Movie: When A Stranger Calls

Whatever you do, don’t answer the phone.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually done a movie review here before, though it was always something I thought that I would like to do. While this might be a strange one to start with, I guess in truth it’s just as good as any other. But since it’s the first, I’d like to intro with a bit of how I expect these to go…

I really am going to think of these more as a reaction to the movie. I think I’ll get into a lot of review elements, and I suppose even a reaction is part of a review, but it’s a question of the focus. Yes, you’ll know whether or not I thought a movie was good or bad by the time you get to the end, and you’ll know why, but more than that you’ll know how I feel about the movie. I’m also going to have some structured sections, which may or may not change over time, but I won’t get into them here in this intro, you’ll just see them below.

Anyway, these are just going to be movies that I happened to watch and feel like saying something about, so they’re not chosen for any particular purpose. They could be old or new, good or bad, significant or insignificant, or any combination thereof.

Now with no further adieu…

When A Stranger Calls (2006)

How it begins

The opening scene could be good… for a different movie than this one. The only thing I didn’t like in it was the weird voiceover of phone calls and a female voice telling the person to stop calling, then a scream. This is all over some carnival/fair imagery shot in such a way as to convey that little bit of horror feel. The imagery felt good if the voiceover didn’t. It turns out the voice we heard was some girl getting murdered somehow. We never see her, not even after she’s dead. That foreshadows later in the movie where we never seem to see anything because all action happens offscreen. But anyway, she was killed… without a weapon. And the movie seems to imply it was a messy murder scene, although it’s unclear why they’d need as many body bags as you see exit the house for one dead woman even if she was torn into a thousand pieces… I dunno, seems they could still get her in just one. But you don’t need to worry about her anyway because she will never be mentioned again. This is all just there to prepare you for the idea that you’re going to be watching a movie about a woman basically alone in a house with someone trying to kill her. I know, we’ve never seen that before.

We then finally see a woman running on a track. Her coach is very disappointed with her because she’s not focusing, they both know she can do that lap in 24 seconds after all. Gee, I wonder if she’s going to have to run later in the film. But anyway, she’s a high school student and has high school student drama in her life. You know how it is when you’re a teenage girl… your best friend kisses your boyfriend and she can’t understand why you won’t just get over it. And there’s this bonfire that EVERYONE at the school is going to. You know, like the bonfires that your high school had that everyone went to. And there’s definitely not any good cell reception at those.

Speaking of cell phones, man does this movie feel dated. You’ve got a Nextel flip phone on screen, and poor Jill is prevented from going to the big bonfire because she went way over the minutes on her cell phone plan! By 800 minutes! It cost her parents a small fortune that they’re making her pay them back for by babysitting, starting on bonfire night.

The Setting

Remember how it started with the carnival? Yeah well the actual story has nothing to do with carnivals, it’s at a fancy house in the middle of nowhere. So of course her Dad drives her there instead of letting her take her own car, because why should she need to be able to drive somewhere in the event of an emergency when she’s in the middle of nowhere?

Really that’s only the start of things that make no sense in the setup of this movie. We learn very soon after Jill’s arrival that there is a live-in housekeeper. Now you might say, but she’s a housekeeper, not a nanny, she shouldn’t have to keep track of the kids, and I hear you, but… we also find out that the kids are sick with the flu, and they’re asleep. Really, Jill is there like.. only in the case of an emergency – she spends the whole movie just sitting on the couch or walking around the house, so I feel like the housekeeper could have managed it. Maybe they could just throw a little extra money her way… I mean, she’s there anyway. But ok, ok, we need Jill to be there because no one wants to watch an old live in housekeeper be scared in a house, they want to watch the pretty young high schooler.

Anyway, like I said, Jill walks around the house and discovers that most of the lights in the house are on auto sensors and turn on as soon as you enter the room. This is an odd choice for a horror movie, as it makes dark hallways decidedly less threatening. There’s some loud noises that don’t really get explained, and wind and tree branches and shaky camera. Oh yeah and a mixture of the creepy guy phone calls with people trying to call from the bonfire. But it’s a very nice house, it’s a shame they didn’t film a better movie there.

Characters / Acting

So there’s a fair number of characters that we see briefly… the dad, the couple she’s babysitting for, the housekeeper, some of Jill’s friends… but they’re not really on screen long enough for it to matter much what acting chops they have. None of them were standout horrible, so I guess they did well enough for their minor roles. It’s really a one woman show though, which makes us focus quite a bit on Jill Johnson.

