In 1979, director Fred Walton (of April Fool's Day fame) directed a low budget thriller starring a young Carol Kane and Charles Durning entitled When A Stranger Calls. The movie was a hit and was followed up with a made for TV sequel in 1993 called When A Stranger Calls Back but the series has laid dormant ever since. Proving once again that seventies films are a gold mine of remake opportunities (for better or worse…) 2006 saw not so much a sequel but yes, a remake of the first film, also titled When A Stranger Calls, this time directed by Simon West, best known for Con Air and Lara Croft – Tomb Raider.
After an opening scene in which we see a detective show up at a house where someone or something has torn up the occupants with his or her bare hands while the lights of a carnival flicker outside in the darkness, we meet a high school student named Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle). Having recently broken up with her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty) who she caught in a lip-lock with her best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), she's been on the phone a lot and as luck would have it, she went over her minutes and rang up quite the phone bill. Mom and Dad aren't happy about this at all and they make her take a babysitting gig to earn some money to put towards the phone bill, which, unfortunately for Jill is on the night of the big bonfire party she wanted to go to.
At any rate, Jill's dad drops her off at the Mandrakis residence, where Dr. Mandrakis and his wife live with their two children. The adults head out for dinner and a movie and leave Jill with free reign of their amazing house, situated on the coast of a lake and surrounded by a those lovely thick northwestern woods. The kids are asleep when she gets there, so Jill explores a little bit and after getting freaked out by Chester, the family cat, and by Rose, the live-in cleaning lady, she starts to settle in. Then the phone calls start. At first it's just silence on the other end but they start to get weirder and weirder. When the alarm goes off, Jill starts to get understandably nervous but Tiffany shows up to talk to her and sets her mind at ease. When Tiffany leaves, however, the phone calls start again, and this time the person on the other end of the line asks her a question – "Have you checked the children?"
Jill wisely calls the cops but without any threats uttered, there's not much they can do. They opt to try and trace the call but she'll need to keep him on the phone for at least sixty seconds if she can in order for them to do it. Unfortunately for Jill, her night gets a whole lot worse from that point on…
With the plot synopsis out of the way, let it be said that one of the biggest strikes this movie had going against it from the start was the marketing campaign, and that this very same strike has been carried over to the DVD packaging. There is a huge, huge, huge spoiler contained in both the trailer and the ad copy on the back of the keepcase for this release. While anyone who has seen the original will know ahead of time, those who have not will definitely have some of the suspense taken away from them by what can only be described as a big, dumb blunder on Sony's part.
That being said, West's take on Walton's original isn't a bad piece of work. It's not a classic and it's obviously geared towards the teenage movie going audience what with the PG-13 rating and the casting of Camilla Belle in the lead (she's pretty enough that she shouldn't have any problem getting teenage boys interested in seeing this movie!) but more often than not it still works. One of the common complaints lodged against the original movie is that half an hour or so into the story it switches gears and becomes less a horror/suspense movie than a police procedural/detective story. That is definitely not the case here. While West pays homage to the detective portion of the original in the opening few minutes (don't let the annoying fast cutting and rapid fire editing you'll see during these moments put you off) the rest of the film is very much a story of the lone babysitter versus the psychopath with a phone.
There are a few blunders made along the way that might leave you scratching your head, however. First off, it's clearly important to the filmmaker's that we know Jill is good at running. We see her doing laps in the gym early on and her coach tells her that she knows she can break the twenty four second mark if she pushes herself. Why then does Jill manage to move so slowly during the finale of the film? It contradicts what we know her character is capable of and you'd think with her life in jeopardy she'd find the incentive she needed to run even faster than she did in the gym that afternoon. The other flub is the bonfire party. We see scores of teenagers out there in the woods alone with a very Wicker Man-esque effigy in flames running around a lake with video projection going on behind them. Later in the film the cops establish the fact that they know about the party – why then have they not shut it down? There are drunk teenagers burning stuff in the woods, and they're doing nothing about it. Knowing first hand how much cops tend to enjoy busting teenagers for underage drinking, it would seem obvious that there would be a few officers sent out that way to shut things down, but nope, all we get in that regard is a line from the cop Jill talks to on the phone saying that they'd have a few complaints about it.
