Review 58: When a Stranger Calls (remake) (.5/5)

When a Stranger Calls

Directed by Simon West

Starring Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Katie Cassidy, Clark Gregg

Released on February 10, 2006

Running time: 1h 27m

Rated PG-13

Genre: Horror, Thriller

Have you ever heard the urban legend “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs”? How have you not? It’s only one of the most well-known urban legends to date.  For those of you who haven’t heard it before, I will tell you:

One dark night, a teenage girl is babysitting a few children. The children have been put to bed upstairs, and the babysitter is downstairs, watching TV. The phone rings, and the babysitter picks it up. A voice tells her over the phone to check the children, and then hangs up. Rather than check the children, the babysitter goes right back to watching TV. The stranger calls several times more, and the babysitter starts to become paranoid. She calls the cops, who tell her that they will trace the next call. The stranger calls again. The cops call, telling the babysitter that the calls are coming from inside the house, and that the babysitter needs to get out. I’ve heard two different endings to this: 1) the babysitter goes outside and meets the police. They go back inside only to find the children murdered and the stranger gone. 2) the cops arrive too late; the babysitter and children have been murdered, and the stranger is gone.

This urban legend has been adapted into plenty of films, the most notable being 1979’s When a Stranger Calls.

Yes, I have watched the original When a Stranger Calls. Admittedly, I found it to be unimpressive overall. I will admit that the first twenty minutes were slightly creepy, but the rest of the movie was a terribly uninteresting mess. It was twenty minutes of supposedly terrifying tripe, an hour of filler, fifteen minutes of buildup, and then a minute-long anticlimax. I get that the “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” story is a decently creepy urban legend. But it would only work as a twenty-to-thirty-minute short film. Unfortunately, 1979’s WaSC didn’t get that memo, as the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” story only took up the first twenty minutes, while the rest of the movie, about an hour and fifteen minutes, was instead focused on the psycho that was “the Man Upstairs”. But those first twenty minutes are somehow legendary in the eyes of its cult following as one of the scariest sequences in cinema. Frankly, I only found it slightly creepy, and only at the end of the sequence as the babysitter desperately tries to get out of the house. Plus, Carol Kane does not do a good job as Jill Johnson, with her acting ranging from bland to forced paranoia. The beef I have with this movie is this: playing your trump card right off the bat is never a good idea, as it essentially spells doom for the rest of your product. I wanted this movie to basically be a game of cat and mouse around the house. Unfortunately, combined with a Norman Bates wannabe villain and an admittedly good soundtrack that desperately wants to be from Psycho, WaSC is a sad, depressed, cynical little movie. If I had to give it a final verdict, it would be a disappointing 1.5 out of 5. It’s not awful, but it fails miserably at making good on its ideas. Much like Black Christmas, which I watched just before WaSC, and would give a 2 out of 5.

Why so much concern for the original? Because the remake, and Camilla Belle as Jill Johnson, are hands down much worse.

Its first mistake was this: instead of the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” sequence taking up only the first twenty minutes, it takes up the entire movie, with about five minutes of exposition and resolution each.

Second: these “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” incidents are a string of serial murders. That’s just tasteless. This child murderer really wants to be Freddy Krueger.

Third: why Jill is babysitting at this house in the first place. It turns out that Jill has succumbed to first world problems: she has gone over her allotted phone call minutes by over thirteen hours and twenty minutes. That’s…actually an accomplishment. Well done, Jill. I can’t wait to see what becomes of you when the iPhone 7 comes out. So Jill needs to pay off the cost of going over her allotted minutes by babysitting the two children of some rich doctor.

Fourth: rather than being a timeless story that could happen to anyone, this movie clearly belongs in 2006. It is a product of its time. Flip phones. Poor child discipline. Boyfriend/girlfriend relationship issues. Really nice cars that were obviously made just that year. Terrible teen slang. “Hang tough”? Really? I’m also surprised I didn’t catch a Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita being owned by that doctor. I’m also amazed that Jill’s family doesn’t own a Fiat Multipla. Seriously, ew.

Fifth: in its suspense sequences before we actually get the iconic calls, we as an audience need something to be afraid of.

