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The original When a Stranger Calls is a low-key thriller, with the babysitting scene making up only the first twenty minutes or so, after which it descends into a rather boring hunt for the killer. The Hollywood remake machine came calling in 2006. So, does this version improve on the 1979 movie, or is it yet another pointless remake?

When A Stranger Calls


Camilla Belle stars as Jill Johnson, a high school student in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend. She has used up far too many minutes on her mobile phone talking to him so her father, who pays the bill, has had enough and tells her she has to do some babysitting to make the money back that she owes him. So one night when her parents are going out, Jill gets dropped off at the Mandrakis residence to look after the children who are already tucked up in bed.

The house where she is left is a huge modern place, full of dark corridors and plot devices, er… I mean interesting features. After searching around the house, she starts to get prank calls on the house phone and it all starts to get a bit creepy. Eventually she works out that there is someone out there trying to scare her and anyone who has seen the trailer knows the whereabouts of her tormentor, so she has to work out how she’s going to keep the children safe.

When a Stranger Calls has received quite a beating from the critics. It has been accused of being an unoriginal, by-the-numbers PG-13 scary movie (notice I don’t use the word horror—there’s nothing horrific on show here) that should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve already skipped ahead to the ratings, you’ll know that I’m not completely of this opinion, although there are many reasons why this isn’t a classic. Even though it runs for an economical eighty-seven minutes, When a Stranger Calls takes a while to get going. Given that it’s based on the first twenty minutes of the original, there’s a lot of padding and our heroine spends a lot of time chasing red herrings around the house for the first half of the movie. The performances aren’t exactly great, but Camilla Belle is convincing enough to keep the movie moving along by herself even though the screenplay is fairly lazy, being an exact mix of lines from the original and every ‘Dead Teenager' movie since Scream.

When A Stranger Calls
Simon West’s direction is functional, showcasing his moderate talent without ever offering anything original. His use of metaphors is fairly heavy-handed (check out the use of balloons) but he does make the PG-13 rating work in his favour, leaving some events to the imagination where an R rating would have allowed him to let the blood flow freely. There’s plenty of fake smoke and creepy sound effects, and early teens watching this while babysitting will be sufficiently spooked.

My theory is that When a Stranger Calls is a product for teenagers, the same as any video game or cheesy pop album. Its purpose is to exist within a set of very strict guidelines that the marketing department (which is no doubt bigger than the creative department) have decided are attractive to the target demographic. As a result, we have a movie so incredibly clichéd and predictable it almost beggars belief, however this is not necessarily a bad thing, and I’ll tell you why. Everyone with a taste in movies had to start somewhere. There’s a very good chance that the kids who watch this movie may be watching their very first scary movie. This may even be the first movie they saw in the cinema without their parents, so why not teach them the rules? Not every film has to be a genre-bending masterpiece so why not go to the opposite end of the spectrum and give the kids 'Scary Movies 101'?

Those of us who’ve seen Alien and every scary film since know the black cat we’re introduced to early on is going to jump out of a dark corner before long and those of us who’ve been raised on a diet of thrillers know that every gadget we see is going to come in useful later on. But there are plenty of audience members watching When a Stranger Calls who aren’t experts in genre conventions and as a result they’ll probably think this is the best movie they’ve ever seen. It’s doubtful that this will stay top of their list for long but if it gives young movie-goers a taste for the scary stuff, then it’s alright in my book.

When A Stranger Calls


The feature is shown in anamorphic widescreen, and it is very well presented. Given that the movie was only just filmed in high definition twelve months ago, I expected the standard to be high, and I wasn’t disappointed. There is no noticeable dirt or scratches on the picture. A large part of the movie is spent following Jill creeping around in shadows, so it’s good to see no obvious compression in the black regions. It's also good to see that the DVD producers kept the original 2.40:1 ratio when it would have been so easy to alter it to 16:9 for the DVD release.


The director makes good use of the surround channels, with lots of eerie rumbling, screeching and moaning to give you the creeps. The sound quality is as equally high as the video and I would have given the audio the edge if it wasn’t for one thing. Some of the most important lines of the script come from the rasping voice of Lance Henriksen’s stranger but the volume of his lines is lower than the rest of the audio track so it takes a lot of the emotional impact away from the movie.

When A Stranger Calls


There are two audio commentaries on offer here: one from Simon West and Camilla Belle and one from screenwriter Jake Wade Wall. In addition to the feature being ‘My First Scary Movie’, the audio track with the director and star feels like ‘My First Commentary Track’, giving the viewers a well-rounded overview of the story, film-making process, genre conventions used and plenty of interesting pieces of trivia. West and Belle obviously enjoyed working together but the director waxes lyrical about the shock moments like this is the greatest scary movie ever made. The second track with the writer is a bit more difficult to take in. Wall makes some interesting points but he is also living in a world where no one has seen the original movie and he has a penchant for the word ‘organic’. He also says that he wanted to base the story in the ‘banality of babysitting’ which isn’t the most positive approach to writing a thriller I’ve ever heard of.

The ‘Making of’ featurette is a fairly standard made-for-TV piece with a lot of talking heads saying how great it is and clips from the movie but not that much footage of the movie actually being filmed. There are only two deleted scenes—one is an expansion of the scene when Jill first calls the police and one where she receives another prank call. Both take the viewer out of the house with Jill and lower the tension so it's no surprise they ended up on the cutting room floor.

There is a huge amount of trailers packed onto this disc, three of which ( Ultraviolet, RV and The Da Vinci Code) are forced on you when the disc is loaded, but it is possible to skip past them. There are twelve additional trailers, which (in my mind anyway) back up my theory that this DVD is a product designed to get young potential movie-goers interested in other films from Sony Pictures.

When A Stranger Calls


Unoriginal. Predictable. Frustrating. They are all words that can be used to describe When a Stranger Calls but in the right context, the movie is not completely without merit. Even though the film-makers find it difficult to stretch the concept out to a full feature, I enjoyed it a lot more than the original even though I’m not a fourteen-year-old girl with plenty of my parents’ income at my disposal. The extras are fairly standard and serve the viewer (and Sony Pictures) well, giving decent insight into the making of the film. This is likely to be the first scary movie in the DVD collection of many kids and in my opinion, they could do a lot worse.