WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (2006)
Director: Simon West
Cast: Camilla Belle, Tessa Thompson, Katie Cassidy, Brian Geraghty, Clark Gregg, Derek de Lint, Kate Jennings Grant, David Denman, Tommy Flanagan
MPAA Rating: (for intense terror, violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 2/3/06
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The horribly misguided, knuckle-brained advertising campaign for When a Stranger Calls turns a fairly uninspired thriller into a completely useless one. If you have not seen any trailer or television advertising for the movie, consider yourself lucky, because you will be able to view it without the sense of inevitability awaiting the twist within its last twenty minutes. If you have, main selling point of those ads does occur only twenty minutes or so before the movie ends, so you will have to make due in watching every uninvolving minute of the movie up until then. I will have more respect for potential moviegoers than the marketing gurus behind the ludicrous promotional campaign and not reveal what should be a surprise (not an original one, mind you, but a surprise nonetheless), but I will say that the sequence that follows that twist is a well-crafted piece of claustrophobic dread. Everything before it, though, does make you wonder how anyone could sell this movie without that vital piece of information. In other words, if you've seen the ads (and how could you miss them), this is basically a twenty-minute movie, and that twenty minutes certainly doesn't make up for the other seventy you've wasted up until then.
The movie opens with a murder at a suburban home, where one night after receiving a series of disturbing phone calls, a young girl is found in pieces. Somewhere nearby, Jill Johnson (a pretty but unconvincing Camilla Belle) has some major problems. She's racked up her cell phone minutes talking to her boyfriend, whom she caught kissing one of her best friends Tiffany (Katie Cassidy). Now, her parents have cut off her service and her father (Clark Gregg) thinks she needs to learn some responsibility and earn some money to help cover the cost of the bill by babysitting on Friday night, which also happens to be the night of the big school bonfire. Bummer. The good news is the house is huge and lush, and the kids are ill, sound asleep before Jill even arrives. The bad news is, she's all alone, almost a hundred miles from anywhere, and someone keeps calling her. She tries to call her parents, but they are out for the evening and not answering their phone. She tries to call the children's parents, but they have left the restaurant and gone to a movie. Soon, it becomes clear that whoever is calling can see inside the house.
The structure of the movie is pretty basic: the stranger calls, Jill searches the house, there's a false scare, and repeat ad nauseam. The house should be, in a way, its own character, since so much of the movie requires her to wander around, discovering new areas that could hide something startling. To a degree, it is. The decorum inside is plush, and the construction has lots of dark hallways. There's a lovely, enclosed garden in the center of the house, complete with a mister. In the movie's one interesting design concept, the lights in the room light up when someone enters (how people sleep when the bedroom lights remain on as long as someone is in there is a mystery). Of course, these will all come into play in the climax, and, as before implied, the setup of these elements pays off to an extent. In the meantime, though, Jill is encountered with the usual clichéd frights. There's a noise coming from the study, and oh, it's just the family cat. Something's making an odd noise from the garden, and oh, it's just the live-in maid. And what is that pounding from the kitchen? Oh, it's just the ice-maker.
This is all pretty tedious stuff, and so is the conflict between Jill and her boyfriend and friend, which takes up most of the exposition time and only ultimately leads to adding one more corpse to the body count. Why Jill doesn't make a bigger deal of the fact that her friend finds the garage door open after the alarm system has gone off is pretty frustrating, but a scene later perhaps explains it. Every heroine in a movie like this has to do one incredibly stupid thing. Here's one for you: the man on the phone clearly has a good view of you, and you notice that there's a shadow moving in the guest house, which just happens to be a prime viewing spot into the house. Do you a.) call the cops (who have said they will be there within twenty minutes) and tell them you think he's in the guest house, or b.) grab a flashlight and run out to the guest house thinking that it's the house keeper who's been AWOL for hours or the family's college-age son, who must have walked home from school? The smart thing is to leave the shadow be and hold tight for the cops to arrive, but then again, those cops sure are taking their sweet time, considering the fact that we discover later that this situation sounds exactly like what has happened thirteen time previously.
Time is an odd factor in When a Stranger Calls. The cops say twenty minutes and it takes about twice as long. They're tracing the phone call but need the caller to stay on the phone for a minute, which passes by within twenty seconds in one case but seems to take three times as long when they finally do. I'm simply not going to tell you the "twist." But there will be a sequel, and in it, the killer has painted himself to look exactly like one of the walls in the heroine's apartment. There, I just saved you an hour and a half a year or two from now.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.