When a Stranger Calls (2006)

A film may excel for many reasons: Nuanced acting, superb artistic design, complex and fascinating characters. Occasionally, a movie deserves praise simply for its innovative and riveting concept. The success of modern classics such as Memento and Being John Malkovich can be partly attributed to their plots and narrative structures, which can be described without exaggeration as revolutionary.

Take, for example, Simon West's When a Stranger Calls. A teenage girl is hired to baby-sit two innocent children. Everything seems normal until she receives bizarre phone calls. The calls grow increasingly threatening until the teen realizes the threat is far greater than that of someone who can access her solely over the telephone. She must then utilize all of her wits and energy to keep herself and her young charges alive.

Stranger is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name, which is of course based on the urban legend of the babysitter who receives threatening calls. The greatest service this movie can do is broadcast a message to Hollywood: It's ill advised to produce feature films based on urban legends. Stranger demonstrates the four main reasons this is so.

First off, one of the reasons urban legends are passed from person to person is that they are simple — a person recounting the story visually would take less than a minute or two to do so. When a Stranger Calls lasts 87 minutes. Thus, a solid portion of the film consists of the babysitter worriedly waiting for the next call as she paces through her client's fabulous art-deco home. (There hasn't been a horror movie this celebratory of interior design since the 2001 remake of Thirteen Ghosts.)

Second, urban legends are structured in such a manner that there is only one moment of shock — its punchline, if you will — and the story leading up to that moment is simply background information that is necessary to understand the ending. In keeping with this structure, nearly all of Stranger is a set-up for the climax, which all of the film's heart rate-accelerating scenes have been compacted into. It's like adapting an episode of The Twilight Zone into a movie, with the first two acts comprised of nothing but the set-up for the third, and an extended sequence of attempting to set things in order after the "It's a cookbook!" moment.

Third, urban legends are so simplistic they lack explanations for the motivations for the characters. The motivations of the protagonists in When a Stranger Calls are obvious, but what of the villain? In the cat-and-mouse dynamic, the cat must, like the appetite in its metaphorical counterpart, have a reason for its misdeeds. The stalker's just plain crazy? That's excusable, as long as he has some basis for his crimes, no matter how bizarre (see Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs). The explanation for the villain in Stranger is meager at best, and has the feel that it was hastily added in when the filmmakers realized the audience would be expecting it.

(Author's Note: This is an instance where I disagree with my past self. Having reevaluated the criteria for a good film antagonist, and having been exposed to terrific movies with seemingly motive-less villains such as Duel, I must now admit I was in error for demanding that insane antagonists must have a reason behind their madness. Perhaps I disliked When a Stranger Calls so much I looked for additional reasons to criticize it out of spite. — P.F.)

The fourth, and most obvious reason: Everyone has heard the legend before. One can't expect the twist from the original legend to have much impact in its cinematic adaptation. Since the viewer already knows the major revelation in When a Stranger Calls, all of the babysitter's misconceptions about her situation (Is the stalker watching her from outside? Will closing the curtains help?) are transformed into dramatic irony.

When a Stranger Calls can be used as an example in a lecture to the film industry of pitfalls to avoid when coming up with a new concept for a movie. As for the film's target audience, viewers might be better off seeing a movie about a woman who tries to dry off her dog in a microwave.