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Hang up on ‘When a Stranger Calls’

New film has none of the 1979 original's thrills or charms
/ Source: The Associated Press

“When a Stranger Calls” might be the first horror movie ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest.

This remake of the 1979 classic, which made teenage girls afraid to baby-sit for years afterward, has been moved from conventional suburbia to an awesomely cool, modern mansion made of floor-to-ceiling glass and rich cherry wood, nestled amid tall trees on the edge of a secluded lake.

But wait, there’s more! This place has everything — lights that function on sensors, walk-in closets as big as bedrooms, even an elaborate Japanese garden in the atrium, complete with birds and fish. Truthfully, it looks more like a high-end day spa than a place where people eat their breakfast cereal and brush their teeth.

It’s so breathtaking to look at, it’s actually a distraction, as if you couldn’t tell. And this obsession with glossy aesthetics is one of many reasons it’s impossible to become engrossed in “When a Stranger Calls.” There’s also the little problem that it’s just not scary, which helps explain why it wasn’t shown to critics before opening day.

When the original movie came out, the idea was genuinely frightening that a homicidal maniac would call a baby sitter over and over one night, asking in a breathy growl, “Have you checked the children?” And of course it featured the now-famous twist: The calls were coming from inside the house!

It was the stuff of urban legend, which is why it was parodied in “Scream” and again in the “Scream” parody “Scary Movie.” But by now we know the drill. So when the phone rings here and perky Jill Johnson answers it, the routine is so familiar and safe, it’s almost funny.

That sound is a pulsating electronic tone, of course, emanating from the cordless phone instead of the dull ring of a clunky rotary-dial contraption. But then everything about this remake from director Simon West is slicker and shinier and faster, with its screechy false scares. This should come as no surprise, since West’s previous films include “Con Air” and the first “Lara Croft” movie, and since so many remakes lately have tended merely to take the source material, speed it up and smother it in foreboding music.

Staggering wide-eyed and breathless through it all is Camilla Belle, who costarred with Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” and who is much sexier in her tight T-shirt and low-slung jeans than the innocent-looking Carol Kane would have dreamed of being when she first played the role.

Whereas the 1979 film was all about the killer — his torment and desperation as he trolled homeless shelters and dive bars trying to pick up Colleen Dewhurst, of all people — this time it’s all about the baby sitter. The trouble with that is, her fear barely even registers. She simply sounds young — not young and palpably scared — when she picks up the phone and asks in a small voice, “Hello? Mandrakis residence.”

Barely fleshed-out subplots involving her best friend making out with her boyfriend, and a high-school bonfire where all her friends are partying while she’s stuck by herself baby-sitting, merely feel like filler until the killer shows his face.

But first-time screenwriter Jake Wade Wall has developed the villain so sparsely we have no sense of who he is or what he wants, so he doesn’t seem nearly as menacing as he should. He’s just some voice in the darkness, some guy hitting the redial button, with nothing better to do.