A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this remake of a 1979 serial killer film features sustained tension and lots of dark corners in a large, isolated house. It includes mild language and several jump scenes (a cat out of the shadows, a body in a bathroom, scary shadows when doors are open or shut). The babysitter calls a couple of friends and worries that her boyfriend has kissed another girl. Wind blows, rain pounds, thunder claps. The killer calls repeatedly, breathing heavily or threatening the babysitter; when he appears (as a silhouette), the killer chases the babysitter and two young, crying children around the house. Two bodies appear (eyes popped open, images that may be disturbing for younger viewers), though murders are not shown. The film opens with a disturbing sequence, cutting between a fairground and an unseen group murder, comprised of loud screams, abrupt pans, tilted angles, and jarring edits.
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What's the story?
Based on a well-known 1979 stalker film, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS centers on teenaged babysitter Jill (Camilla Belle), who is left in charge of two young children. Jill spends most of her time on the phone, talking to her friend Scarlet (Tessa Thompson) or estranged boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty), both at the annual "bonfire party," some distance from the house. The focus of these calls is whether or not Jill will forgive Bobby for kissing her "best friend" Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), while he and Tiffany were drunk on tequila. In between these melodramatic exchanges, Jill takes repeated heavy-breathing calls from the "stranger" (Tommy Flanagan), who gradually reveals that he is aware of her actions and, in the yuckiest moment, exclaims that he wants her "blood all over me." Jill's efforts to rescue the children are heroic and even clever. The stranger stalks them throughout the multi-floored and big-windowed house.
Is it any good?
This movie is disconnected and clichéd. Using familiar camera tricks and scary shadows, When a Stranger Calls puts well-adjusted high school track team member and babysitter Jill in an isolated house, then assaults her with howling wind, an intermittently working alarm system, heavy-breathing phone calls, and a black cat jumping out of corners. Some 83 minutes after its start, the film ends, with no point or development in evidence.
The stranger's eventual appearance doesn't even offer further insight into Jill or the film's point. An implacable and big-eared silhouette, he pursues his victims until he doesn't. The film climaxes a couple of times, including a nightmare sequence that seems designed to challenge Jill's sanity. But like most everything in When a Stranger Calls, this challenge is unsupported by anything else.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Jill's responses to her increasingly alarming situation. How does her upset at her boyfriend shape her initial understanding of the calls? How does the film construct her aloneness as a factor in the threat to her and the children? Does she make good decisions (looking for Rosa, going to the guest house, hiding the children) when she realizes the caller's threat is immediate?