When a Stranger Calls (2006) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

Have you seen the When a Stranger Calls remake from 2006? If not, it might be the best horror movie you never saw

The first twenty minutes of the 1979 horror film When a Stranger Calls (watch it HERE) really creeped out movie-goers. It stuck in their heads, earning the movie cult classic status. The rest of the running time, viewers don’t often remember so clearly. So when Screen Gems gave the greenlight to a remake, they decided to expand those first twenty minutes to feature length, stretching out the thrills and suspense for as long as possible. It was a clever idea that was brought to the screen in an entertaining way. And if you haven’t seen the When a Stranger Calls remake, this is the best horror movie you never saw. (You can watch that one HERE.)

To properly tell the story of this 2006 release, we first have to rewind thirty years. That’s when college friends Fred Walton and Steve Feke sat down to write the script for a thrilling horror short called The Sitter. They would claim that they based the script on a true story: a newspaper article they had read about a young woman being harassed with creepy phone calls while babysitting in Santa Monica, California. But the inspiration was actually an urban legend that has been circulating since at least the 1960s. The legend might have its roots in a real-life incident where a thirteen-year-old girl was killed while babysitting in Columbia, Missouri back in 1950. But a fictional story was built around the basics of that crime.

The urban legend centers on a teenage babysitter who has already put the kids to bed for the night. She gets a call from a stranger who asks her, “Have you checked the children?” She brushes it off… but the stranger keeps calling her. With the situation getting increasingly scary, the sitter notifies the police of what’s going on. They tell her to try to keep the stranger on the line so they can trace his calls. And when they do trace a call, they find that the stranger is calling from inside the house. He’s lurking upstairs… and he may or may not have murdered the children, depending on which version of the story you’re told. This urban legend had already served as the inspiration for another horror classic: Black Christmas, released in 1974, but Walton and Feke didn’t let that stop them from making The Sitter. Starring the little-known Lucia Stralser, that short tells the urban legend over the course of twenty-one creepy minutes. Once the short was finished, the filmmakers were surprised to discover there wasn’t much of a market for short films. But The Sitter did get a brief theatrical run at one theatre in Los Angeles, where it was paired with the crime drama Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Luckily, the short caught the attention of a pair of producers during that theatrical run. A feature version of The Sitter – now titled When a Stranger Calls – was given the greenlight, with recent Oscar nominee Carol Kane taking over the role of the babysitter.

The original When a Stranger Calls reached theatres in the fall of 1979. Just one year after John Carpenter’s Halloween proved that audiences would show up for stories about babysitters being terrorized. The film was a box office success… but it was the first twenty-three minutes, a remake of the short, that really impressed movie-goers. Walton and Feke had decided to pad the idea out to feature length by beginning with a re-telling of The Sitter, then jumping ahead seven years to tell the story of the stranger escaping from the psychiatric facility he was sent to, living on the streets, befriending a woman he meets in a bar, his mental state deteriorating until he decides to seek out the babysitter he harassed seven years earlier, finding that she now has children of her own. In the meantime, a vengeful private investigator is tracking the stranger down, planning to murder him. It’s a good story, but the sleazy slow-burn of the “seven years later” section is kind of a letdown after the intensity of the first twenty-three minutes.

That opening sequence is why When a Stranger Calls lingered in the minds of audience members for the next couple decades. It’s a big reason why the film was featured in the 1984 documentary Terror in the Aisles. It paved the way for a 1993 sequel called When a Stranger Calls Back. And it’s definitely why Sony’s Screen Gems decided to bring the world a remake of When a Stranger Calls during the remake boom of the early 2000s.

When a Stranger Calls remake

The remake was the first produced screenplay for writer Jake Wade Wall, who was getting some high profile jobs around this time. He was also hired to write the remake of The Hitcher for Platinum Dunes and wrote an entry in the Halloween franchise that was never made. When writing this remake, Wall took the approach that Walton and Feke could have taken, but didn’t: expand the babysitter story so it takes up the entire running time. That’s the part that really sticks with people, so show it to them for eighty minutes instead of twenty.

The directing job went to an unexpected choice: Simon West, best known for making action films like Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and, some years after this, The Expendables 2. This time around, babysitter Jill Johnson has to carry the entire film on her shoulders. Evan Rachel Wood was offered the chance to take on that challenge, but she turned it down. So the filmmakers turned to Camilla Belle… who nearly turned down the offer as well, because she’s not a horror fan. As she told Radio Free, “I was really skeptical about doing it… and I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do a horror movie. Not my thing.’ And then my agent was like, ‘Just go meet with Simon… I think this is a little bit different than what you think it’s going to be.’ So then I met with him, and I read the script, and he was telling me the type of movie he wanted to make. ‘I want to make a psychological thriller. I don’t want to make a horror film… And we really want to make it like Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn.” I was like, ‘Ooh, okay! Well, if that’s the type of movie you’re going to make, I’m fine.’” Belle signed on, then had to do two months of weight training and track workouts to prepare to play her character.

Cast to play people around Jill were Clark Gregg as her dad, Derek de Lint and Kate Jennings Grant as the people she’s working for, Rosine Ace Hatem as their rarely seen live-in maid, Arthur Young and Madeline Carroll as the kids Jill is taking care of, Tessa Thompson as one of her friends, Brian Geraghty as her boyfriend… who is on shaky ground with her, because he recently kissed another of her friends, played by Katie Cassidy, who was also in the remakes of Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street. We don’t see a whole lot of the stranger in this movie. When we do see him, he’s played by Tommy Flanagan. That actor didn’t provide the voice of his character when he’s making phone calls, though. The filmmakers brought in gravelly voiced genre icon Lance Henriksen to speak the strangers’ lines.

