A serial killer is on the loose. What better time for high school student Jill Johnson to accept a first-time babysitting gig at a sprawling residence in the middle of nowhere? As night falls and the children lie sleeping, Jill receives a series of menacing phone calls that lead to a life-and-death struggle with an anonymous madman.
Jill's dad administers tough love, not merely grounding her for abusing her cell phone privileges, but having her pay off her debt in a way that will develop character. He speaks of showing responsibility when it's "not easy" because "that's when it counts." Jill rises to the occasion when, aware that her stalker is inside the house, her first instinct is to protect two children she hasn't even met, putting their safety above her own.
A quick pan of a suburban community catches a neon sign that reads "Jesus Saves."
Precious little for a film of this genre. Jill struggles with having caught her boyfriend kissing her best friend, Tiffany. Girls wear midriff-baring outfits. Several paintings display rear nudity.
In the opening scene, a woman is murdered off-camera. From a distance we notice a shadowy figure in an upstairs window lunging as his victim's screams get lost amid those of carnival revelers. A policeman is sickened by a crime scene, though all the audience sees is a parade of bloodstained body bags leaving the house. It's implied that the killer's MO is dismembering victims with his bare hands. Another woman ends up sleeping with the fishes. A teenage girl is stalked and later found dead (not bloody). A cat devours a bird.
After lots of cheap scares and drawn-out walks down long, dark hallways, Jill gets attacked by the killer. They wrestle, kick and grab at one another. She loses a lock of hair and gets choked before pinning his hand to the floor with a fireplace poker.
Crude or Profane Language
Just shy of 10 profanities in all, though there are two uses each of the s-word and "a--hole."
Drug and Alcohol Content
No sooner does Tiffany show up than she raids the family's bar. She admits to letting alcohol get the better of her, blaming it for her decision to kiss Jill's boyfriend ("You know what tequila does to me"). Jill's solution is, "So don't drink." A man is reportedly sedated with enough drugs to knock out a horse.
I've come to the conclusion that cell phones just aren't scary. In the old days, if a psychopath called a babysitter on a landline she was drawn to a specific location in the house. Upon answering, she remained bound to that confined area by a twisted wire until she a) slammed down the receiver or b) got cut off by a chilling click or diabolical dial tone. The villain was calling all of the shots. Also, that relatively low-tech box was the sitter's only lifeline to the outside world. If a panicked teen earning two bucks an hour picked it up and got dead silence, the isolation sent shivers up viewers' spines.
This, however, is the 21st century, where a cell phone is the very symbol of independence, control and portability. No longer summoned and anchored to a spot like a dog chained up in the backyard, the intended victim can take the caller anywhere she wants to. That alone puts her more in command. Furthermore, creepy conversations (or bouts of heavy breathing) don't end dramatically, but with a meek beep or matter-of-fact "call ended" message. And instead of getting dead silence when the sitter tries in vain to summon help, we hear a soothing voice explain that the party is out of range. Not terribly ominous. Not to mention the fact that, unlike the so-'90s characters in When a Stranger Calls, most young people in the real world import bouncy ringtones. Let's face it, harassing someone just isn't the same when the first thing they hear is a digitized pop song. Indeed, advances in technology can mute the primal fear a horror film wants to elicit.
That said, I'm glad director Simon West didn't resort to the disturbing tactic many of his peers have found profitable of late: The low-budget marriage of R-rated sex and torture characterizing hits such as Saw II and Hostel. Rather, this movie is a decidedly PG-13 thriller. And even though it's a remake of a 1979 horror "classic" involving murdered children, it had the decency to change that part of the story. Dialed back from the original, When a Stranger Calls isn't exploitative or diseased. It's just paltry, manipulative and cliché-ridden. The final scene will have genre junkies flashing back to Halloween 2, then wondering why they didn't simply watch Stranger's two-minute trailer online for free (it's essentially the entire story told in more compelling fashion) and come up with their own ending, which couldn't help but be more satisfying than the real one.