Missing in action—but hardly missed—since 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Michael Bay mimic Simon West returns with When a Stranger Calls, an adaptation of Fred Walton’s 1979 thriller that elongates its source material’s memorable opening segment to the 83-minute breaking point. Aside from some schizophrenic edits, West reigns in nearly all of his overblown directorial compulsions for this girl-in-peril yarn about a babysitter, Jill (Camilla Belle), plagued by malevolent prank calls, producing intermittent jolts involving mysterious bumps in the night, cats springing through doorways, and motion sensor-triggered house lights. As a de facto one-woman show whose peripheral characters mainly serve as plot-forwarding devices or killer fodder, West’s film lavishes most of its attention on its elaborate setting, a secluded modern mansion in Colorado that’s fully automated, boasts an enclosed aviary/fish pond on its bottom floor, and is bathed in ominously flickering shadows created by the swaying foliage outside. This fixation on the architecturally chic abode is complemented by a phobic view of telephones as troublesome (if not outright dangerous) devices, with Jill stuck babysitting two slumbering kids—instead of attending the Wicker Man-ish high school bonfire where her cheating boyfriend will be—so she can pay back her dad (Clark Gregg) for going a whopping 800 minutes over her cell plan’s limits, and then subsequently being terrorized by the voice of Lance Henriksen portentously asking, “Have you checked the children?” Belle makes a reasonably spunky heroine even if she’s primarily relegated to acting opposite a phone receiver, and the scarcity of scares is somewhat offset by the old-fashioned quaintness of When a Stranger Calls’ gradually escalating, gore-free suspense. Unfortunately, everything eventually hinges on the well-worn premise’s unaltered (and long-in-coming) surprise, a twist liable to stun only those few audience members unfamiliar with the movie’s ubiquitous commercials and trailer, the original film, or the notorious urban legend on which the story is based.
The image is clean and sleek, like a plate-glass window that's been polished too many times by Rosa the maid before she calls it a night, and the sound design is big and trebly, the sonic equivalent of Drew Barrymore's boyfriend from Scream-if it played football, it'd probably beat the shit out of you.
Two yawner commentary tracks (one with director Simon West and actress Camilla Belle, the other with writer Jake Wade Wall) that strain to justify the film's existence, a making-of featurette in which West boasts using "subtle" sleights of audio-visual hand when making thrillers, a few deleted scenes, and a bunch of theatrical trailers.
Well, what did your parents tell you about talking to strangers?