysit and says goodbye, she smiles at him like she understands really. Oh please! Is there a single teenage girl on this planet who would accept the confiscation of her mobile phone with such good grace?
I guess the movie is going for a minimalist approach, like The Grudge in which a bunch of people we didn't know anything about wandered around getting jumped on by ghosts. I thought The Grudge was boring beyond belief but at least things did happen occasionally - ghosts did jump out and grab people.
When A Stranger Calls has few shocks - it has a lot of set-ups for shocks but they're almost all false scares. The plot is almost non-existent. Alone in her clients' home, with the kids' asleep upstairs, Jill gets a couple of calls from someone who hangs up without speaking. Spooked, she calls her friends to see if one of them is playing a prank. They aren't. The caller keeps ringing. The Stranger starts to speak and he says sinister things. He implies he's watching her.
No doubt this will remind most viewers of the famous opening scene of Scream in which Drew Barrymore was asked, "Do you like scary movies?" Even though this is a remake of a 1979 slasher film starring Carol Kane (which inspired Scream), few people watching this will have seen the original. I haven't. Scream took this concept and turned it into a brilliant ten-minute scene. When A Stranger Calls takes roughly the same amount of action and tries to pad it out for nearly an hour and a half.
The climax, when it finally comes, is quite well done. Director Simon West (Con Air, The General's Daughter) knows how to direct action - what he's doing wasting his time on this is anyone's guess - and the fact that Jill is trying to protect two children as well as save herself adds an element of tension missing from most slasher movie climaxes. Of course there'd be even more tension if the film had bothered to introduce us to the children. But no, we see them asleep and then they're being menaced by the Stranger. The climax also shows up just how tame and bloodless the film is. This is PG-13 horror that doesn't even try to push the rating.
The house is worth discussing. It's a genuinely amazing creation. A sleek, modern building, all glass and right angles, squatting beside a lake, it looks more like the headquarters of a computer company than somebody's home. It's vast. It has a two-storey living room with two-storey windows and two-storey curtains, servants' quarters and - get this - an indoor aviary and aquarium enclosed in glass, complete with tropical birds and a river full of koi fish. The owner's cat is forced to sit outside the glass, gazing in plaintively at the exotic snacks inside. The cat's predicament inspires more sympathy than any of the humans in this film.