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When A Stranger Calls: Frank's Take

01/03/2006. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

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The derivative horror flick When A Stranger Calls is about as thrilling as a disconnected phone line, says Frank. Director Simon West dials up a wrong number in this flimsy remake of the 1979 B-movie thriller starring Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actress Carol Kane and a respectable supporting cast.

When A Stranger Calls (2006) Screen Gems

The derivative horror flick When A Stranger Calls is about as thrilling as a disconnected phone line. Director Simon West dials up a wrong number in this flimsy remake of the 1979 B-movie thriller starring Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actress Carol Kane and a respectable supporting cast.

Despite the 27-year old original's impeccable performers appearing in this babysitting/stalker story, Stranger wasn't necessarily a crafty nail-biter to begin with in its tepid presentation. So it's no real surprise that West's generic updated offering (which features a virtually unknown cast of players) is nothing more than a pointless footnote regarding teenaged paranoia saddled in a designated domestic setting.

Tiredly clichéd and inherently lame by today's goose bump standards, When A Stranger Calls is another Hollywood concocted creepfest that spends considerable time mining the predictable themes of the jittery genre usually incorporating the favourable elements of sacrificial teens and arbitrary menacing forces. To his credit, West (Con Air, Tomb Raider) does helm a convincingly stylish and toned-down fright fable that isn't purposely bogged down in an overabundance of blatant gore and other manufactured mayhem just to give this vehicle a twisted, lively pulse. And there's certainly a satirical commentary about teenyboppers and their inexplicably intimate connections with cell phones.

However, West's low-key psychological thriller may not be wickedly charged enough for avid horror fans to invest in such a toothless premise lacking blood, boobs, beasts or broken bones. Whether you appreciate your fright-oriented fantasies ridiculously rambunctious or subtly tension-filled, When A Stranger Calls feels about as flat and plastic as a long distance phone card.

The film's heroine Jill (Camilla Belle from The Ballad of Jack and Rose) is forced into her role as a reluctant babysitter as the result of her irresponsibility involving a neglected cell phone bill. She has to watch over The Mandrakis' (Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings) children (Arthur Young and Madeline Carroll) in order to make some money to cover her dial-up debts. Stuck in a spacious fancy house that might as well serve as a correctional facility, Jill is easily bored and contemplates about her misfortune in missing out on the excitement for her pals' bonfire gathering. Nevertheless, the young caretaker is alone but has to make the best out of an inconvenient situation.

Soon, Jill is dismayed by the sudden various noises and twitches that invade the ominous atmosphere of the expansive Mandrakis household. Joining in on the developing madness are random phone calls to the house that cannot be dismissed as being prankish. Understandably, Jill is worried as the conniving caller (voiced by Lance Henricksen) becomes more and more disgruntled in his verbal tirade over the phone.

It wouldn't be long before the calculating caller becomes a visiting stranger (played physically by Tommy Flanagan) as he barges into the elaborate estate therefore causing an excitable cat-and-mouse hunt between him and the rattled Jill. How will Jill protect herself and the vulnerable charges? Will the stranger get the best of the beleaguered babysitter before the evening retires?

Sadly, West and screenwriter Jake Wade fail to make When A Stranger Calls the nerve-racking narrative it potentially could have been in concept. There were so many missed opportunities to heighten the suspense and parlay this laid back thriller into a horrifying head game of matching wits. Without the conventional crutch of exaggerated violence (which incidentally is rather refreshing to be honest), Stranger feels naked in its pseudo-scary skin.

The lean script and by-the-numbers direction doesn't take proper advantage of its built-in anxieties. Other than the familiar signs of watching the same old "teens-in-peril" shtick where the misguided actions of the young protagonists are frustrating while indirectly assisting the maniacal villain at large, Stranger doesn't seem to leave much to the imagination. Sequences involving heavy breathing and occasional off-colour quips ("Have you checked the children?") aren't enough to scare loose bacteria off of a stale muffin. Plus, the stilted dialogue is minimal and artificially mundane. More important, the vast luxurious house that's being used to serve as the perverse playground for our harried leading lady and her tormentor never manages to generate any additional turmoil in the so-called disturbing proceedings that are taking place.

Because Stranger lacks the traditional treacherous tics of its creepy contemporaries in the gratuitous department, this seedy session needed to be smart, intuitive and inventive about its entertaining chills. But the stillborn plot and trivial terror-minded devices disables this skin-crawler from becoming nothing more than another forgettable boofest suited for late night cable television. West stretches this gimmicky material out thinly but can't sustain anything credible beyond the typical antics of the movie's hysterical curvaceous bait being chased and compromised by the invading sicko with a one-track agenda.

As with most horror films, the looming background music plays an instrumental part in shaping the audience's jumpy expectations. Still, West overly manipulates this process and lets the demanding soundtrack speak for the upcoming cheap shocking moments instead of simply relying on the genuine threatening incidents within the movie to cater to our nervousness. Sure, West instils some degrees of edginess from time to time but the movie takes a tedious turn in stimulating the action throughout its 83-minute existence.

Stranger oddly has its performers "phoning-in" their laughable roles. Belle is pleasantly presentable as the put-upon Jill-a damsel in distress fending off a psycho at will. She tries to hold this meagre terror tale together but her supporting co-stars aren't up to the task. As for Belle/Jill's on-screen teenaged friends, they are complete twits and really have no particular function in this movie other than to serve as mere guinea pigs to the contrived chaos. And look out for David Denman (from NBC-TV's The Office) as a dim law-enforcing officer named Burroughs who couldn't solve a mystery even if it was pasted to his tin badge.

Overall, when this particular Stranger calls and decides to chitchat in a deadly manner, simply hang up! And please concentrate on paying your cell phone bill as opposed to wasting your funds on this dialling-for-dollars dreck.

Frank Ochieng

© Frank Ochieng 2006

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