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Friday, February 03, 2006

When A Stranger Calls

Even before dropping in on the Essex Outlet Cinemas this week to check out the latest releases I knew I wanted to see When a Stranger Calls. I was a teenager when the original came out starring a waifish Carol Kane, and it always stuck with me as one of those creepfests that could forever do damage to the babysitting trade. Much like Psycho kept young women from motel showers for most of the 1960s, When A Stranger Calls was destined to force many parents in the early '80s to stay home on Saturday nights because the adolescents in their neighborhood had seen this movie and refused to risk their lives for less than minimum wage and a half-empty carton of Ben & Jerry's in the would-be-babysat kids' fridge.

This update, directed by Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; Con Air),takes the concept of the 1979 film and turns it inside out. Instead of the claustophobic suburban Split Colonial that proved Carol Kane's prison of terror this time out Camilla Belle (The Ballad of Jack and Rose; The Chumscrubber ) assumes the role of Jill Johnson in a house that is anything but claustrophic. The Mandrakis mansion is beautifully designed as an open, glassed-in gargantuan, situated several miles away from town, nestled in a mountainous ravine by a small lake. The setting provides a crucial element as well as one of the main characters of this derivative story and is probably the best change in the script since 1979.

I can't imagine anyone over the age of 18 who doesn't know this story or hasn't already seen a variation on When A Stranger Calls. The plot is simple enough. A babysitter is in a new home, the children are asleep upstairs, and she begins to get phone calls from (duh!) a stranger. The heavy breathing soon escalates into comments that indicate the caller can see what the young woman is doing at every moment, and after she calls the police to trace the calls, the officer on the other end informs her of the obvious ~ the calls are coming from inside the house. Terror ensues as a shadowy figure stalks said babysitter (and the children) from room to room. Think Scream 1, 2, or 3, but without Neve Campbell.

The key element of success in When A Stranger Calls lies with West's ability to sustain tension rather than gore and special effects for 90 minutes. Without it there is nothing onscreen but Camilla Belle talking on a cordless phone and wandering aimlessly through the night. Fortunately, West does create a ridiculously lush yet monsterously unimaginable environment that becomes as much a central focus of the movie as Belle's Jill. The house is lit internally by motion sensors, thus when Jill enters a room the lights come on only in that space and the area directly behind her goes menacingly dark. The Great Room, about the size of a football field, is indirectly lit by the surreal reflection of the lake outside, and statues and object d'art litter every room where, in the dark, they could easily be mistaken for an intruder. A huge indoor aviary serves to ratchet up the tension further as it provides a constant distraction of movement from the birds within.

Other than building fear amongst its' viewers When A Stranger Calls offers little else in terms of plot development or motive for why the sweet-faced babysitter is being stalked, but then I doubt that those who are looking for a fright will much care. Camilla Belle delivers a surprisingly competent performance that requires her to sustain the entire film on her own. If not for her modulated ability to go from mildly confused, to angry, to afraid, to terrified and have us believe it along with her When A Stranger Calls would have been laughable. Fortunately, despite the sense of deja vu that this has all been done a hundred times before, Belle and West manage to make the familiar seem fresh and exciting, at least in an Architectural Digest edited by Stephen King kind of way.

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