Let the machine pick up

“When a Stranger Calls”Screen GemsDirected by Simon WestScreenplay by Jake Wade Wall, based on a 1979 script by Steve Feke and Fred WaltonStarring: Camilla Belle, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty, Clark Gregg and Tommy FlanaganRated PG-13/83 minutesOpened Feb. 3, 2006Two out of four stars

Because all we really need is another remake of an old horror flick, I present to you, “When a Stranger Calls.” Given the recent influx of bland, antiseptic, mostly PG-13 suspense movies over the past few years, it’s only reasonable to assume that this one, based on a 1979 film of the same name, would be as abysmal as the worst of the lot.

But with expectations that low, I’m happy to report that it is much better than expected-though that’s not necessarily saying much, and alas, it’s still not particularly good.

But enough dilly-dallying. I haven’t seen the original “classic” (everything that gets the remake treatment seems to automatically get awarded the “classic” label), but I do know that this remake takes the original’s first act and stretches it to a feature-length run time. A baby sitter-that penultimate horror-movie clich-gets terrorized via telephone by an anonymous man one dark and stormy night.

The first time around, Carol Kane starred as Jill Johnson. Now, the role has been handed over to a newcomer, the gorgeous Camilla Belle, who was good in mediocre movies such as “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and “The Chumscrubber” and now gets her first starring role.

Jill is the typical yuppie teenager, I guess. Popular, beautiful, angst-ridden?and, of course, she spends too much time on her cell phone, which has gotten her into trouble. She went over her minutes last month and has been grounded by her parents, who have forced her to baby-sit the wealthy Mandrakis family instead of go to the school’s annual bonfire.

So she spends her evening out in the boonies in a huge, new-age house with lights that automatically turn on and off when someone enters the room, an indoor arboretum and a live-in maid. Almost immediately upon her arrival, Jill starts getting mysterious phone calls from a stranger (Tommy Flanagan), who gets more and more threatening as the night goes on. And?well, that’s it. That’s the entire plot.

The flaw of such a bare-bones concept is quite evident during the film’s first half, as Jill (and the audience) gets fooled by false alarm after false alarm almost ad nauseam.

However, once we get past all the expository details and obligatory “character development” and the plot is actually put into motion, director Simon West (“Con Air,” “The General’s Daughter”) does a reasonable job at least keeping the events moving along, even if the film as a whole never rises above the “lame, but watchable” level.

While there are a few peripheral characters that pop up now and then, Belle spends most of her time on screen alone, which is no easy task. Still, films such as these require one-note characters, and hers is no exception.

This type of watered-down “horror movie” is trendy these days, and hopefully will soon die out. But considering how many of them are downright laughable (think the horse scene from “The Ring,” the CGI deer scene from “The Ring Two,” the last 30 minutes of “Hide and Seek,” Robin Williams’ character from “House of D”), this one at least keeps its head above water.

Translation? It’s still pretty crappy but could at least be a passable 90-minute diversion.

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