When a Stranger Calls (and Doesn’t Leave a Message)

One of the most exciting things happening in American cinema over the past few years has been the gentrification of the horror film. No longer consigned to the low budget B-list, horror films are coming out of the morgue and standing alongside films of a more discerning artistic quality. Take, for instance, the stunning remake of Tobe Hooper’s shoestring Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which stuck stars with actual talent (Jessica Biel! Eric Balfour! Jonathan Tucker!) and placed them in an honest-to-god production design. The horror film has changed since its 1970s garage-film heyday, and, I think, not necessarily for the better, but for the different.

Hollywood’s latest horror makeover is a new version of the classic When a Stranger Calls, which terrified babysitters and either responded to or gave rise to a whole slew of babysitter urban legends. A simple premise: babysitter receives eerie phone calls, phone calls are revealed to be coming from—wait! You know this already—and chaos ensues. The original starred Carol Kane.

Camilla Belle, as the latest Jill Johnson, is phenomenal. She brings to a role an interesting mix of I’ve-had-it-with-drama and real vulnerability. As a heroine, she’s believably weak and obviously running on adrenaline. She doesn’t, for instance, overpower her attack with Matrix-like kung fu. In the words of a very smart man, she just goes on her nerve. She knows not to turn back and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep,” even though she is. We understand why Jill runs up the stairs instead of down. In a post-Neve Campbell narrative, this is a victory.

The film nicely responds to advances in technology—where’s Jill’s cell phone? for example—and limits itself to staying with the character as she contends with both her dumbass friends calling and stopping by—and the Stranger, who rarely even speaks.

Especially of note in this film are the lighting and set design. Jill’s new babysitting job takes place in a secluded Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired chalet just off a mountain lake—where no one can hear you scream—and the combination of rich natural woods, cold chrome, and enormous plate glass windows makes the house more of a cage than abode.

The smartest move by director Simon West, though, is his treatment of the Stranger, whose face is always shrouded or misted over in every shot—in a completely uncontrived way. This inability to see his face, his eyes, makes him truly unnerving, frightening, and shapless. It’s a genius move. His face is revealed in a horrifyingly slow tracking shot at the end, and at first, I thought it was a misstep—but it wasn’t—we needed to be left with his eyes, his scar, his blank expression; he needed to live on in us if nowhere else, and like Jill, we’ll see him that way—slow, menacing, exacting—every time we go to sleep…

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