The 2000s were such a unique time in horror...
...Remakes were everywhere; any franchise, any material, any country’s stories were fair game. One of the most popular storytelling frames of the decade was that of the urban legend. The stories we tell each other to generate fear for fun may seem harmless in the light of day, but how many times have you gone into the bathroom, turned the lights off, and chanted Bloody Mary (or Candyman)? How many times have you checked your back seat before getting in your car? How often do you check the children when you babysit? 15 years ago this month, director Simon West and writer Jake Wade Wall revamped When a Stranger Calls for a slightly more modern audience. As is one of my favorite traditions with 2000s-era horror remakes, I revisited it to see how well it held up and, frankly, was a little shocked at the result.
This iteration of When a Stranger Calls takes the always-terrifying urban legend of the babysitter menaced while alone in a house and plants it firmly in the year 2006. Jill (Camilla Belle) has been grounded and takes a babysitting gig to pay back her phone bill after going 800 minutes over her cell phone limit. It’s the night of her school’s annual bonfire—during which they set aflame something that looks suspiciously Wicker Man-esque, presumably to properly signal to us the debauchery Jill is missing out on—and she’s spending it in a lavish, expansive, window-filled house in what might be the lowest stakes babysitting job of her career. The children are already asleep, the parents warn her off from checking on them because they’ve been ill and need the sleep and tell her any banging from above is probably the housemaid. Seems pretty easy, right? With virtually no actual responsibility assigned to her, she begins to wander the house and rifle through the parents’ closets. Pretty weird choice to me but, hey, what do I know? I’ve never babysat before.
There are a few things going on in this movie that automatically press my “no thanks” buttons, even if it isn’t doing anything super deep. First of all, any house that’s, like, 60% window walls is a hard pass, as are stairways that don’t have any railings to speak of. Second, I just feel like if babysitting is the name of the game and you’ve already heard and/or seen something that made you do the suspicious slow turn, checking on the children at some point before an hour or so into the film should be top of the priority list. And last but by no means least, any house filled with creepy statues that cast long, menacing shadows into virtually impenetrable darkness is not one I want to spend any time in, much less a whole night. I may not have experience in this particular field of business, but I think I can call a bad deal when I see one and Jill has been given a bad deal with all kinds of obstacles in the way of her success.
Enter the menacing phone calls—placed between perfectly ordinary pranks, of course—and suddenly the phone is no longer a safe connection to the outside world. Not picking up is only sort of an option; if she leaves it ringing and the parents are on the other end, they’ll no doubt think something’s wrong and, boom, Jill has ruined date night. If it’s her boyfriend she’s been waiting to hear from and she doesn’t answer then she’s lost an opportunity she’s been trying to engineer all night. But if it’s the guy who’s been calling just to breathe into the phone? Well…that never ends well, either. While When a Stranger Calls is far from perfect—and in this case feels dated at almost every turn of dialogue—it does have one of my most personally terrifying tools in its arsenal: the guy on the other end of the phone doesn’t want anything at all except violence. The only thing that’s placed Jill in this guy’s path is that she was there. She’d have been safer at the high school’s Wicker Man bash. It’s all terror based purely on happenstance, and there are few things more upsetting than that level of unpredictability. The “have you checked the children?” line and its chaser, “how are the children?” are clichés of the trope, perhaps, but clichés exist because they have a basis in being effective, and effective they are.
Still, for everything going on in this movie, I don’t think it would have held up as well as it does for me if it weren’t for the cinematography and score, both of which kept me on edge from the first moment Jill hears something…off…in the house. Peter Menzies Jr.’s camera work uses the impressively dark house’s corners and hallways and shadows to make us doubt our own eyes, drawing us in to look with Jill into every possible crevice in an effort to locate the source of our unease. Put someone in an environment with enough darkness around them and there doesn’t even need to be anyone else around, our minds will do the work of conjuring our worst nightmares for us. Similarly, the way Jim Dooley uses his score feels like an attack on our second most trusted sense in a deserted house: our hearing. When Jill and the kids are trying to escape the Stranger (Tommy Flanagan), the score is so wildly chaotic it’s almost disorienting. There isn’t a moment of quiet to allow us to think, and when the quiet does come it’s so filled with dread it doesn’t give us any peace of mind. The tensest moments of this film for me always come in the form of lingering cinematography backed by silence, and every single one of those moments still held up for me with a little more force than I was anticipating.
Say what you will about the 2000s’ unique blend of campy horror and its penchant for plundering slashers from years past for remake material, but there’s no denying it produced more hits than misses. They are an especially ripe ground for appreciation on revisit thanks to their defenders having such an infectious passion. When a Stranger Calls isn’t necessarily my favorite 2000s horror, but I have to give credit where its due and say it knew what it wanted to do. It knew the tools it had and more or less how to use them effectively, even if that effect manifested mostly in jump scares. If 2000s horror remakes are your comfort film genre, why not trace that call you’ve been getting every 15 minutes? You might be surprised where it’s coming from…
By Katelyn Nelson