Saturday, January 12, 2008

Phoning It In

When I was in high school, I saw the 1979 version of When A Stranger Calls starring Carol Kane as the babysitter subjected to really menacing phone calls. This was at least 10 years ago or maybe a bit more. This movie scared the crap out of me. At least, the beginning and the end did. It's been forever, but the beginning is the whole babysitting harassment deal, and then that ends maybe a half hour into the film, and then there's this boring, random middle section with her going about her life trying to forget this incident and the bad guy coming after her again or her trying to seek revenge, something like that. I don't know. The end gets good again. But there's a whole lot of nothing in the middle.

But the beginning part especially creeped me the hell out. I don't know if this is a girl thing or what, but I did my share of babysitting, even though I was retired by the time I saw it, and I could relate. It's a scary premise! Okay, spoiler alert. If you don't want to know what happens, stop reading now. Although it's fairly predictable (not to me at the time, though), and it's not like the movie matters very much, but if you really are dying to see it and want to be shocked, that's your warning.

The big twist is: the calls are coming from INSIDE the house. Crazy! I know, it might not be original nowadays, but that's freaky. The babysitter in me was terrified. I remember one night very clearly. I had just watched it and was in the bathroom brushing my teeth before bed, so the water was running. My mom comes up, but I didn't hear her, and she said something to me. I literally fell to the ground screaming and managed to shriek out something that sounded like, "AH! NO!" I know it's not a great movie. In fact, I think most of it sucks. But the few parts that are good are killer. Eh? Like that? I made a funny. I don't know if I would react the same way today, but it was totally effective in traumatizing teenage me.

Since I know, in the recesses of my brain, that it's a pretty lousy movie, the decision to remake it in 2006 seemed stupid. I also thought it wouldn't work as well with all the caller ID and technology today. That's what made the original so scary. No cell phones or anything except good old land lines. I scoffed at the remake like everyone else (although most people probably didn't even know it was a remake). Just another dumb, hackneyed pseudo-horror teen movie. Then, when I was wide awake in the middle of the night, it was on cable. And I actually watched it. I was only going to watch for a few minutes and flip around. Late at night, I have a habit of watching really, really bad movies, just because I don't want to have to think. It's an hour and a half long, and I came into it about 25 minutes or so late. But I saw enough. Like I said, I was going to watch a bit, chuckle at its stupidity, and find something else to sneer at, but I didn't change it. It held my attention.

Even weirder, I was compelled. I was into it. I even found myself saying, out loud, at one point when she makes a cliché horror move, "What the hell's her problem?!" It's different than the original, for the better. The whole movie is just about the girl being harassed in the house. I didn't think they'd be able to stretch it out and make it interesting, but they did. The movie also used cell phones and caller ID and land lines and all the technology well to make it plausible. I was surprised. Of course, the police are still incompetent oafs (one of them is played by David Denman, Roy from The Office!). It's not a groundbreaking movie. But it's fun.

For what it is, the visuals look good. The production design is pretty awesome. The opulent house (windows are scary - I hate them) and the grounds (ponds, pool, all this intricate stuff) look fantastic, and it's about the scariest location ever for a babysitter. It's like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater from hell. There's also some snazzy lighting and camerawork. Seriously, it's a good-looking movie. And it's a one-woman show. Jill, the babysitter, is played by Camilla Belle, and the whole movie is basically just her getting more and more scared and then fighting for her life. She really carries the movie, and she does a great job. She's quite a unique, striking beauty, too, so that never hurts when you're in every shot. It's not the best acting ever, but it's pretty darn good. I think she'll get better and better and have a good future.

I'm so stunned that I actually liked When A Stranger Calls. I was all on edge with fluttery stomach and all, mildly at least, for most of it. I know it's not great. I know that. But I guess it's just nice to see a decent, adequately entertaining, PG-13, psychologically-based, non-exploitative horror movie today. I'd much rather watch this than the alternative: the filthy, depraved misogyny of Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II, or the cheap, perverse exploitation found in any of those abominable torture porn movies for that matter.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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