There’s one creepy twist in “When a Stranger Calls,” but you already know what it is. You know it from seeing the 1979 film this is a remake of, or from hearing the oft-told campfire story that uses it, or from watching the film’s trailer or TV commercials that give it away. The calls, it seems, are coming from inside the house!!
With that spine-tingling bit of information already common knowledge among viewers, you’d assume the movie has more to offer beyond that one “surprise.” And you would be wrong. Indeed, that revelation comes 60 minutes into the 86-minute movie, and all that follows it is the obligatory running and chasing and screaming. No further twists, no additional scenarios for the heroine to escape from, not even the post-trauma scenes that the 1979 version had. This is a film with one idea, and everyone has already heard it.
It is the tale of a babysitter named Jill (Camilla Belle) who is tormented by menacing phone calls while she tends two nameless children in a huge lakeside house. You can tell the entire story in about five minutes, which means the additional screen time is padding: Jill’s best friend was caught kissing Jill’s boyfriend; Jill is in trouble with her dad for going over on her cell phone minutes; Jill is missing out on a big bonfire party tonight.
Director Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) lays everything out systematically. Jill gets a tour of the house early on, so we know its secrets: It has lights that turn on automatically when you enter a room, a remote-control fireplace, and several other features that will surely prove useful later on, wink wink. The screenplay (by Jake Wade Wall) spins its wheels for a while, interspersing the phone calls from the stranger with calls from the boyfriend and the best friend, and the ominous musical score works overtime to convince us that we’re being terrified even though (technically) nothing is happening.
When the truth finally comes out, the film kicks into high gear, and the climax is admirably exciting and suspenseful. For that matter, hearing a stranger ask “Have you checked the children?” over the phone is pretty creepy, too, even when you know it’s coming.
But the bare-bones story simply can’t survive being stretched to a feature-length running time, and Camilla Belle is not nearly as charismatic an actress as she would need to be to carry this movie by herself. She’s in almost every frame, yet she never registers as a real person whose safety we should fear for. There might be terror out there, but it’s not coming from inside the movie.
C (1 hr., 26 min.; )