Sixth. Could you have cast a worse chick to play Jill? At all? (Kristen Stewart?) I stand corrected. But Camille Belle is certainly a pretty face, but nothing else

Seventh: our stranger. Rather than keeping him in the dark, making him the unseen but ever present danger, and actually making him kind of creepy, the movie shows him to be just another guy. In fact, at the end, they actually show his face, shattering every semblance of scariness. Also, if the stranger was planning to kill Jill and bathe in her blood, he may want to make sure that he can actually beat her in a fistfight. Because he’s clearly too weak to do so. Finally, they actually showed the stranger in the trailer.

Eighth and final. In the trailer, Jill actually checks the children. She actually checks the children.

Our story begins as a babysitter is called by a man who doesn’t even drop the iconic “Have you checked the children?” before he murders the babysitter and kids with his bare hands. The police are none too pleased.

Transition to Jill (Belle), who is dealing with some oh-so-painful-and-unfair first world problems, as her boyfriend Jock (not his real name) has cheated on her with her friend Harlot (not really her name, but it’s what I’m calling her) (Cassidy), and she has gone over her allotted cell phone minutes by over eight hundred minutes. Still, wow. As punishment, her dad (Clark Gregg – is that Phil Coulson from The Avengers saga? It is! What the heck is he doing here of all places?) has confiscated her phone, revoked her driving privileges, and is having her babysit the two children of a wealthy doctor. And Jill whines about her punishment being unfair.

You know, this character is so unmemorable and so boring, I’m not going to address her as Jill. I will address her as…Skank.

First off, this is not how my parents disciplined me as a child. If ever I was naughty, my parents would send me to my room or take toys away. For larger offenses, my dad would hit or spank me just hard enough to cause pain, but not enough to even leave a bruise, let alone do damage. Yet teenagers these days, upon the loss of their phone(s) or driving privileges, they pussy out and act as if they’ve lost a child. Second, my parents taught me respect and discipline. I’m not very good at it, but my parents at least tried their hardest to teach me, and they at least had some success. Skank talks to her father in a rude, snide manner, as if she thinks of him as a fly to be swatted rather than her father. Third. My parents taught me to dress modestly. Skank wears a tiny denim miniskirt for the first ten minutes before she somehow changes into a pair of jeans. But, considering that I’m a guy, dressing immodestly was never an issue. These teachings about dressing modestly were only in response to curiosity about why so many other boys were letting their pants sag. Fourth. I’ve never had an active enough social life to warrant eight hundred minutes of phone call time. The only times I’ve ever had a typical phone call exceed five to ten or even thirty minutes were three FaceTime calls with an old flame. ({You know who you are}, I’m still really sorry that our relationship didn’t work out.)

Skank’s father is going to a concert with Skank’s mother that night, and Skank’s father is clearly dreading it. Why? Because the concert that night is focused on Baroque chamber music. And then the movie finally broke me.

Mind you, I was sitting in my computer chair, leaning back from the computer screen with my arms folded, was breathing heavily, and was tapping my foot in annoyance and impatience. I was in the middle of thinking, Please, God, make it stop! Upon hearing this line, I snapped. I slammed my fists down on my desk, grabbed my computer monitor, and screamed through my clenched teeth at my computer screen, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH BAROQUE CHAMBER MUSIC?!” Thinking to myself, Well, that’s definitely a first! I paused the movie, walked to the kitchen, got a drink, and waited for myself to cool down. When I walked back to my computer after about twenty minutes, I sat down in my chair, and politely asked the computer screen if I could buy Skank’s dad’s ticket off of him. I would love to hear a concert of Baroque chamber music. I was actually part of a makeshift string quartet in middle school. I played cello. I had a lot of fun with it, and I loved playing that Bach piece, the name of which escapes me.

By the time I had gotten fifteen minutes in, I had grown very tired of the atrocious acting, of which Camilla Belle is easily the worst offender, with her vocal and emotional range barely and rarely breaking an octave. Clark Gregg as Skank’s dad is clearly trying, but he clearly just wants to finish up with the two scenes he’s in and get his check so he can go home and save his skills for playing Phil Coulson in Iron Man and Vance in (500) Days of Summer. Even Jill’s friends are awful actors.

