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Cellular Hell

"When a Stranger Calls" will make you even more thankful to own a Sidekick.


Or maybe not.

But there was at least some prehistory to this movie. The original "When a Stranger Calls" (1979) easily became a staple of slumber parties. That's because it is remembered only for its excruciatingly frightening first 15 minutes, a deficiency (or efficiency) screenwriter Jake Wade Wall must be aware of. He's made his entire update out of those first 15 minutes. Actually, his slick exercise has repositioned those 15 minutes at the end, and when they come, the slow-boil terror is palpable. Kids in the audience will scream, guaranteed. You may too if you're still awake by then.

The story takes place in an idyllic Colorado mountain town that doesn't exist outside California. (What were the location scouts thinking?) Jill (Camilla Belle) is your typical grounded teenager who went over her cell-phone minutes and is forced to baby-sit to pay her parents off. Yeah, that's the setup. Her dad drops her at an insanely large midcentury lakefront house that is as isolated as it is modern. The children, she is informed by parents eager for a night out, are asleep upstairs. The Latino housekeeper is tending to the flock of birds kept in the house's atrium. All is well. That is, until the phone calls start. Most are red herrings (the rotten boyfriend, the bitchy best friend), but there are a few really creepy ones that start to freak Jill out.

And the tension is cranked up slowly, notch by notch until… well, you can guess what happens (unless you are under 12 or so). Simon West ("Con Air," "Tomb Raider") has an eye for detail and mood lighting, and it shows. The entire film is simply a prolonged exercise in tension. Its bare-bones structure may be its greatest asset to kids, though for anyone more serious-minded, likely its largest, hobbling flaw. The characters are so simply drawn they don't exist; they are simply bags of meat sacrificed to the voracious ticktock of terror. Just how many times can we watch someone anxiously answer a telephone?

"When a Stranger Calls" is rated PG-13, and that is one of the most appropriate rating choices I've seen in quite a long time. Looking for something to praise in this innocuous thriller, I would say there is no blood and maybe one word of profanity. It's actually quite refreshing after a year of bloodthirsty flesh-fests like "Saw II."

There are many genuinely jumpy moments in "When a Stranger Calls," but it's also a reminder why visits to fun houses are not two hours long. Maybe the original had it right: Scare the crap out of the kids for a quarter of an hour, then let them get down to the truly important business of making out. (PG-13) 84 min. ** S

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