The jerk called me. He wants your number over there.
— Scarlet (Tessa Thompson)
Soft-spoken and well-adjusted, Jill (Camilla Belle) is a high school track star with boyfriend troubles. This is essentially all the information provided about the hero of Simon West’s When a Stranger Calls, an uninspired remake of the 1979 film. That the original features the quite young and extraordinary Carol Kane doesn’t help the inevitable comparisons. Though Bell brings a certain dark-eyed earnestness to her version of the babysitter in peril, she’s hampered by an unimaginative screenplay, which essentially rehashes the first film’s premise, the only new concept being the cell phone.
This “new” technology means that, following a couple of egregiously ominous foregroundings of the landline phone, she starts carrying the mobile version around with her. And so she can take the stranger’s calls while moving through the house. Once the “oooh, creepy” effect of this strategy wears off, however (in about a minute), the film is left pretty much idea-less.
Jill’s situation is standard. She’s grounded by her dad (Clark Gregg) because she’s run up 800 minutes of cell phone calls with her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty). Coincidentally, she’s currently estranged from said boyfriend, as she caught him kissing her “best friend,” the vacuous Tiffany (Katie Cassidy). Yes, she understands that both were drunk on tequila, but Jill wants more than their abjection and apologies. Just what that “more” is never becomes clear, though Jill’s other “best friend” Scarlet (Tessa Thompson) urges her repeatedly to withhold her forgiveness and break it off with Bobby permanently.
None of this plotting is particularly interesting (even the blandest of the bland, Tiffany, notes, “Guys, this is so high school”), though it might be said to lay a groundwork for Jill’s subsequent suspicions about who’s calling her at the house where she’s babysitting. This would be the typical stalker movie’s scary house — isolated, cavernous, and big-windowed, this time set on a lake, with wind and rain and thunder occurring when convenient, a high-tech alarm system that only functions intermittently, and a central atrium and fish pond that allow for some illogical cat-and-mousing toward film’s end.
For most of the movie’s 80-some minutes, Jill speaks on the phone with Bobby and Scarlet (who are attending the annual “bonfire party,” some distance from the house, which Jill is not allowed to attend due to her grounding) or the heavy-breathing stranger (Tommy Flanagan), with occasional input from the unhelpful cop down the road (“You’re safe inside the house”). She’s oddly unmoved even to glance at the young children, asleep in their bedroom when she arrives and gets a “tour” of the kitchen and atrium from the wealthy Mandrakis, and appropriately alarmed whenever Chester, the resident black cat, jumps out of a corner.
When the stranger calls, frequently, Jill tries out various strategies of dealing with him. First, he might be Bobby, then, he’s trying to scare her, and finally, he’d better leave her alone. None of this is compelling, and Jill’s range of responses — tentative shallow breathing, teary fearfulness, and plucky defiance — is excruciatingly limited. When the stranger does speak, he reveals that he is aware of her actions (telling her to check on the kids and then noting that she has done so), leading Jill to close all the gigantic draperies and then huddle on the floor so she can call the cops again, with a more urgent sense of her danger.
The stranger is, of course, “in the house” (a plot point the current promotional trailers give away, though in the original film, this was a climactic revelation, complete with big music and alarming close-up). This means that Jill needs to act quickly, if only to discover bodies the killer has left about the premises (these would be the expected open-eyed, jump-effect style corpses). When at last she learns what he “wants” (namely, “Your blood, all over me!”), she’s suitably appalled. Jill’s efforts to rescue the children (who speak not a word of dialogue but only scream and cry, understandably) are listlessly heroic.
But as she has no relationship with them (“I’m Jill the babysitter,” she introduces herself when she finds them hiding and traumatized), and their spacing in the house is somewhat spastic (she’s upstairs, she’s somewhere else, the kids are climbing through a window, the cat’s around the corner), the stakes in their hiding and running and fighting back are not so compelling. The stranger appears an implacable and big-eared silhouette (he actually resembles the T-1000 from T2), pursuing his victims until he doesn’t. Why or how he’s killed multiple other babysitters and kids is unclear, though alluded to very briefly in an opening sequence. This features scary screams, sadly floating red balloons, and off-balance roller coaster images, all leading vaguely to a multiple murder scene that remains offscreen, only suggested by a detective’s horrified face and the removal of body bags from the site.
The movie doesn’t put its pieces together: Jill briefly spots the Hispanic housekeeper named Rosa (Rosine Hatem), who appears without speaking (“We have a live-in,” says the mom on her way out the door, one whom she describes as making noises up on the third floor); the refrigerator’s icemaker provides ominous clunking sounds; and Tiffany arrives amid a loud windy rush (she might as well have “Dead Meat” written on her forehead). None of these episodes grants more information about Jill or leads coherently to the next plot event.
Incoherence can be a point. But not when the coherence of the plot — the endangered babysitter — is already in cultural circulation. This stranger is far too familiar.