Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 16, 2006, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


When a Stranger Calls is one of many recent films to have harked back to the horror fare of the late ’70s and early ’80s for its specific inspiration. And in the making-of featurette on Sony Pictures’ DVD, the attitudes of those behind this redux seem derived from a couple of decades ago as well. Time and again, we hear the creators insist that this flick (previously reviewed here) is not a “horror” (read: cheesy slasher) movie, but rather a “thriller” (read: classy suspense) film. Hasn’t the genre sufficiently proven its variety and validity by this point that people can call their work “horror” and not expect to be looked down on? Can’t they all just admit that one key reason Stranger’s intensity was toned down was to assure a teen-audience-friendly PG-13 rating (actually, to be fair, director Simon West does acknowledge this)? And if this is supposed to be a subtler exercise in tension, why didn’t anyone tell James Dooley, composer of the blaring, thunderous score?

The one behind-the-scenes contributor who should have been given his say on the disc but isn’t is cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., whose finely shaded cinematography is the movie’s strongest asset. His super-wide (2.40:1) images have been given Sony’s customary visual polish on the disc, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio makes that music just as ear-rattling as it was in theaters, while also applying the directionals well to the odd sounds that spook teenaged Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) in the expansive, modern yet creepy house where she’s babysitting.

The featurette provides a good peek at the construction of this impressive dwelling, almost all of which was created on a soundstage. On the commentary track he shares with Belle, West reveals that the giant set was matched with an exterior and piece of living room actually built by a lake on location—and, it must be said, it was done so seamlessly. The director and actress share an easy camaraderie, and given the way the movie turned out, it’s not surprising that their discussion largely examines Stranger as a technical exercise, with very little discussion of character.

The manipulation of the many phone calls Jill receives is a key subject—the words and voices underwent many changes, though Lance Henriksen, who wound up speaking for the Stranger, never gets a shout-out—as are the many alterations made to the script when the setting was changed from an old-style house to the up-to-date one. It’s telling that in the sequence (added to the screenplay by West) in which terrified teen Katie Cassidy drops her keys while trying to open a car door, and then can’t get the engine to start, West mentions that he wishes he could have had something drop on the windshield to give the audience a jump; “I think we’ve had enough fake scares,” he says at the 49-minute mark of this 87-minute movie, and it’s hard not to agree with him.

A more satisfying listen is the second commentary by writer Jake Wade Wall, who impresses with his detailed explanations of his intentions for this screenplay. From character beats to plot points, Wall clearly gave this assignment significant thought, suggesting that this movie coulda been a contender if handled in a less on-the-nose manner. He notes that his heroine, unlike the original’s, actually does “check the children” right after hearing both movies’ most famous line, and points out his attempts to use the house itself to build atmosphere, like adding its woodsy atrium to place “the outside inside” for the final chase sequence. That pursuit, we learn, was originally much longer, and it’s a shame it got pared down, as the film’s impact is considerably blunted as a result.

The Deleted Scenes section actually consists of just one missing moment—an easily expendable bit in a police station—and an odd sequence in which Jill appears to get a phone call from a When a Stranger Calls music video. The disc is rounded out with a large collection of trailers for Sony movies past, present and future—most of them not even horror. In fact, surprisingly—or maybe not so—the original Stranger is nowhere to be found among these titles, though you do get the coming attractions for the equally negligible remakes of The Fog and The Pink Panther.

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