“Forget it, Jake. It’s New Year’s Town.”
That bit of altered Chinatown dialogue makes a good description for the months of January and February at the movies. There’s almost never anything to get excited about at the movies until March. It would have been foolish to approach Simon West’s When a Stranger Calls with anything other than — unsurprisingly justified — grave misgivings.
West’s newest, a remake of a 1979 Carol Kane film of the same title, was co-written by a fellow who began his career writing for the game show Let’s Make a Deal. This isn’t so hard to imagine in a thriller that isn’t a whole lot more than seeing what’s behind Door No. 3: Will it be the Jag convertible, the consolation prize of a case of Jungle Gardenia perfume, or the knife-wielding homicidal maniac?
The first film — as with this retread — was predicated on an urban legend that even in 1979 hobbled onto the set on crutches. It’s the old gag about the baby-sitter getting scary phone calls asking her, “Have you checked the children?” And, of course, it turns out that the calls are — gasp! — coming from inside the house she’s in. Mayhem ensues.
You probably heard it, sworn to as gospel truth, when you were in grade school. So did I. So did my parents. So, I imagine, did their parents, going as far back as the existence of Mr. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention allows. It’s pretty thin stuff, as the makers of the original realized when they had it comprise only the first 20-25 minutes of the original, filling out the bulk of the film with what happened years later.
The new film opts out of the extended story, choosing to spread the baby-sitting yarn over its entire 86 minutes. Things actually start pretty nicely with a murder that takes place in a location some 125 miles away from the main story. This one sequence suggests something more than what we finally get, because it’s nothing more than the template for everything we end up with. What looks stylish for five minutes becomes annoyingly dull when repeated for the next hour-plus.
From here it’s simply a matter of getting our heroine, Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle, The Ballad of Jack and Rose), to her nightmarish baby-sitting gig. This involves Jill being all a-dither because her boyfriend (Brian Geraghty, Jarhead) kissed another girl, and Jill being forced into baby-sitting jobs because the resultant hours of phone calls with said boyfriend have put her way over the limits of her cell-phone calling plan. (Yes, that really is the setup.)
So poor Jill has to go baby-sit in this Architectural Digest-looking house with bad lighting, and be subjected to creepy sounds and phone calls and even the obligatory false-scare-by-cat for about three reels while her friends attend an improbable “Wicker Man” bonfire (these kids are this movie savvy?) in some out-of-the-way place with bad cell-phone reception, till we get to the big showdown — a reel of running around in the dark and a Carrie rip-off shock tag scene as the cinematic maraschino cherry on top.
Ho and hum and forget it, Jake, it’s New Years’ Town. Rated PG-13 for intense terror, violence and some language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke