I can’t think of a single decision that went into making When a Stranger Calls that was the right one. Let us count how many ways the filmmakers went wrong. (1) This is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t follow the original at all. (2) It’s a PG-13 horror movie, and I think we all know what that means by now. (3) The trailer for the film gives away the only real twist, which you’ll probably guess very early on anyway.
(4) The lead actress, Camilla Belle, who plays a teenage babysitter named Jill, is so wooden that it’s impossible to think that she’s ever scared. (5) All of the other actors are just as wooden and therefore are not at all believable when giving us their dialogue. (6) The film plays out like it wants to be a parody, including as many horror clichés as it can, but then plays every scene completely straight; it has Belle and the other actors do the stupidest things that all horror movie characters are seemingly forced to do, and there isn’t a single hint of irony in the delivery.
Take, for instance, a scene in which Jill’s friend, Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), comes over to the house that Jill is babysitting — for no real reason, obviously — and when she leaves, she acts completely freaked out, as if she knows she’s in a horror movie. The wind is blowing, oh dear! Jill also acts freaked out at the smallest thing, and doesn’t even think about things logically or like a real human being would. It’s like they can hear the (7) overbearing score that alerts them that a jump scene or fake jump scene might be coming around the next corner.
(8) The plot involves Jill wandering around a house for 65 minutes, doing nothing of interest, answering the world’s busiest home telephone where a man asks her ridiculous questions like “have you checked the children?” The rest of the plot, which has been given away in the trailer, involves running around the house slightly more frantically. (9) There are a few subplots mentioned, but they’re all forgotten about or ignored afterward.
I especially liked how we’re introduced to Jill as she’s sprinting around a track, trying to run a couple of laps under 24 seconds. She doesn’t, but later in the film, when she has and could use a timer — and has to sprint — she doesn’t check her time. It would have actually made the earlier moment matter, but instead it’s just ignored. And it only would have taken a couple of seconds to add this on. It’s lazy writing, really, kind of like how the situation with her maybe-boyfriend never gets resolved (10).
Even the (11) aspect ratio is wrong for this material. We spend about 90% of the film in a gorgeous house which the filmmakers attempt to make scary. Claustrophobia almost seems to be setting in with our main character, and we’d almost like to feel it too — except for the very wide aspect ratio which never allows for that. (12) There are also a couple of slow motion shots that are used to no effect, (13) quick cutting which should give the film a frantic feel but instead makes it laughable, and (14) cinematography that seems to constantly be panning in order to reveal something … but never does.
(15) Oh, and it’s not at all scary, and not at all thrilling. There are a couple of attempts to build up suspense, mostly through the score and as much darkness as you can realistically get away with, but it never builds to anything more than a jump scare. Once you realize that the film falls into a pattern (16) — phone call, wandering around the house, jump scare — which you will probably do quite early on, there’s nothing that the film will throw at you that can be scary. You know it’s just another jump scare involving a cat or the very terrifying ice cube maker in the refrigerator.
(17) Even those responsible for lighting — or maybe this was a post-production mistake — seemed to be half-asleep. Jill heads to this house at what I’m guessing is around 7:30 at night, considering that the parents say that they have an 8:00 dinner reservation. It’s not yet that dark, as it’s summertime. Fast-forward what seems like hours, and the outside shots show us that it’s really dark now. Then, fast-forward more time, and it’s magically become lighter out. And then it’s dark out again. Thankfully, this only happens one time, but it’s just silly to see that nobody noticed that during production.
Even the house, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful thing ever, looked bland and cheap (18). The rooms aren’t populated with much furniture, the lights automatically turn off when a character leaves the room, meaning that the rooms all feel isolated from one another, and I could have sworn there was some noticeable green screen in a couple of scenes, although it might have just looked that way because of how vacant these sets felt.
We’re at 18. Are there more? I don’t doubt it, but I’m tired of counting. Maybe I’ve been too harsh, and some of the marks against the film should be rolled into one, but does it matter? The point is that there isn’t anything good about When a Stranger Calls. Actually, there was one interesting shot in which Jill runs around the house, zooming from room to room, and we don’t cut away until she stops. That made me appreciate that there is a little bit of talent from at least one member of the production crew. Most of the cinematography is just bland, though, so maybe it was just a stroke of luck.