Wednesday, February 22, 2006

When a Stranger Calls

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (Simon West, 2006)

In WHEN A STRANGER CALLS a low-stress babysitting job turns into a struggle to survive and protect the children. Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is in charge of watching the Mandrakis kids while their parents have a night out. The remote palatial home is decked out with an aviary and indoor pond, motion sensor lights, and, of course, a security system. The two children are in bed when Jill arrives, so she expects to have an easy night until she begins receiving harassing phone calls.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is the latest in a string of 70s horror remakes, but it is a rarity in the onslaught of contemporary horror films. It doesn’t aim to show new levels of gore. When a detective is shown the bloody crime scene from the first killing, the camera stays on a close-up of his face, something straight out of the 1950s. The killer is not the focus of attention either. Who he is and what his motivations are matter less than how Jill’s mind conceives him.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS understands that when alone and isolated in an unfamiliar place, an overactive imagination can be as frightening as any real threats. The film has little plot or action to speak of—a teenage girl gets creepy phone calls from an unknown man—but director Simon West builds the tension by delaying the showdown between heroine and villain. The director also is restrained in employing cheap “gotcha” moments, although, as is the case with these films, there will be at least one moment when a cat is responsbile for a false alarm.

It seems to be a rite of passage for actresses to star in a horror film. Camilla Belle, last seen holding her own with Daniel Day-Lewis in THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE, doesn't have her abilities tested as the thinly characterized babysitter, but as assertive scream queens go, she acquits herself nicely.

Grade: B-

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