Don’t talk to ‘strangers’

Robert Taylor

Camilla Belle stars as Jill Johnson in When A Stranger Calls, a remake of the 1979 police drama. Belle stars as a girl who babysits in a nice house in the country. During the night, she starts to receive increasingly threatening calls. PHOTO COURTESY OF

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

You don’t walk into When A Stranger Calls with very high expectations. The basic premise of this remake stretches out the terrifying 15-minute opening sequence of the crackerjack original (which was more police procedural than horror movie) to 83 minutes, has a cast of mostly unknowns, seems to be one of those watered-down PG-13 horror excursions such as The Grudge and Cursed and was directed by Simon West, the genius (please note my sarcastic tone) behind Tomb Raider and Con Air.

But then the suspense started, and it didn’t entirely suck. Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) finds herself baby-sitting two kids recovering from the flu in one of those gigantic expressionistic houses you only see in horror movies and episodes of “CSI: Miami.”

The house, which is in the middle of nowhere, is a technical marvel.

When A Stranger Calls

Starring Camilla Belle and Tommy Flanagan

Directed by Simon West

Released by Screen Gems

Rated PG-13 for intense terror, violence and some language.

Stater rating (out of five): ***

The lights are motion-activated but apparently there are only lights in the big open rooms, not in the creepy hallways or small scary rooms.

Then the phone calls begin. First, it’s just breathing. But then the messages get more ominous, hinting that whoever is calling can see what Jill is doing.

The house alarm goes off. Could it be the live-in maid leaving to go care for her mother? There’s a guesthouse across the lake, and it looks like someone is inside. Is that where the crazy caller is? Of course not, as anyone who’s seen the trailers or TV spots knows.

At no point did I want to gouge my eyes out with Twizzlers and shove Milk Duds into my ears to end the pain of watching the movie. This is a refreshing change after all the horror dreck that’s been released over the past year.

Instead of feeling watered-down to fit in a PG-13 rating, When A Stranger Calls refreshingly chose to focus on building suspense and atmosphere. Belle carries the movie surprisingly well, and her character only makes one or two completely idiotic moves instead of the usual dozen. The direction is surprisingly taut, the music excellent and the final showdown between Jill and the “Stranger” packs quite a wallop.

Yes, there are quite a few problems, mostly with the idiotic decision to put two other characters in the house. Why didn’t the maid just baby-sit? Some of the suspense scenes seem padded to make the running time a little longer, and the epilogue was useless.

Still, none of these problems are enough to make the movie bad. It’s still quite enjoyable in its own right.

It works in its own little way. It doesn’t break (or bend) any rules.

If you are willing to play along for 83 minutes and make one or two leaps in logic, you might like the movie, too.

Contact ALL reporter Robert Taylor at [email protected].