Sunday, February 05, 2006

REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (2006)

Sing it if ya' know it: A teenaged babysitter, all alone at night, is harassed by spooky phone calls from an unknown source. She calls the cops, who agree to put a trace on the calls just in case. It's only heavy-breathing at first, then direct threats, and then... the cops call back, frantic: Get out! The calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!

I'm not 100% sure whether or not the above urban leged existed or not, or if so in what form, before it was immortalized in the original "When a Stranger Calls" in 1979, but surely it must have, no? It seems too good of a flashlight-under-the-chin slumber party chiller to have originated entirely from a mostly-average late-70s teen horror offering, most notable historically for being the 2nd moneymaking genre-pic to have originally begun production as a sequel to the seminal "Black Christmas" (the first, as any horrorphile worth his weight in karo syrup can tell you, was "Halloween.")

Make no mistake, the original film's first act, which contains the actual "babysitter calling" portion, deserves it's high rank among horror movie moments. Then it becomes a drawn-out detective story, capped by a final round of stalking for the climax. Much of it feels like padding, and it is, a logical corrective to a basic problem with the material: The main setup works as a minimalist campfire tale, but it's not going to work as a feature.

So guess what the new 2006 remake decides to try and do?

Yes, the new "When a Stranger Calls" opts to make a go for spreading the original film's first 20 minutes over the length of a whole movie. With no significant additions to the goings-on. That's right, 90 minutes and change of a high school aged babysitter getting scary phonecalls. On the plus side, NONE of these 90 minutes is ever visualized via a camcorder, which in modern "horror" is a welcome respite.

Give director Simon West (or, rather, his art department) credit, though, for at least attempting a practical solution to the problem of stretching such a bare-bones story to proper length: Faced with having only one main character in one location, they try and turn the location into a co-star in it's own right. This time around the "action" takes place in an ultra-expensive, ultra-custom house all alone on the shore of a wooded lake; boasting not only motion-sensing lights, conveniently-spooky sculptures and remote-controlled everything... but also a huge, glass-enclosed atrium/coy-pond/parakeet-sanctuary at it's center. Really. What's more, it's layout and lighting-scheme look as though the owners walked into an architecture firm and specifically requested a home as condusive as possible to the requirements of a PG-13 "horror" movie's heroine/stalker showdown.

Also, we're informed early on that said stalker's "M.O." is to tear victims apart with his bare hands, suggesting (at least) that he's on the same fitness regimen as Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees. As expected, guess who will none the less find himself unable to successfully overpower a teenaged girl who appears to weigh maybe 100 lbs soaking-wet?

Y'wanna know what's REALLY scary? This totally-disposable waste of screentime cost next to nothing (in studio terms) to make, it's going to make back it's money and be the #1 film in America this weekend thanks to the PG-13 rating and lack of competition, and the original film got at least one sequel. Brrrr!