Less a Face-off, more a comparative analysis between the original and its – ugh – remake/reimagining/reboot/whatever (…delete as applicable), some I liked, some I loathed and some I somehow preferred to the original!
“Every babysitter’s nightmares becomes real.”
Director: Fred Walton / Writers: Walton & Steve Feke / Cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Ron O’Neal, Carmen Argenziano, Rutanya Alda, Bill Boyett.
Body Count: 3
Fred Walton made a short film called The Sitter, which was built around one of the most well known urban legends. A babysitter alone in a strange house begins receiving bizarre calls that escalate in their creepiness. She calls the cops and they eventually trace the call, letting her know that they’re coming from inside the same house. Yikes.
These days with the internet and a gazillion reference points it’s old hat but way back in time stories like these that spread through the old friend-of-a-friend-esque method of communication likely kept slumber parties awake at night.
After the success of Halloween, Walton extended his short into When A Stranger Calls, which, had it ended twenty minutes in, would likely score five stars.
Carol Kane is the tormented babysitter, Jill Johnson, whose sitting gig at the home of Dr Mendrakis slowly unwinds into an evening of terror when repeat calls asking if she’s checked the [sleeping] children grow to the caller making it clear he can also see her and that he wants her blood all over him. Eww.
Jill is fortunate enough to escape once informed that the caller is upstairs, but the kiddies ain’t so lucky. We never see them either way. The culprit is caught. La-de-da-da.
Seven years later, the loon – Curt Duncan (Beckley, who died shortly after principal photography) – escapes from his madhouse and returns to terrorize Jill and her family anew, though not before setting his sights on husky voiced bar patron Tracy. All the while, Charles Durning P.I. is after him before he can kill again.
“Evil hits home.”
Director: Simon West / Writer: Jake Wade Wall / Cast: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Katie Cassidy, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty, Derek de Lint, Kate Jennings Grant, Clark Gregg.
Body Count: 6
One of the few remakes that retains character names, sullen teenager Jill Johnson is forced into a babysitting job after her parents ground her and cut off her phone privileges for going 800 minutes over her plan. Elsewhere, she’s mad at best friend Tiffany for kissing her boyfriend Bobby and because of the grounding she can’t go to a big party with all her friends. Life really sucks for her.
Dr and Mrs Mandrakis entrust their two young children to Jill in their frankly massive lakeside house, unlike the first film this one is in the middle of nowhere. Jill explores, tries on jewellery, plays with various gadgets and yaks with her friends on the phone.
After a while, weird calls begin and Jill starts to wig out; Tiffany drops by to make amends; Rosa the housekeeper seemingly disappears and the house alarm keeps going off…
Eventually, the creep factor wins over and Jill pleads with the cops to trace the call – guess where it’s coming from? Before long she and the kids are on the run from the maniac…
Three stars each? Each?
Yes. Woah, hold it with that claw-hammer, let me explain…
When I first saw When a Stranger Calls and its superior MFTV sequel (the best of the bunch), I always thought they should remake it and base it all on the opening torment rather than skip off down X-years-later-he-comes-back lane.
In the ’79 film, the mid-section is pitifully dull. There’s a brief catch-up on the case when the cops learn Duncan has skipped the asylum and then largely nothing happens for about an hour.
What differentiates When a Stranger Calls from the other slasher films of the era is that we get to know Curt Duncan a little. He speaks, he’s fairly lucid and the film even dredges up some sympathy for his sad, pathetic weirdigan life, whereas the antagonist of the redux is your same-old same-old shadowy loon.
The film deflates in the centre. Dewhurst, as Tracy, Duncan’s new play-thing of sorts, has little to do other than smoke cigarettes and act pissed off in the dank bar she frequents. It’s really, really boring.
Walton improved on it greatly in the 1993 follow-up, which brought back Kane, this time mentoring Jill Schoelen’s traumatised college girl, who went through an identical experience.
The 2006 remake is what I’d call horror for girls. That’s not meant to be derogatory, I know plenty of girls who love horror but this film and I’d also say the wretched Prom Night remake appear to be directed point blank at young teenagers with an excess of girl-themed subplotting and are positively anorexic when it comes to genuine horror. Let’s re-brand it horror for 12-year-old girls.
So I got my wish to some extent, Stranger 2006 is all about the babysitter’s torment. And it began so wonderfully with a nicely done credits sequence in which we hear calls plaguing a girl we don’t see while a carnival sparkles, jingles and over-stimulates kids in the foreground.
It’s a genuinely well done scene but serves to unfurl the whole calls-are-coming-from-inside-the-house USP which comes later and is therefore an entirely redundant plot development. We know the calls are going to be coming from inside the house because you’ve showed us the killer was inside the other house!
Camilla Belle also seems to struggle under the weight of being the only real character. Everyone else is a bit-parter and how Brian Geraghty (playing a high schooler despite being born in 1975) manages to get second billing from his less-than five minutes on screen is a mystery.
It’s not that this Jill is unsympathetic but the script gives her little to work with at some points. When the killer makes a run for the kids she doesn’t spring into action like Laurie Strode would have. Therefore, she loses some likeability points.
What murders there are all occur off camera: the sitter and three kids we assume bite it at the start are never seen at all and the non-white live-in maid may as well have offed herself and Tiffany was always going to croak for ‘betraying’ Jill by kissing Bobby – GASP! How COULD she!? See? It’s the Sweet Valley High of horror. Less the spooky-ass twins though.
The film seems at odds with itself over whether to become a slasher film. In hindsight, it should’ve. The house drama should’ve been cut in half and then the killer would come after Jill, killing some of her annoying friends and really giving her something to gripe to her dad about.
The children, cute as they are, have no lines other than whimpering and squealing. Their names aren’t even mentioned until the credits roll and yet the actors’ names still appear in the opening credits!
Nevertheless, Simon West shows some flair as a director here and there, keeping The Stranger’s face hidden effectively and capturing the house in some unsettling moods but you can just picture the studio execs chanting “tone it down” ad nauseum until the horror stayed well on the scale and I’d imagine that more thought went in to what clothes they put Belle in and what products could be flashed on screen above and beyond actually making it scary.
This is a difficult one; the opening twenty minutes of the first film is sensational but also sensationally undermined by just how boring it becomes thereafter. The new film gets points for doing what I wanted it to but panders so cringingly to its desired demographic that as a male adult it’s hard to derive more than short-lived pleasure from. Be careful what you wish for indeed: there’s only so long I can watch a girl wander round a house calling out names, evidenced by the length prologue and pointless last-minute shock attempt.
Stick it in a box-set with Prom Night and some random girly sleepover movie. Carol Kane’s performance swings it, the original wins. Bang the gavel. Disconnect the phone.
Blurbs-of-interest: Fred Walton also directed April Fool’s Day. Carmen Argenziano was in Graduation Day and Identity; Rutanya Alda appeared in several horror films in the early 80s including Girls Nite Out and Amityville II. Katie Cassidy appeared in remakes of Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street and was also in Harper’s Island; Brian Geraghty was in Open House.