“He is calling from within the house.” What a line! Since the original version of When a Stranger Calls came out in 1979, that sentence — packed with impending terror –has resonated with babysitters and played on their fears as they sit isolated in unfamiliar houses, responsible for their sleeping charges.
The original never lived up to the line but this new version does a fairly decent job of stretching the suspense through 83 minutes of near-constant peril. Why bother to introduce any original twists when you can make a solid, if predictable, junior grade thriller with the simple notion that you are not alone in a dark maze of a house?
The scene opens with a montage of kids playing at a carnival alongside a suburban house where a ghastly murder takes place in shadow play in the upper window. It is no surprise then that we are introduced to young Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) running sprints in her school gym. Clearly, she will need her speed again before the movie ends. The plot moves along well and in mere minutes we learn why she is heading out on a babysitting gig instead of joining her friends at the lakeside bonfire that night.
She has gone over her cell phone minutes by nearly 14 hours, talking to her ex-boyfriend, and has racked up enough debt to make her parents take away her phone and car privileges. Also, she has to pay off the phone bill, hence the babysitting stint at the “Architecture Digest”-worthy modern manse of the Mandrakis family. The thrills start when the stranger calls, asking his troubling “Have you checked the children?” mantra and causing Jill to start jumping at shadows for the long night that follows.
Needless to say the rest of the movie plays with the dark corridors (the lights all work by motion detectors), that distracting cat, the wind in the trees outside, and of course with our fear of the dark. Do people do stupid things in this movie? Absolutely, but the movie rests on Jill’s shoulders quite comfortably, never seeming to ask too much of her fine if not outstanding acting performance. While this movie is far from a “stranger”, for some it will be a predictable and welcome call worth a few shivers but ultimately forgettable as soon as you get off the line.
Parents should know that there is near-constant peril and the movie will give bad dreams to even the bravest of babysitters. There are references to horrific murder and you see a man threatening the lives of children. Two characters die and a character is stalked in a dark house. One character refers to her “tequila problem” as the reason she kissed another girl’s boyfriend and teens kiss and drink by a bonfire with little apparent oversight. There is strong language to describe a character’s actions.
Families that see this movie might want to talk about the advice Jill’s father gives her about how acting responsibly is most important when it hurts or costs something. What does he mean in reference to the reason that Jill is being punished? What does it mean in the context of her decisions in the house? What does Jill do wisely and what would you do differently?
Families that enjoy this movie might want to watch the original with Carol Kane or get their shivers in more memorable spooky movies such as Gaslight or the original 13 Ghosts.
Thanks to guest critic AME.