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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

When a Stranger Calls

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Anyone with the most basic knowledge of horror films — or urban legends, for that matter — should know the secret to When a Stranger Calls before they walk into the theater. A distracted teenage girl, babysitting a pair of slumbering kids on a dark and stormy night, gets a crackly phone call: "Have you checked the children?" Thus begins a cat and mouse game that culminates in a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, or, less charitably, M. Night Shyamalan: It turns out that the voice on the other end of the line is actually coming from ...

If you don't know the answer, you can find out by watching the first 15 minutes of the original 1979 version, starring a frazzled Carol Kane as terrorized sitter Jill Johnson. In this glossy, amped-up, tit-fixated remake, on the other hand, the filmmakers have decided to drag out the suspense for more than 80 minutes, resulting in one of the most tedious horror flicks in a long time. It takes more than half of the film's running time to even get to the signature "Have you checked the children" quote. Whether you know the ending or not, this tame, bloodless Stranger will bore you silly — that is, if your ears aren't bleeding first from all the overdone sound effects.

The frumpy Kane has been replaced by the nubile young Camilla Belle, an actress chosen for her skills at breathing like a hyperventilating poodle and sitting around with her mouth half-open. The updates for this version include mostly mundane, high-tech details: bad cell phone reception, roaming charges, caller ID. (Imagine the sequel possibilities: When a Stranger Text-Messages.) The creepy house now looks like some kind of posh, multimillion dollar mountain retreat, complete with smart lights, remote-control fireplaces and modernist furniture, although somehow the maid's quarters still manage to look like Alice's drab hovel on The Brady Bunch. And when director Simon West cuts away to Jill's high school pals at a bonfire, their party looks like a cross between the Burning Man Festival and the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.

By the time the drawn-out conclusion rolls around — complete with grunting, hair-pulling, and whatever other mild violence you can get away with in a PG-13-rated horror flick — West has already ripped off Carrie, Halloween and at least two of the Scream movies, the latter of which, ironically, referenced the original When a Stranger Calls. The 1979 version was far from a classic, but at least its creators knew there was no way they could inflate such a thin premise into a full-length feature. In today's world of quick-and-cheap horror remakes, however, anything is possible.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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