A modestly clever concept gets indifferent execution in “When a Stranger Calls,” another bigger-yet-blander remake of an allegedly “classic” ’70s shocker. Unleashed without press previews for a Super Bowl weekend opening frame, pic might scare up some small change by appealing to ticket buyers in the same demographic as its feisty teen heroine. But it’s more likely that this “Stranger” won’t get acquainted with a wider aud until it is reintroduced in homevid format.
Original 1979 thriller achieved semi-cult status with an ingeniously nasty first act that has inspired countless imitations — and quite a few spot-on parodies. (Did somebody say “Scream”?)
In the original, babysitter Jill (Carol Kane) is rattled by phone calls from a raspy-voiced stranger who repeatedly asks: “Have you checked on the children?” Jill’s fear intensifies when the calls are traced to a phone line inside the house. The ’79 pic then leaps ahead a few years to set up a reunion between the phone caller, escaped from a mental hospital, and Jill, who now has her own offspring.
For the remake, scripter Jake Wade Wall shrewdly opted to jettison everything but the opening 20 or so minutes of the original pic. New “Stranger” consists almost entirely of a protracted cat-and-mouse game as an appreciably more formidable but equally terrified Jill (Camilla Belle) is mercilessly stalked and taunted by an apparently omniscient phone caller (played by Tommy Flanagan, voiced by Lance Henriksen) during her long, dark night of babysitting in a secluded, spectacularly opulent home.
After setting up this promising premise, however, Wall and helmer Simon West (“Laura Croft: Tomb Raider”) fail to sustain suspense — or even consistently maintain interest — during what amounts to 70 or so minutes of fake-outs, pregnant pauses and, occasionally, cheap shocks. (Tacked-on coda, which owes more than it can repay to Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” and several copycats, is bound to generate derisive laughter.)
Early scenes subtly establish an undeniably unsettling mood, as Jill reacts to the ineffably threatening sounds of commonplace household items (motion-triggered lights, an automatic icemaker, etc.) while, outside, winds howl and tree branches rustle. A little of this goes a long way, however.
It doesn’t help that the plot mechanics creak much too loudly, and the shameless contrivances are all too obvious. In addition, sequel goes through elaborate contortions to make sure this Jill doesn’t benefit from cell phone technology that original pic’s heroine didn’t have. This leads to one truly amusing plot wrinkle: Jill is forced to baby-sit as punishment for using too many minutes on her family’s cell phone account.
Belle earns props for performing gracefully and compellingly under the pressure of being the only person on screen for long stretches of running time. However, supporting players, including Katie Cassidy as a bitchy classmate, are mostly unremarkable.
Production designer Jon Gary Steele merits his own kudos for creating what gradually emerges as Belle’s most prominent co-star: An enormous and ultra-modern three-story house tricked out with glass walls, dark shadows and a cavernous atrium. Set allows lenser Peter Menzies Jr. ample leeway to employ an impressive variety of visual stratagems to enhance pic’s wall-to-wall paranoia. Although, in the end, that’s not quite enough.