Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When A Stranger Calls

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There's a dissertation waiting to be written about how seemingly every horror film in the last few years has suggested something about 9/11 and its aftermath. That's to be expected from George Romero's Land Of The Dead, the continuation of a series that's always been laced with political allegory, but it's just as unmistakable in The Devil's Rejects (about the corrosive effects of revenge) or Hostel (about the consequences of American misbehavior abroad). The original 1979 When A Stranger Calls opens in an average middle-class neighborhood, but the lunk-headed remake moves the action to an isolated fortress of a house, surrounded by water and supported by the latest in high-tech security gadgetry. Nonetheless, the calls to a babysitter from a heavy-breathing madman are still coming from inside the house, implying that oceans are no longer adequate protection and our technology can just as easily be turned against us.

Of course, searching for allegory is only one way to keep from being bored by the film; the teen audience for which it was intended, thanks to a PG-13 rating, can busy themselves by trying to get to second base. The 1979 version thrived more as an urban legend than an enduring entertainment: The only element people remember about it are campfire stories about a prank caller who asks, "Have you checked the children?" and the origin of said calls being within close proximity. What they don't remember is that most of the film is a cheesy detective procedural starring Charles Durning. The remake wisely excises the last 75 minutes of the original and expands the home-invasion section, following a wispy teenage babysitter (Camilla Belle) as a maniac from Central Casting threatens her over the phone. Trouble is, how do you pass the time?

If you're Simon West, the Jerry Bruckheimer-schooled director of Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, you pack the house with every false alarm in the book and then some. The lights in every room fade up and down on motion sensors, the plants are watered through a loud automatic sprinkler system, and any noise that echoes through the house may or may not be the live-in housekeeper. There's even a skittish black cat named Chester thrown in for good measure, though he appears to be relatively harmless. It's strange to criticize When A Stranger Calls for bastardizing a film that was already lame to begin with, but the film simply doesn't have enough material to sustain itself. The original should have been a short film; the new version shouldn't exist at all.