At the beginning of the remake of When a Stranger Calls, the camera cranes above a suburban house, where a girl is being attacked inside, until we see an amusement park lit up behind it. A division is made between the agony of being scared and the fun of being scared. That’s as far as When a Stranger Calls (neither fun nor scary) goes with this idea, or any other. One’s prone to spend most of it looking for some kind of narrative interest. (That painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall has to tie into something.)
It unites a fairly obscure star (Camilla Belle of The Ballad of Jack and Rose) with a giant action director (Simon West of Con Air and Tomb Raider). The result looks good, but nothing else. West directs a trifle of a film as though it were something huge, with every reflecting light suggesting something sinister and sound effects amped so high that when a house cat meows it sounds like a lion.
Taking a babysitting job one night, Jill (Belle) sizes up the home as the kids are sleeping. It’s a modern lakeshore residence full of mirrors and aquariums, a remote control fireplace and plenty of inconveniently dim lighting. Jill hears some loud and threatening noises. She wanders around the house for several minutes to discover that it’s only the refrigerator. Essentially a one-woman show, the striking Belle meets the challenge of having nobody to play off of. As she starts to receive threatening phone calls, Jill fears for herself and the children.
The 1979 film had a much darker plot development involving the sleeping kids. This one is so innocuous it could be alternately titled My First Horror Movie. It’s unforgivably dull, but in 20 years today’s kids could look at it like their Watcher in the Woods. The namesake of When a Stranger Calls doesn’t really extend back to the ’79 film anyway. That movie only reentered pop consciousness with Drew Barrymore’s phone trauma at the beginning of Scream. Scream’s rep has diminished over the years (though it’s easier to find people who will admit to once liking it than to Titanic or Blair Witch), but in 1996 it felt really great. These were high school characters who talked about horror movies with the same obsessed knowingness as my friends and me (When a Stranger Calls is conversely sort of refreshing in how unselfconscious its teen dialogue is). Today, I can see that Scream’s view of adolescence is too domestic and white to count for much — a problem somewhat amended in its OK first sequel — but the sleeper hit promised an unearthing of the horror genre.
All we got were years of snarky hot-TV-star horror (Urban Legend), followed by remakes of both Japanese (The Ring) and 30-year-old American movies (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and then streamlined pissing contests in suffering (Saw II, Hostel). Studio horror movies have been co-opted into status quo reprehensibility. They’ve lost their counter-cultural appeal — hopelessness made as mall-friendly as any Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy.
The lasting mental torment that ends When a Stranger Calls recalls De Palma’s endings for Carrie, Blow Out and The Fury but violence and guilt aren’t probed in current Hollywood horror; they’re just cheap effect.
Final Destination 3 reunites the writer/director team of James Wong and Glen Morgan from the 2000 original. It’s almost the same movie, except it no longer has the benefit of a novel premise. Death is targeting another group of high school students, this time because the requisite clairvoyant teen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Sky High) is released from a rollercoaster when she flips out over a premonition that it will derail. The buildup of this opening and the ensuing rollercoaster crash is fantastic — sincerely terrifying in every way that the remainder of the movie isn’t. The rest of it is like a slapstick variation of Faces of Death, as teenagers meet gross-out ends. In Final Destination 3, death, like life, isn’t worth much. It’s disturbing by not being disturbing at all.
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