'A Stranger Calls': Stalking Nonsense

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006

You baby-sit, you know the rules: The Pepsi's in the fridge, chips are in the cupboard, and if the phone rings ominously, the call is coming from inside the house.

That's how profoundly the 1979 movie "When a Stranger Calls" has seeped into the public consciousness, with its central conceit -- that an unfamiliar house can hold any number of surprises, including murderous stalkers -- taking an enduring hold on babysitters' imaginations the way the shark from "Jaws" swam into the headspace of anyone even contemplating a dip in the ocean.

"When a Stranger Calls" has been remade -- with undistinguished if inoffensive results -- by Simon West, who is quickly becoming a reliable purveyor of Hollywood's dreckiest dreck. In this insipid, witless version, he's decided to focus obsessively on the visuals, streamlining and updating the setting and implicating 21st-century technology in the overall atmosphere of dread. (Not surprisingly, "When a Stranger Calls" was not screened in advance for critics.)

What's more, he's turned the usual stereotype of spooky house on its head, with a sleek, contemporary timber-and-glass structure taking the place of the usual gothic turrets and parlors. The result is that the house itself becomes as frightening as the man lurking in its many well-appointed shadows.

The original "When a Stranger Calls" starred Carol Kane, who looked scared even when she wasn't. Here, babysitter Jill Johnson is played by Camilla Belle ("The Ballad of Jack and Rose"), a dark, lissome actress who manages to look fetching, frightened and feisty on cue. Jill is baby-sitting this dark and stormy night because she's gone over her cell-phone minutes; as she and her father drive to the isolated house -- designed in the tradition known as I Have More Money Than You -- he quips, "I should have been a doctor." Oddly, neither of them chat about the recent rash of babysitter murders in the area -- 15! You'd think people would be just a tad skittish.

But no, Jill follows Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis around the house (with supreme teenage confidence, and it isn't until they leave and she's settled down in the middle of the glass-encased living room (her two charges are asleep upstairs) that the phone starts to ring. And ring. And ring. A prank? Wrong number? The live-in housekeeper upstairs? Todd, the college-age son who may or may not be out in the guest house? Who could it be? Jill keeps doggedly answering, and viewers old enough to remember "A Star Is Born" -- should they find themselves watching this movie for some reason -- may wish she'd just once answer "Acme Trucking Company" a la Janet Gaynor.

She doesn't. But after an hour of scary noises, penumbral oddities, cat-induced startles and almost a dozen false "whammies," the movie's famous tag line is spoken: "The calls are coming from inside the house." The cat-and-mouse chase wherein Jill must outrun, outsmart and outfight her attacker lasts only a few scant minutes and unfolds almost with businesslike, pro forma predictability.

West exploits the surfaces and textures of the house to maximum effect; one lesson of "When a Stranger Calls" circa 2006 may be that, when a koi pond is involved, be afraid, be very afraid. Cell phones, automated sprinkler systems and motion-activated lights all play their part in creating a suitably scary environment, not to mention the Mandrakis's extensive collection of paintings and a sculpture that writhes in modernist agony -- contemporary art hasn't been this scary since the Giuliani administration. Still, "When a Stranger Calls" never manages to convey the primal, almost atavistic terror that has earned John Carpenter's movies and the "Scream" franchise their places in the teen horror canon. The most lasting psychological effect of this pulp non-classic will most likely be limited to a deep pathological fear of Architectural Digest.

When a Stranger Calls (87 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense terror, violence and brief profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company