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When a Stranger Calls (2006)

Few urban legends have the creep-factor of the one about the babysitter who's repeatedly called and asked "Have you checked on the children?" After ignoring the first couple calls as pranks, the babysitter then calls the cops and is told "The calls are coming from inside the house!" This story was lifted from 1979's When a Stranger Calls, and for those who attended sleepovers and camping trips in the '80s, it became a popular urban legend, which joined the rotation with the man with a hook for a hand and the serial killer who is (in a subtle variant) in the backseat of the victim's car. The original film wasn't very good, but it made the smart decision of utilizing the legend only the first 20 minutes of the picture — though it also left the filmmakers scrambling for padding. For the 2006 remake, this paper-thin plot is stretched to feature length (87 minutes) after a prologue setting up that the killer has "checked on the kids" at another location, only to now make game of Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle). She gets a last-minute babysitting job at an isolated high-tech home (even the fireplace has a remote control) and keeps getting calls from a weirdo (Tommy Flanagan, billed as "Stranger") who keeps telling her to look after the kids. As the '80s drew to a close, so came the death of the drive-in theater and the rise of home video, leaving little room for low-budget companies to peddle their wares. As such, it effectively reduced horror films to a near-dead genre, with the occasional entry from an embarrassed studio. But with the arrival of 1996's Scream, it became evident that there was an appetite for such genre fare, and with the success of 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer came a business model: Release the film off-season, pack it with either unknowns or TV stars, and make it cheap so it can recoup its cost before word gets out that it's miserable. This has served well for the last decade or so — numerous successful-but-forgettable horror entries have been churned out, with the latest twist being that many are now remakes of '70s and '80s "classic" horror films — perhaps in 10 or 20 years there will be remakes of remakes. Some have called foul on these cash-ins — though it's hard to besmirch the integrity of such dubiously famous movies as The Amityville Horror — but with the remake of When a Stranger Calls it seems the genre has successfully eaten its own tail. Scream began by paying homage to Stranger, and ten years later, that film has been remade because of Scream. As for Simon West's attempt to rejigger the story for modern audiences, it's a wash with no palpable tension and numerous "cat scares" (perhaps named after the questionable appearance of a cat on a spaceship in Alien) where the heroine is startled by something as innocuous as a cat — and in this case, literally. Since the film is essentially a one-character show (the kids must be kept off screen), one feels bad for Belle as she has little to do except run around, get more scared, and answer the phone until the final reel. Alas, the punches are pulled and the kids are not killed, though that's hardly a spoiler considering the title's PG-13 rating. The other notable thing about Stranger is that it's directed by Simon West. The helmer of such blockbuster titles as Con Air, The General's Daughter, and Tomb Raider must have pissed some people off if this is where his career now sits. Sony presents When a Stranger Calls in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include two commentaries, the first by West and Belle, the second by screenwriter Jake Wade Wall, deleted scenes (3 min.) a behind-the-scenes featurette (18 min.), and bonus trailers. Keep-case.
—DSH



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