New and unimproved, 'Stranger' goes West with a whimper

Hired by a physician and his wife to baby-sit their children, Jill’s peaceful night is violently disturbed by a series of ominous prank calls. As Jill’s mysterious caller continues to harass�-at times asking, “Have you checked the children?”��Jill, shaken to her core by the experience, eventually calls the police, who trace the stranger’s next call. Within moments, both Jill and her audience gasp in shock as they are informed that the calls had originated from within the house. As the stranger moves to confront Jill, she flees the house, escaping into the arms of the police. The children, officers find, had been savagely murdered several hours prior.

The suspense and fear instilled by this sequence of events were lauded by critics everywhere. Unfortunately, the entire scene only covers about 20 minutes of the movie. The remaining hour covers events seven years forward and centers around Jill’s recuperation from the traumatic ordeal, the murderer’s escape from a mental hospital and a climactic confrontation between the two. The disparity of the segments, having suddenly changed from a thriller to a drama, left a sour taste in the mouths of both viewers and critics.

More than 20 years later, director Simon West has recreated the 1979 “classic” for consumption by modern audiences. Taking past critiques into consideration, West has done away with the offending segments, adding a back story and side characters to supplement his vision. The resulting creation, far from the epitome of horror, is unwieldy and unappealing.

In retrospect, this is the natural and obvious consequence of stretching 20 minutes of material to 90. Lacking new ideas to work with, West uses and reuses the same basic sequence of events. Jill, as reincarnated by Camilla Belle, receives a phone call, answers and hears heavy breathing on the other end. After a short monologue, she hangs up. Alternately, Johnson hears a strange noise or an unexpected light and goes to investigate, only to find that the source of her distress is something mundane, like a coat and hat or cat. The continuous stream of false starts wears on one’s nerves and patience.

The newly added back story and characters only serve to weigh down the plot and pacing. A momentary glimpse into the heroine’s high school life and romantic difficulties fail to grasp one’s interest as the whole affair is palpably shallow, included only to justify her baby-sitting duties. Phone calls and visits from friends manage only to dispel any suspense so tenuously established.

Belle’s performance has a similar effect on the audience. Practically a beacon of calm and stability, Belle never seems to convey the emotions she should presumably be feeling. When badgered by the mysterious stranger, voiced by Tommy Flanagan, she quavers not, responding firmly and, at times, indignantly. Even after confronting several corpses, Belle only loses her composure for a moment. Within the span of a minute, she collects herself, ready for the next challenge.

However, “When A Stranger Calls” is not a complete disappointment. The setting of the movie, an ultra-modern glass house set next to a lake in the mountains is visually appealing and the perfect backdrop for such a movie. Isolated from human contact, the home’s interior is dimly lighted by a system of lights triggered by motion. As the lights turn on and off, an eerie, electrical hum emanates and echoes throughout the halls. To complement the lights, dark, gruesome works of art are strewn about the household.

Unfortunately, no amount of eye candy can salvage this movie. Burdened by poor acting, a lackluster script and a “twist” that was given away in the trailers, the monotony of a dial tone would be preferable source of entertainment.