The movie does do a fine job of building suspense, however. There are a few cheap scares, like the cat and the ice cube machine in the fridge, but things tense up towards the end as they should and the pay off, while not as strong as it could have been and lacking the punch to the gut ending of the first portion of the original, is still decent enough and a satisfying conclusion to what is a slightly above average thriller meant for a younger audience.
When A Stranger Calls is presented for this region one release in a very nice 2.40.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (the back of the keepcase says 1.78.1 but there was a sticker over the plastic wrap that did state the correct OAR on it over top) that preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. The slick cinematography is well captured by this transfer aside from a handful of scenes that do show some moderate shimmering. There is the occasional instance of artifacting but no print damage to report and grain is never overpowering, in fact, it's almost completely unnoticeable. For the most part the movie is clear, colorful and very pleasing. Shadow detail is strong even when things get really dark, and aliasing, while present, isn't overpowering or too distracting at all. Color reproduction is accurate here but the color scheme itself is quite drab made up of mostly earth tones and blacks so keep your expectation in check in that regard.
Sony presents When A Stranger Calls in your choice of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks in the film's native English or in a dubbed French track. Both mixes sound very good with plenty of lower end bass response and some very nice instances of channel separation throughout – the phone calls in particular sound nice and eerie with just the right amount of static behind them to keep things sounding ominous. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. There were a few spots on the 5.1 mix that could have been a little more aggressive but otherwise things sound really good here especially during the big finale when things get a little more action intensive. Subtitles are provided in French and English and there's an English language closed captioning option provided for the feature as well.
The first supplement on this disc comes in the form or a commentary track with director Simon West who is joined by Camilla Belle for the duration of the talk. This commentary is, surprisingly enough, really good. These two are both good natured enough that they're easy to listen to and one gets the sense that they're very comfortable working with one another. Belle talks about some of the tougher aspects of her role, having to act opposite a phone for a lot of the movie as opposed to an actual person, while West discusses the mood and that atmosphere that he strived to create for the film and the sense of claustrophobia he hoped to bring to the project. There's a lot of good information in here, very little dead air, and some fun, humorous anecdotes as well. If you enjoy commentaries, give this one a shot – it holds up.
A second commentary track is also included, this time with writer Jake Wade Wall, who does a good job of explaining some of the key differences between his take on the story and the original 1979 script from Steve Feke. While this could have been an interesting talk if it had gone really in depth and talked about the ways that he hoped to improve on the structure of the story, unfortunately there's a lot of dead air on this track which makes it a bit of a chore to sit through. The good information is there, but finding it and waiting for the delivery becomes tiresome.
Once you finish up in commentary land, you check out the deleted scenes that have been included on the DVD if that's your thing – unfortunately there isn't much here. The first scene funs for about a minute in length and it features some action at the police station that Jill calls into during the film. From there, we get about ninety seconds of odd, random, assorted clips set to music – there's no dialogue or context given to these clips, they're just here and they're kind of pointless presented this way.
If that weren't enough, Sony has also included a pretty solid making of documentary that runs for roughly eighteen minutes in length. In here we find interviews with the director, with Camilla Belle, the production designer and a couple of the producers as well. Everyone talks the film up and seems pretty excited about the end result but in addition to the usual self congratulatory type of interviews we also learn about the location shooting and some of the difficulties that filming inside that house brought on. It's this material more so than the interviews that make this worth watching as it is pretty interesting.
Rounding out the supplements are a batch of trailers for other Sony DVD releases, though oddly enough there's no trailer included here for the feature itself. Chapter stops and animated menus can be found on the disc as well.
This updated version of When A Stranger Calls is definitely different than the original, but it's not necessarily better. That being said, it's not a half bad thriller with a few decent jump scares and some really nice cinematography and you could certainly do a lot worse in terms of entertainment value. Sony's disc looks okay and sounds pretty decent, and comes with a couple of nice supplements as well (even if there was definitely room for improvement there), making this one a very solid rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.