February 9, 2006

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FILM: When a Stranger Calls (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

A teen faces off against a bloodthirsty, annoying serial killer who apparently has one heck of a good phone plan in the occasionally creepy, frequently tedious When a Stranger Calls.

Remember the very first “Treehouse of Terror” episode of The Simpsons? In one segment, James Earl Jones narrates “The Raven.” When he gets to the “Here I opened wide the door —/ Darkness there, and nothing more” part, Bart interjects: “You know what would have been scarier than nothing?...Anything!”

This line and the feeling of being a victim of some storytelling hoodwinkery came upon me, like low-grade nausea, at several points in the film. We are more than an hour into this hour-and-20some-minutes movie before we get our first sight of anything truly terrifying (well, actually, it’s an only sorta-terrifying sight — the cheesily made up dead body of one of the more irritating characters). For an hour we must suffer through odd creaks, is-it-isn’t-it shadows and lights, clanging noises that end up begin the cat. Actually, the movie pulls that cat psych-out on us several times, enough that I wonder why the writers didn’t just introduce a dog or a pet monkey to spice up the gimmick.

And no matter how many times that ax-wielding-serial-killer noise turns out to be the cat, babysitter Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is always up for investigating the sound, houseware-held-as-ineffective-weapon in hand. Of course, you can’t blame her for being a little wigged out. The couple that she meets just as they are on their way out for the evening are the kind of creepy-perfect family that, in your more maudlin Lifetime movies, usually end up being Satan worshipers or Nazis or something. And, just to up the weird factor, this upwardly mobile family living in an architectural magazine-worthy home (complete with a aviary in the center of the house) on a secluded lake also happens to collect some pretty gruesome art — angry red and orange paintings and goblin-ish statuary. So, there Jill sits in a photo spread from the Halloween issue of Dwell, pretending to do her homework and not mope about the boyfriend trouble that serves as the movie’s B-plot. Who can blame her for jumping a bit when the phone rings?

A few heavy-breathing, no-response calls later, and Jill’s voice-of-evil phone buddy (Tommy Flanagan) gives her the first of two money lines: “Have you checked on the children?” Jill eventually gets the police to trace the phone calls and we then get money line number two: “The call is coming from inside the house.” Of course, considering the number of times the big baddie changes from his own phone to the phones of assorted victims, it’s a wonder the cops are still able to give us this moment of freak-out.

I like and appreciate the tactic of not showing us the really scary stuff and letting our imaginations overtake whatever CGI could dream up. Eventually, however, you have to put your psycho killer where your build-up is and give people a few good concrete frights. There is another way to do it: build the story so that we in the audience begin to doubt the “reality” of what we’re seeing. “Maybe there isn’t a psycho killer. Maybe the babysitter is just scaring herself to death.” Keeping things vague — is it an intruder, is it a cat — helps build tension in that story as well. But, in the case of When a Stranger Calls, the movie tells us that the man and the danger from him are very real. So, after the first few hey-what’s-that-sound moments, we’re ready to see the Big Baddie. We know he’s there and, as a horror movie audience, we’re not exactly brimming with patience.

So I’m back to Bart Simpson. You know what would have been scarier than “the cat did it”? Anything.
And here’s where the hoodwinking come in. We know, with certainty because the movie has laid it all out, that there is a serial killer, that he is real and that he really wants to kill the babysitter and the children and even, maybe, the poor little birds serving as the home’s living decoration. But the film seems to want us to pretend that we don’t know. That maybe it was just wind. You can foreshadow and then follow it up with vaguery but you can’t tell us exactly what’s going to happen and then get coy. Even a 10-year-old underachiever knows that. C-

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