Why “When a Stranger Calls” (2006) was Better Than Expected

Released in the midst of the torture porn boom and American remakes of Asian horror films, it’s no surprise that the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls has largely been forgotten.  Many initially disregarded it and just another PG-13 unnecessary rehash of a beloved horror classic.

And while that’s not entirely untrue, the movie deserves more credit than it gets.  It’s by no means a groundbreaking classic, but it’s incredibly effective at what it sets out to do, and in some ways, even surpasses the 1979 original.

Underrated Protagonist
There’s an annoying trend to cast twentysomethings as teenagers in slasher films and they’re far more financially well-off than average and they just come off as entitled and hard to relate to.  When A Stranger Calls (2006) cast the then 18 year old Camilla Belle, who not only comes off as a real teenager, but feels like a real person, with strengths, vulnerabilities, and flaws.

The whole reason she takes the babysitting gig is the pay back her parents for the phone bill.  She’s clearly annoyed with the punishment, but doesn’t act like some over the top rebellious teen one might find in an after school special.

Once the titular stranger starts stalking her, she’s quick to call the police and try to handle it as best she can.  But she’s clearly terrified and trying to put her best face forward, as anyone would do in that scenario.  And her tragic PTSD at the end of the film, is a very realistic consequence that would haunt her for a very long time.

Camilla Belle really gives a great and layered performance here. It’s frustrating that her career never really took off in the years that followed.

Adapting the Best Parts
“Have you checked the children?” and “The call is coming from inside the house” are both iconic quotes that made the original When A Stranger Calls a classic.  However, what most people remember from the film is only the first act.

That contains the entire premise of the stranger calling from inside the house, and the rest of the movie is Jill Johnson (portrayed by Carol Kane in 1979) dealing with the aftermath and resurgence of the killer.  It’s a brilliantly done sequence that’s efficient and suspenseful because it’s only 20 minutes, but that’s just it, it’s only 20 minutes.

Is a whole movie memorable if people only remember on small part of it?

The rest of the movie isn’t nearly as memorable.  And in a very wise choice, the 2006 remake focuses only on those 20 minutes and makes a feature length thriller out of it.  The fact that its entire runtime is less than 90 minutes helps, and it makes it so that the very best part of the original is the only part that the remake portrays.

And in doing so, the 2006 does a pretty solid job.  It accurately captures the dread and suspense, and manages to be downright creepy without ever having to rely on blood or gore.  It’s not effective because of its PG-13 rating, it’s effective in spite of it.

Plus the fact that Lance Henrikson is the voice of the “Stranger” makes it all the more creepy.

Very Specific Time Capsule
This reason has less to do with the movie itself and is more of a happy coincidence, but it still works to its favor.  As previously mentioned, the whole reason that Jill takes the babysitting gig and doesn’t have her cell phone is because she went way over on her minutes, costing her parents a fortune on the phone bill

For those who had cell phones in the late 90s/early 2000s, minute overages were the bane of one’s existence, and the magic solution was talking after a certain time when the minutes were free.  It was also a time when not every teenager had a phone, and we were still a few years before smartphones.

It’s also a lot of fun to look back on, as it features a pre-MCU Tessa Thompson (Valkerie) and Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson).

So, in a very real way, 2006 was probably the last time that When A Stranger Calls could ever be properly told.  Nowadays with smartphones being so prevalent, it couldn’t even be done.  It’s not exactly a slasher classic, but it’s better than it should have been, and deserves a revisit now on its 15th anniversary!

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