Jill is portrayed by Camilla Belle, who you might remember from one episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Really, from a look at her credits I think that might be the place you’re most likely to remember her from. Now, she’s been in more films than I have, so maybe I’m not one to judge, but the performance she gives here in a lead role makes it pretty clear to me why she hasn’t been in anything anyone has heard of… she’s just… bad. As her dad drops her off at the house she tells him to have a nice time, and he replies “Now say it like you mean it,” but all I could think was, “Now say it like you’re a good actress.” But for real, she spends a lot of time on camera by herself in this movie, and she is truly awful.

How I Feel About It

I knew nothing about this movie going in. It popped up as a recommendation for me on Amazon Prime. So, the movie it made me think of first? Scream. It started with a scene in which a female high school student is alone in a house and gets creepy phone calls and then eventually gets murdered, thus setting up a plot where various high school students get murdered in various ways. This movie was kind of like that opening scene.

So my first thoughts on When A Stranger Calls was that perhaps it was written by a guy who saw Scream and thought, “You know what would make a really good movie? If you just took the opening scene of Scream and then made that the whole movie. Oh also, that opening scene in Scream worked really well. We’ll open this movie with that opening scene except we’ll do it all off camera. Then we’ll do the whole scene again on camera but for an hour and 20 minutes.” Also, because he wouldn’t want to have to come up with an original idea, he used the whole “babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend.

But then when I got on IMDB, I realized this is actually a remake of a 1979 movie of the same name. They’re very different movies. All I’ll say here above when I start getting into spoilers is that the remake turns the first 23 minutes of this movie into an almost 90 minute movie, without adding anything of value… So it’s no surprise that the plot is spread very thin. It’s entirely derivative in every way, and doesn’t add anything new, or interesting. It’s truly just a much worse version of the original with 2006 phone technology.

The Plot

Ok friends, if you made it this far, you’ve made it to the spoiler zone. If you think you might actually want to watch this movie unspoiled, now’s the time to click away from here. It feels pretty weird to give a spoiler warning for a 1979 movie especially, but I’m also going to talk about plot from it as well, so, you’ve been warned.

We’ll start with the remake, because that’s the one I watched first. I’m going from memory, so I may have something slightly off. So we know Jill is a runner in high school and her boyfriend kissed her best friend and she has another friend and they’re all going to a bonfire but she can’t because she went over on her cell phone minutes and so her parents are making her babysit to get money to pay them back. Phew.

Once she’s at the house, she gets the tour and the parents leave. She then sort of sits on the couch for awhile, for some reason their fancy hidden in the wall tv is all staticky and making a lot of noise when she turns it on and so she immediately turns it off to avoid waking the kids. That prompts her to instead start snooping around in their bedroom, bathroom, closets, etc and put on some of the mother’s perfume and jewelry. Then she’s about to try on her clothes when – NOISE.

She goes looking around, and eventually finds the housekeeper, Rosa. No problem. Then she makes her way back to the couch and there’s phone calls. Some from creepy breathing guy. One from other friend, who Jill tells to give boyfriend the number to reach her there. One from some guy at bonfire prancing her. More from creepy breathing guy. One from boyfriend. Now I don’t really recall the order of all of those, or how they intersperse with other events, but… yeah. So at some point fairly early on the house alarm goes off for some reason. She enters the code to turn it off, alarm company calls. Oh I’m the babysitter, blah, blah. They call the parents to confirm. No worries. Why did the alarm go off? Meh, who cares. Maybe it was Rosa The mom calls, says something about the alarm always going off. Seems like a useful alarm. I believe it’s at this point she starts looking for Rosa again but she’s gone. Oh well.

Best friend who kissed her boyfriend shows up and demonstrates she’s a bad person for the audience. Also she tells us the garage door is open. After a sort of reconciliation she leaves, and after she’s very scared of wind and trees drops her keys, but eventually gets into her car until a branch blocks her path and she gets out of the car to move it. She then off-camera gets murdered (we presume). Oh right, and around this time there’s a bunch of banging at the front door and Jill opens it but there’s nothing there.

Jill decides to call Rosa’s cell and follows the rings down a hallway that for some reason the family didn’t put motion sensing lights in. Eventually she finds Rosa’s purse in a closet and behind the closet door is for some reason a jacket and hat stuck to the wall at human height for a “scare”.

At some point she gets another call and realizes the guy can see her so she closes the blinds on the massive windows of the house. It’s here where she calls the police, they suggest she needs to keep him on the line for awhile so they can trace the call. She calls over to the phone in the guest house in case the guy who rents it is home. No answer. But what’s this, a light is on over there, and movement. So of course she decides to go over there.

