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WHEN A STRANGER CALLS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Camilla Belle, Brian Geraghty, Katie Cassidy, Clark Gregg
Director: Simon West
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Sony Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 87 Minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2006

ďHAVE YOU CHECKED THE CHILDREN?Ē

Film ***

Despite the endless army of horror remakes to continue to find their way into theaters, I was more than willing to give When a Stranger Calls a chance. I suppose the biggest reason for this was the sheer fact that I had never seen the original movie from the late 70s. I was aware of the storyline, and judging by how the remake plays out, Iím pretty sure that very little has changed.

However, this is one movie that succeeds almost entirely on style and atmosphere, which in this case is eerie and tremendously creepy. Director Simon West (Con Air, The Generalís Daughter) and his technical team have come to play with a vengeance. Iím sort of bummed that I missed it in its theatrical run, because I could imagine how many times the audience reacted with pure fright, which is one of the reasons people go to see scary movies in the first place.

The plot involves high school student Jill Johnson (the talented and beautiful Camilla Belle), who at the beginning of the film has gotten into a bit trouble with her parents. She went over her minutes on her cell phone, and now sheís being grounded and forced to pay it off through babysitting. Maybe itís just me, but getting grounding for such a reason seems a bit too strict, donít you think?

Anyway, as desperate as that plot detail seems, it sets in motion the remainder of the film, which has Jill babysitting two children for a wealthy couple in the confines of one of the most amazing homes Iíve ever seen. Not since the hill side mansion in last yearís Hostage have I seen house that I wanted to live in. I donít want to spoil any of the details, but letís just say that this lakeside residence has everything one could ask for.

With the kids sound asleep and the home basically all to herself, Jill expects nothing more than a quiet night. That all changes with one ring of the house phone. The first several calls have Jill more than puzzled. The caller never seems to respond. She is thrown off even more when she receives additional calls that seem to be the work of pranksters.

But the startling phone calls proceed. Jill is persuaded to call the police, who tell her they canít do anything unless the caller has made any type of threat. Moments later, Jillís receives another call. The caller utters five startling words; ďHave you checked the childrenĒ. It pushes Jillís panic button to an even greater extent, since she now knows that whoever is calling her can see her as well.

It does take time for the terror factor to kick in, but thatís part of the fun of the movie. Weíre right there with Jill as she slowly becomes taunted by this stranger. As the creepy phone calls progress, the tension progresses as well. And the last twenty minutes do deliver quite a riveting payoff as Jill finds herself in her the presence of the person whoís been terrorizing her.

In addition, the movie has a great deal going for it in terms of style and atmosphere. From the moment Jill is in the house, the camera maneuvers through the elaborate house in a way that manages to strike the viewerís nerves. The level of darkness in the house also plays a pivotal part in the effect, as well. If anything, the most vital character in the entire film is the house.

When a Stranger Calls is a neat little take on a familiar urban legend. The technical qualities of the film are quite stunning, and Camilla Belle carries the film most impressively. If itís chills youíre in search of, this filmís got em.

Video ****

Sonyís anamorphic presentation is stunning in the way it delivers a knockout picture in the most unexpected of circumstances. About 80% of the film is shot in darkly lit set pieces. You wouldnít necessarily think a strong picture could be found her, but that is indeed what is delivered here. Colors are a superb bonus, as well. All in all, a grand presentation of a tremendously shot film.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix achieves in heightening the terror factor. The sound quality helps in racing the viewerís pulses. The surround sound channels come into play quite frequently, as the creepy setting requires strange sounds to be heard in numerous areas. Music playback and dialogue delivery also score major points.

Features **1/2

Included on the disc are two commentary tracks; the first with director Simon West and actress Camilla Belle; the second with screenwriter Jake Wade Wall. Also included is a making of featurette, deleted scenes and a long list of bonus previews for additional Sony releases.

Summary:

When a Stranger Calls is very much a triumph of creepy style over substance. As long as you donít think about it for too long, then youíre bound to succumb to many thrills and chills. Perfect for a late night scare

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