Anyway, Skank’s dad drops Skank off at the doctor’s house, and Whoa. This house is extravagant. Wow. But it’s not a good set for a horror movie. We meet Dr. Mandrakis and his wife as they show Skank around, telling her to make herself at home, and that they probably won’t be back until midnight. Surprisingly, the kids are already upstairs, asleep, despite it easily only being 5:00 in the afternoon. The Mandrakises leave, and Skank is left alone in the house. A few passage of time shots bring us to well after the sun has set. I’m busy thinking, I want to babysit these kids. This place is gorgeous! and At least this remake had the decency to establish its setting and characters…this optimism’s going to last about a minute. Sure enough, we then get our first “suspense” sequence of the movie. It’s essentially us dealing with Camilla Belle’s bored expression as she walks around the house investigating strange sounds, and us essentially spending five to ten minutes practically looking at nothing. Wow. It’s as if that these crapheads didn’t get the memo that the one thing you need in your horror movie is something to be afraid of. Even if it’s just Skank’s fragile mind. Also, when Skank grabs a weapon to investigate the house, she at first grabs the ash shovel from the fire place. No, Skank, you’re supposed to grab the fire poker when you – there you go.

After a few alarm system issues in which Skank doesn’t even check to see if something’s wrong, Skank’s friend Harlot shows up…for a few minutes before Skank actually does something intelligent – she, not wanting to get in more trouble, kicks Tiffany out. Skank did something intelligent? That’s a laugh. As Harlot leaves, we get our first way too premature scare as Harlot is attacked by an unknown force. Wait – the stranger asking “Have you checked the children?” is supposed to be the FIRST SCARE.

Speaking of which, here it is. Skank, having already received one or two anonymous silent phone calls earlier, picks up the phone, places it to her ear, and hears the iconic line:

STRANGER: Have you checked the children?

Yes. It only took fifty minutes to finally get to the entire reason we as an audience came to see your movie: to see a chick get stalked and terrorized.

But Skank has little to no reaction to this. Hell, the admittedly good soundtrack has to do the acting for her.

James Dooley’s soundtrack is so much better than the movie deserves. It could have been part of a fantastic horror movie.

After a few more phone calls, Skank, now out-of-nowhere paranoid, calls the cops. No really. Just a few seconds ago, she was bored out of her mind, and now, she is miserably failing at stressing the hell out and adding an artificial vocal tremble to her voice. This is the sign of a bad actress – she has nothing in between blandness at its finest and forced over-the-top panicking, again with her voice barely breaking an octave. The cops tell Skank that they’ll try to trace the call, but she needs to keep the stranger on the line for a minute. Then a pointless red herring leads her out to the guest house and back to the main house. That was necessary.

So, we’re an hour in, with less than thirty minutes to go. And still, nothing has happened apart from the calls and the red herring.

But then something FINALLY happens when Skank hears a shower turn on. She goes upstairs to check it out, and finds the corpse of Harlot. We get three forced, short yelps from Skank before she returns to the realm of dull acting.

Skank receives a call from the stranger again, and this time is able to keep him on the line for a minute. The police immediately call back and whoop-de-doo, the calls are coming from inside the house. Skank goes to collect the Mandrakis children, and when she does so, she sees the stranger looking down at her from a loft. Consult the seventh big mistake this movie made for a repeat of my spiel on it. Skank and the kids flee, but are trapped in the house’s indoor greenhouse. Skank turns on the water-mister-thingy-I-forget-what-it’s-called-but-it’s-used-to-water-the-plants, obscuring the stranger’s view and allowing the three to escape the greenhouse, but the kids run off somewhere into the house. When the stranger goes in to investigate the greenhouse, Skank locks him in and goes to search for the kids. By the time she finds them, it has taken the stranger no less than four minutes to shatter the pane of glass – no, not shatter. Knock it out of its frame.