This is where the RUNNING comes in. She runs over there and gets inside with no problem. Then she gets a call on the guest house phone. It’s creepy guy. She keeps him on the phone for awhile, but oh no! That’s not the phone the police are tracing. Lights on upstairs in the main house. Rosa? She RUNS back over there. This time she drops her flashlight.

Creepy guy calls the house phone again and she keeps him talking while she goes up the stairs toward Rosa’s room. I think this is when police trace the call, and they call her and tell her the call is from INSIDE THE HOUSE. When she gets to Rosa’s room there’s a shower running and she goes in there but no one is in it. Then her best friend is DEAD behind the bathroom door. What a shock.

She makes her way to the kids who are alive and hiding in a toy chest, and there’s a bunch of chase stuff where the killer comes after them, they hide in this fish pond where the housekeeper was last seen, and when Jill goes underwater she see’s dead Rosa.

More chase, eventually she makes it to the front door and opens it and runs into the arms of Roy from The Office (seriously, David Denman plays the cop). The kids survive. Creepy guy is arrested. Over? Not quite.

Jill wakes up in a hospital, hits nurse call button. Nothing happens. She gets up and goes outside, no one is there. The phone starts ringing. She answers. It’s creepy guy. She wakes up in the hospital with her parents and doctors and stuff screaming. She’s apparently been driven completely mad by the events. Scary.

So how does the original differ?

Like I said, the remake is the first 23 minutes stretched out. The first shot of the movie is Jill at the door of the couple’s house. They quite quickly explain kids are sick, just chill until we get back. There’s no housekeeper, there’s no alarm system, there’s no bonfire. Parents leave, Jill is talking to a friend on the phone, who she does ask to give her boyfriend the number to reach her. Then it quickly goes to the creepy calls, but this time it’s much more focused on the whole urban legend thing. Instead of lots of creepy breathing, it’s the insistent “have you checked on the children” stuff. That said, it does get into conversation when she tries to keep him on the phone longer for the phone trace. Her conversations with the police and the killer are pretty much the same. Then she runs out of the house when we can see from the killer’s shadow he’s about to come down the stairs, and she runs into the arms of a police officer. However, the kids were murdered upstairs. I think the reason for the opening scene in the remake is they wanted to have a scene with police carrying body bags out and also to say the thing about there not being a murder weapon.

At this point, the movie is far from over. That was just a setup. It’s almost like they knew the bare bones of this urban legend wasn’t enough to carry an entire movie. It turns out that after spending 7 years in a mental institution, the killer escaped. He starts stalking this woman while the cop has become a private investigator and was hired to track him down. Eventually it winds its way back to Jill’s life. She’s married with 2 children now, and they’re going out to dinner and hire a babysitter. While they’re at dinner, someone calls for them. It’s creepy guy. She gets hysterical, and this is presumably why they felt they needed that hospital scene. But no worries, the babysitter is OK, kids are OK. That night, creepy guy has managed to get into her house though, and while she’s up unable to sleep in the middle of the night, he knocks her husband unconscious and gets into bed in his place, and so it’s actually a surprise when she goes to wake her husband and finds him.

What I Still Want To Know

For the original I really only have one question, which is how did the killer know what restaurant they were at so that he could call them. And I guess it’s a little convenient he happened to decide to go after her kids on the night her husband got that promotion and decided to take her out to dinner. But I can look past that I guess.

For the remake…

How does the killer know Jill will be babysitting there that night (the movie makes it clear it was last minute)? Why does he insist on killing her? The other people just seem to get killed because they’re in the way. What caused the banging on the front door? I mean the killer is just a guy, not some supernatural entity. Why was the garage door open? Has this guy just been spending his life going around killing random babysitters? I’m sure I could go on.

Judgment (No more spoilers)

So there’s definitely some lulls in the original movie, but it’s WAY better than the remake. It doesn’t go for horror scares, it’s more of a suspense thriller. It has an actual fleshed out plot, etc.

The remake? It’s kind of boring. It’s not a painfully bad movie, it’s just kind of a… “why did they make this” movie. Just sticking to the original script with some minor updates would have been a much better idea. If you’re going to watch one, watch the one from 1979.

Also there’s a sequel to the original, and there’s a Rifftrax for it too! I’ll probably watch that tomorrow… but I don’t think I’ll be writing about it.

Leave a Reply