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When a Stranger Calls

Seventies horror is back in style. Or should I say Hollywood is desperately trying to repackage old seventies horror films for a new generation. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was recently redone and a sequel is due out; and The Hills Have Eyes is slated for release soon. In the meantime theres a redo of When a Stranger Calls (opening February 3 throughout San Diego).

When a Stranger Calls is based on a short film called The Sitter and a 1979 feature starring Carol Kane. All three films have the same premise: a babysitter receives unnerving and ultimately threatening calls from a mysterious stranger. That premise (the phone calls not the babysitter part) also fueled the Scream films but in those films it became more of a joke than a horror device. In fact when a 1993 TV movie called When a Stranger Calls Back (with an older Carol Kane reprising her role as Jill Johnson) came out, the tag line was Before Scream there was the Stranger.

In Simon Wests new version of When a Stranger Calls, everythings been updated, expanded and made more expensive. When Carol Kane was babysitting back in 1979, there were no cell phones, no GPS tracking, no portable phones with multiple numbers and the house was just your run of the mill suburban tract home. Now, the new Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) must baby sit in a luxury, custom built mansion situated out in the middle of nowhere. But this increased amount of real estate doesnt provide the filmmaker with any new territory to cover. West delivers a predictable and uninspired teen in peril horror flick.

First of all, West wastes time with a prologue showing (or rather implying) what this nasty killer has done before. Then we have a totally meaningless bit with Jill training for track (okay she does run later in the film but theres no pay off that comes from this early scene). Then theres more padding with scenes involving Jills relationship problems (her best friend and boyfriend were caught kissing). When West finally brings the action (or lack of action) to the house, he fails to exploit the huge ominous home for his fullest horror potential. He has some creepy statues and paintings but he never makes good use of house. Instead he relies on stupid horror gimmickscats knocking things over, a coat hanging that looks like a persondesigned to make ten-year-olds squeal and adults yawn. The only set element he even attempts to put to good use is a Japanese-style garden and aviary in the center of the house. Wests ineptitude at horror is revealed in his reliance on clich. Shadows, branches creaking in the wind and a bimbo who not only drops her keys but also then cant start her car as she tries to flee from whatever lurks in the darkness. I mean really, if youre going to subject us to these contrivances can you at least decide on which clich you want to use and not try and tap into all of them at once.

In addition, West (who produced Black Hawk Down and directed the severely grounded Con-Air) doesnt understand that the key to making this kind of film scary is to build up the psychological horror. We have to get the sense that the caller is toying with his victim and making her squirm. We dont feel any tension build and we dont sense that Jills fears are mounting. West makes most of the film drag and then rushes the ending. And the films final downfall is that its rated PG-13 and cant even up the horror ante with some gore. At least the Japanese inspire PG-13 horror films (The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water) knew how to build atmosphere and could deliver chills without overt gore. But When a Stranger Calls has neither atmosphere nor stylish bloodletting. Its about as exciting as babysitting in a home without television.

As Jill, Camilla Belle struggles with the horrors of a bad script and emerges with only minor injuries. Belle has a beguiling screen presence that was put to exquisite use in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. But its simply a waste to put her talents to work in such a lame and undemanding film as this. Hopefully better films are waiting down the road for her.

When a Stranger Calls (rated PG-13) seemed to please the ten-year-olds that were watching from the front row and screaming at all the right cues. But anyone older than ten is likely to be disappointed. The film is also hurt by the fact that everyone probably knows the story either from seeing the 70s film or listening to urban myths. When delivering something as familiar as this, you need a filmmaker who can either tweak the formula or deliver the familiar with an excess of style. Unfortunately, Simon West does neither. Let this call go to voicemail.

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