The kids make it out of the house, but just as Skank is going through the doorframe, the stranger yanks her back in. He tries to wrestle her into submission, but she easily, and I mean easily, fights him off (refer again to my seventh complaint), and shanks his hand with the fire poker, pinning it to the floor long enough for the cops to come in and arrest the stranger.

The Mendrakises arrive and reunite with their oh-so-scared-looking kids, while Skank, still bored, watches as the stranger is driven away in the back of a police car. The stranger’s face is lit up by the moonlight, revealing him to be only slightly less bored than Skank.

Fade to an arbitrary length of time later to a mental hospital, showing Skank as a patient there. Wow, she must have been really shaken by her experience. She certainly looked shaken. I mean, did you see how shaken she looked? And look at how shaken she still is. Sheesh. You know, I didn’t actually see the “insanity” bit coming, as Skank has spent the entire movie looking bored. Skank walks around the somehow empty mental hospital until she hears a phone ring. She is terrified, thinking that the past hour and twenty minutes is going to repeat itself (I know how she feels), and when she turns around, the stranger is behind her – but, oooh, you sly scamp, it’s just a dream! It’s all part of an elaborate hallucination because apparently all this crap drove her insane. She wakes up, frantically panicking and overacting in the arms of her father and various hospital staff. Pan out and fade to black.

What a terrible excuse for a horror movie. I was amazed that, upon finishing WaSC, I felt that House at the End of the Street was a far superior product. Ouch. If Madman was a pitiful excuse for a slasher film, then When a Stranger Calls is just as pitiful of an excuse for a home invasion movie and then some.

The solution to its very slow, plodding, uninteresting story, as well as the story of the original, could have been to make the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” into a twenty to thirty minute short film.

The characters are brutally shallow and hollow.

As I have mentioned before, the acting is abominable; some of the worst I’ve ever heard, especially on the part of Skank. In every “suspenseful” sequence, in which we rely entirely on Skank acting with her face and body, her blank expression and forced movements destroy any semblance of scariness.

At least the lighting and set design was nice…?

At least the guy who wrote the great soundtrack, James Dooley, has been spending most of his career working with Hans Zimmer. That’s definitely a plus.

On the other hand, Camilla Belle and Simon West, the director, have only made one or two arguably decent films each in their entire careers. Simon West made the negligibly decent The Expendables 2 and Con Air, and Camilla Belle starred in the still critically divided The Ballad of Jack and Rose.

I didn’t know this until recently: Camilla Belle was one of Tim Tebow’s former girlfriends that had attempted to make him break his vow of celibacy until marriage. So…she can go screw off.

This is also the tamest retelling of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” to date.

The idea to make the “tBatMU” segment the entire movie could have worked, had the movie been shorter, and in this movie’s case, an hour shorter.

From original to remake, they took one step forward with the exposition, but then took twelve steps backward with everything else. As a matter of fact, with both original and remake, both lost my interest rather quickly. I pulled my phone out to check Facebook several times during each.

But, when you read about the horribly tragic crime that this urban legend was based on, you will understand why I find making a movie about this to be tasteless.

On the evening of March 18, 1950, thirteen-year-old Janett Christman was babysitting three-year-old Gregory Romack at his home. Sometime after Christman put Romack to bed, and intruder shattered a window and attacked Christman in the Romacks’ living room. At 10:35 PM, Officer Roy McCowan received a phone call in which a girl, presumably Christman, was screaming on the other end, telling the police to come quick. The call was lost before the girl could identify herself, and at that late hour, the call could not be traced. At 1:35 AM, the Romack parents returned to find Christman and Romack both dead, with Christman having been bludgeoned, raped, strangled, and having several small puncture wounds on her head. The prime suspect was a close friend of the Romacks, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Mueller, who lived less than a half mile from the Romack house, who had met Christman several times, was physically and possibly sexually attracted to her, and, according to Mrs. Romack, had made unwelcome advances toward Christman in the past. Mueller was never charged, passed a lie detector test, and sued the police department for holding him illegally. The crime has never been solved.

God rest the souls of these dead.

And may He have mercy on the souls of those involved in this movie.

Final verdict: .5 out of 5. This movie just barely escapes a 0. It simply wasn’t bad enough.

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