West was given a budget of fifteen million dollars to bring his version of When a Stranger Calls to the screen, and a good chunk of that money went toward building the house that serves as the setting for most of the story. At first, production was just going to take place at an existing house in Brentwood, California, but eventually West figured that it was going to be so complicated to film at that house – and expensive to buy out the neighbors – that that they should just build a house. A location was found in Franklin Canyon and construction began just eight weeks before filming was scheduled to start. The paint was still wet when the cast and crew showed up for the first day of production. But this extra work was worth it, because they built an incredible house. Impressive design, sitting in a mind-blowing, remote location. Lots of glass, wood, and stainless steel. A security system. Motion-detecting lights in the rooms. It’s such an awesome place, it has been described as being another character in the movie. Its unique qualities include a mid-house atrium, complete with birds and a fish pond. Which allowed West to add a sequence that wasn’t in the original script where Jill hides in the water while the stranger is looking for her.

When a Stranger Calls Camilla Belle

When this project was first announced in the summer of 2004, Screen Gems also announced a sequel at the same time: When a Stranger Returns. Wall had already written a treatment for the follow-up, so it’s weird that they never actually made that one. Filmed in the early months of 2005, the When a Stranger Calls remake reached theatres on February 3, 2006, and it did well at the box office, pulling in over sixty-seven million dollars despite the likes of Final Destination 3 and the Hills Have Eyes remake coming along to compete with it. The Hills Have Eyes had almost the exact same level of success, earning seventy million on a budget of fifteen, and it got a sequel. But Screen Gems abandoned their plan to make When a Stranger Returns, so they obviously weren’t just looking at the box office numbers. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that only nine percent of the critic reviews were positive. The audience score stands at forty-three percent positive. That could be why Screen Gems decided not to press their luck with a sequel. Meanwhile, The Hills Have Eyes scored in the fifties in both categories, so Fox pressed their luck very quickly on that one and the resulting sequel didn’t work out for them. So maybe Screen Gems made a wise choice, even though When a Stranger Calls leaves the door wide open for When a Stranger Returns.

Even with its low critic and audience scores, When a Stranger Calls managed to earn a cult following. Plenty of us were left wanting to see the stranger return… just to be disappointed that he didn’t.

It’s not that the film is an example of misunderstood greatness. It certainly has its flaws. You can tell West was holding back a bit to get a PG-13 rating and there’s some clunky dialogue. In fact, there are some lines in here that might just make you cringe. And when it comes to final girl performances, Camilla Belle doesn’t live up to what Carol Kane did in the original, even though her character has more to do that Kane’s did… and when the stranger asks her if she has checked the children, she actually does go check on them. Something Kane’s character never bothered to do. But what makes this remake work as well as it does is the fact that it takes the exact right approach to the concept. The opening sequence of the original film has gotten so much hype, a lot of genre fans have mistakenly come to believe that it’s not just the opening sequence. When they put the movie on for the first time, they expect to see a babysitting Carol Kane receiving creepy calls for the entire running time. That’s not how it plays out. When it came time for a remake, it wasn’t just a clever choice to make it about a babysitter receiving creepy calls the whole time, it was the correct choice.

And sure, Belle’s Jill Johnson may not be the most inspiring heroine we’ve ever seen. But she does her best to keep the kids safe from the maniac who wants to bathe in her blood. And it can’t be said that Belle didn’t put her all into the role. Not only did she have to deal with the intensity of the situation her character finds herself in, but she also did most of her own stunts, from the running scenes she trained for to the fight scenes, including an encounter with the stranger that takes place on a flight of stairs. As she told MovieWeb, “I went home every night emotionally and physically drained. I looked forward to every weekend just to sleep and relax my body. I really didn’t have any breaks. It was hard, but it was a good experience. … I’ve never had so many welts and bruises in my life, especially being dragged down the stairs a million times. It hurt a lot and I definitely got more bruises than Tommy because he was just the one pushing me around. But we had a really good time. I wore the bruises with pride. I really enjoyed it, actually. It was fun, really, really fun.” Even though she had fun making the movie, she also told MovieWeb, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do another film like this.”

When a Stranger Calls 2006

We’re just twelve minutes into the movie’s eighty-seven minute running time when Jill reaches the secluded house she’ll be working in. Sixteen minutes in, she has been left alone at the house with the sleeping children and Rosa, the barely present maid. Which means we spend more than an hour with Jill in that house. Watching her make her way through the rooms, receiving disturbing phone calls, feeling like she’s being watched, eventually confirming that there is a stranger in the house who has been murdering people around her. Then she has to confront him to keep the children safe… and try to survive her encounter with him. The execution could have been improved in some areas, but the director and writer still did nice work making sure the sequence that made up only twenty minutes of the original film could sustain an entire feature running time. The movie is one long suspense sequence that erupts into violence in the end.

If you’re looking for a movie that can deliver an hour of thrills and uneasy feelings on a dark night, the When a Stranger Calls remake is a good one to turn to. So make the trip out to that secluded house with Jill Johnson. Listen to those creepy calls she gets from Lance Henriksen. But watch out for that stranger lurking in the shadows…

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.