If this would've came out 10 years ago, in February of 1996, there might be a different tone to this review. Hell, the world might have even been a better place if this movie would've come out in February of 1996. If that would've happened, then, when Scream came out in December of 1996, it would've probably came off as a rip-off, nobody would've seen it, which would naturally lead to the Scary Movie series never coming to fruition and David Arquette probably wouldn't have a career. Yes, the world indeed would've been a better place if When a Stranger Calls was released a decade ago. It probably would've been viewed as a taut, fresh movie, perhaps revitalizing the horror genre instead of Scream which just spawned spoofs of it. But we live in a world with Scream and spoofs, so this movie, now, just doesn't cut the mustard, mainly because they adhere so closely to the formula so frequently spoofed upon.
The flick fittingly starts off in a town with a carnival running, focusing on the house right next door to the festivities. This is fitting because it's just one big merry-go-round that could've been summed up in half a minute, but, for some reason, spirals on for about 5 minutes for no real reason whatsoever. Eventually, we get to another town 125 miles away that looks like your average, sleepy little town, and we focus on Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle). She's broken up over a recent ex, Bobby, (Brian Geraghty) who she found making out with her bitchy friend (for some reason, she wasn't credited on IMDB). Of course, Bobby claims it was an "accident" and all that jazz, and has been calling her constantly to try and patch things up. This leads to her cell phone minutes going way over the limit (I think they took those "family plan" cell commercials a little too seriously...) and Jill gets grounded from the car and her celly and has to pay off her mounting cell phone bill. This leads to her babysitting job for a rich family with an elaborate house on the lake, which leads to the stranger calling, which leads to, well, boredom.
I'm not really surprised that the bitchy friend wasn't listed on IMDB, and it really wouldn't surprise me if everyone but Camilla Belle and The Stranger weren't listed, because everyone else we see here has basically a cameo. Clark Gregg is the only noticeable person in this flick, who plays Jill's father, and they really should've used him a bit more. Belle does a pretty good job as Jill, though, with a very natural style and range that fit her character to a T. The Stranger's voice was done fairly well by Lance Henriksen, who you might recognize, but even that wasn't used a whole lot either. The rest of the cast either isn't good enough to even mention, or shown enough to even mention, or perhaps a little bit of both.
First-time screenwriter Jake Wade Wall must have had a copy of Writing a Horror Movie For Dummies right by his side when scripting this flick, because there isn't anything here that will surprise anyone. To be fair, though, it's not all totally his fault because the trailer reveals a major tidbit, and if I were either Wall or director Simon West, I'd be calling for the marketing people's heads for basically ruining the big twist of the movie. That aside, he follows formula to a T, loading the script with fake moments of anxiety that you know will lead up to nothing and fake clues and asides you know will lead up to nothing. This is all, really, foreshadowing, though, since the whole damn thing really leads up to nothing, in an extremely anti-climactic ending that's as flat as the North Dakota landscape. I liked that he doesn't use too much dialogue here, but what he uses doesn't work that well either. It's just a very poor script, folks.
Director Simon West does a decent enough job with what he's given here. He works the camera rather well for his first horror outing, but I didn't like how he kept the staircase dark in one spot, for "dramatic effect" even though the whole damn house has automatic lighting. Still, the direction can't even come close to compensating for the dreadful, formulaic story, so maybe he should've ordered a rewrite or nine.
When a Stranger Calls is a movie about the dangers of babysitting... as if we already didn't know that from other horror flicks and Adventures in Babysitting. It really shows the dangers of being stuck in a formula that people have basically memorized by heart, and the dangers of boring your audience to sleep or death by not being dangerous enough to venture down the road less traveled.