When a Stranger Calls

2006-09-19 17:53


In a remote hilltop house, high school student Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) settles in for a routine night of babysitting. With the children sound asleep and a beautiful home to explore, she locks the door and sets the alarm. But when a series of eerie phone calls from a stranger insists that she "check the children," Jill begins to panic. Fear escalates to terror when she has the calls traced and learns that the calls are coming from inside the house. Jill must summon all of her inner strength if she is going to make it out of the house alive.


The only real pleasures to be had out of this otherwise tedious film are the sight of its engaging, elfin heroine (played by the exceedingly lovely Camilla Belle) and the equally gorgeous house in which she finds herself trapped. The house - who's interiors were purpose built for the production - is straight out of an architecture magazine, with quadruple volume windows, free standing staircases and an incredible central atrium that also serves as a koi pond and aviary.

Equally, the only real horror offered by the film is watching this immaculate dwelling being disarranged in the inevitable chase through the house when the psycho finally stops making prank calls and actually does something. This comes far later than you might think, and until then you have to be content with watching Ms Belle creep around the corridors to investigate yet another suspicious noise. These noises, without exception, turn out to be caused by one of myriad of household appliances and pets - a cheap trick that quickly wears thin.

The screenwriter - a young horror specialist with the improbable name of Jake Wade Wall - explains in the film's notes that he spent a night in a strange house and that every noise scared the willies out of him. We've all experienced this kind of thing, and it would seem to be fertile ground for suspense, but Wall and his fellow filmmakers just can't seem to transmit this primal unease to the audience. While Wall's determination to avoid the easy cliche of blood 'n guts is laudable, he doesn't replace it with anything, and fairly soon we begin to long for a little old fashioned axe-work to spice things up.

Not that director Simon West (of Con Air fame) and his able-bodied crew don't do their utmost to make the film succeed. The finely tuned score by James Dooley (a Hans Zimmer protege) works overtime to conjure up tension that simply isn't there. The cinematography and production design are equally good, doing their best to use light and space to heighten the sense of terror. But, in the end, a noisy ice machine and a wandering housecat are never going to make jaded modern audiences jump.

You'd think when the caller eventually shows his face that things might pick up. Alas, he proves to be the most leisurely and ineffectual killer in the history of slasher films. He strolls after his prey with a gait that the filmmakers must have thought was menacing and relentless, but looks more tentative than anything else. When he eventually does catch hold of his quarry - a girl 6 inches shorter and 40 kilograms lighter than him - she appears to have relatively little trouble fighting him off. Yes, this may be physically possible, but it sure 'ain't scary.

The best outcome we can hope for from When a Stranger Calls is that it propels Camilla Belle up to the next rung of her career. The fact that she is in nearly every shot of a film this tedious and that we never once feel animosity towards her is proof enough of her potential as a star. You could put this down to good looks, but even eye candy wears thin after 45 minutes of sod all happening.

Should you watch it? Only as a last resort on DVD. Even if you've never seen a slasher film in your life, this one will fail to raise your heart rate, let alone truly frighten you. If you're looking for a decent skrik, rather rent one of the classics of the '70s or early '80s like The Evil Dead or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In those days budgets were small but ideas were big. Oh, how things have changed.

- Alistair Fairweather

Yet another (allegedly) classic '70s slasher flick is resurrected with loads of budget and nearly zero scares. Hang up now.

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