Jill Johnson is babysitting the two children of Dr. Mandrakis at his isolated home in the Colorado mountains. Jill is initially impressed with the spacial dwelling, what with its indoor zen garden, giant picture windows and automated everything. But not long after nightfall Jill starts getting disturbing phone calls from an unknown source. She tries to contact her friends, but they’re in a poor cell reception area and can barely hear her. Her father and the Mandrakis’ are equally unreachable. So out of desperation she calls the police instead. Unfortunately there’s little they can do, since the caller hasn’t made any threats. But the detective on the other end does promise to trace the call if Jill can keep him on the phone long enough. But as the calls become more frequent and reveal more knowledge of Jill’s surroundings, it doesn’t take long for Jill to suspect that her harasser is much closer than the police seem to think he is.
Dun dun duuuuuun
When A Stranger Calls is a 2006 psychological horror film based around the urban legend of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” and is a remake of the 1979 film of the same name. The original film, which stared Carol Kane, has become a bit of a well remembered cult classic, thanks to it’s very tense and effective 20-minute opening. What a lot of people tend to forget, however, is that after that excellent first 20 minutes, the film then continues on for another 80 minutes, and involves Jill having to again deal with the same deranged stalker after a seven year absence. This part of the film isn’t nearly as remembered or lauded because, well, it just doesn’t hold a candle to that great opening. Try as it might, the movie just couldn’t keep up the same level of tension as the opening after the films large time-lapse and the shift in focus from Jill, to still-crazy-but-trying-not-to-be-crazy-and-failing-miserably dude, Curt Duncan.
So, twenty-seven-some-odd years later, someone asked themselves, “hey…what would happen if we cut out all that extra crap and extended the premise of those first 20 minutes into a full-length feature film?” And thus, we have the 2006 remake. Does it manage to keep the effectiveness of the original’s 20-minute opening by stringing said opening scenario into feature length territory? No, not really. But I still think it manages a valiant attempt.
The biggest difference between the two versions of the film is, obviously, it’s plot-related content. The first film can essentially be split into three Acts: it starts out at the Mandrakis house, time and focus skips to a bunch of scenes involving Curt Duncan, and then shifts again to Curt-stalking-Jill-mode, but this time at a different location. The remake skips those last two steps, and simplifies everything by keeping the vast majority of the plot centered around Jill’s ordeal at the Mandrakis house. There are no location changes and there is no time skip. Once the film’s basic introductions to characters and motivation are established, the film plants you in one location and stays there. Granted, that location is obsequiously huge to the point where it might feel like multiple locations (you could probably comfortably fit four original Mandrakis houses into the remake’s homestead and still have room to spare), and you are given glimpses of other locations, but for the most part the film takes place in one spot and the audience spends all their time with New Jill and her growing unease, first with regards to her new, unfamiliar surroundings, and then as we watch it progress with each worsening phone call.
And it was such a nice house.
Admittedly, she’d probably feel a little better without all the creepy-ass artwork everywhere.
One of the benefits of the lack of location change is that the remake’s more concentrated focus helps to keep the tension at a constant simmer. For while the original may still have that hella strong opening segment, the second part of the film tends to really drag, before picking up again in the third Act (though it never reaches the same heights as Act 1). By contrast, the remake doesn’t give you much in the way of ‘down time’. There may be a few moments of levity (oh, that strange noise was just the cat), but for the most part poor New Jill is damn near constantly on edge and, I’d argue, in a much more precarious situation due to the extremely rural location of the house, and even the inclusion of the occasional third party doesn’t do much to ease the feeling of apprehension.
The film’s biggest flaw, however, is that despite the rural location, the lack of help, and the precarious situation New Jill finds herself in, the film never really makes it feel like Jill is in all that much danger in spite of her (and the children) clearly being in mortal peril. Perhaps it’s the lack of concrete threats from the stalker, or the inclusion of the occasional visitor, or the fact that Jill seems to be a resourceful and savvy teen who does manage to secure at least one contact with the outside world in Officer Burrows. Or maybe it’s that the killer doesn’t feel all that threatening or that Jill just seems too smart for him. The point is, for whatever reason, the whole situation doesn’t feel like that big of a threat, even though we’ve been told that the stalker/murderer has viciously killed several people, including at least two children in the opening scenes. Yet in this instance the flu-riddled children are never threatened or harmed, despite the ample opportunities given. The killer just seems intent on Jill, the one person in the house who has a decent chance of fighting back.
Alas for him..he ran into one of the few teens in a horror movie smart enough to grab a weapon.
And before you ask, no, I don’t think it has anything to do with the reboot’s lighter violence and PG-13 rating. Even the original film was light on graphic content and was initially considered for a PG rating. I think the only reason it got an R was because the PG-13 classification hadn’t come about yet.
One thing that does puzzle me about the film is it’s focus on the whole babysitting job being part of Jill’s ‘punishment.’ The film makes it a point to show that the whole reason Jill is in this predicament is because she went over her phone minutes (and with all the ads for ‘unlimited’ everything nowadays, I’m sure this is something that will be horribly out of date in a couple more years if it isn’t already), so she’s being ‘forced’ to babysit the Mandrakis children to help pay for the overcharge fees. Now, there’s really nothing inherently wrong with this little plot thread. It’s perfectly reasonable for her parents to want her to work to help pay off the extra charges. It just seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary addition. I think it was added as an excuse to show how Jill can’t contact any of her friends, because they’re out at some big party in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception, and thus they can’t come to her aid…. Except that one of them shows up to the house without preamble or invitation anyway, and Jill is still perfectly capable of using the landline to call others for outside help so….what was the point? To tack on ‘extreme bout of loneliness’ to her stalker delema? To show that she’d have a hell of an excuse to be super bitter at her parents later? I just don’t see the point.
Remember when your lesson in responsibility almost got me KILLED DAD?! CAUSE I REMEMBER!
So does the 2006 reboot of When a Stranger Calls accomplish what it set out to do? Kinda. It still doesn’t hold a candle to the opening of its predecessor, but then, even the ending to the original couldn’t measure up to that opening, so it was probably a lost cause to try. But I do think the reboot gets a few things right. It’s got some great visuals and atmosphere, and while it’s not perfect, it does manage to keep a certain level of tension throughout the whole thing. Plus, Jill is a pretty clever and resourceful kid, which is always nice to see in any horror movie. The one major downside is that the whole situation just doesn’t feel threatening enough, despite the clear set-up that’s supposed to make us feel that way. So while it does manage to have a certain degree of tension, it never really manages to ratchet that level up very well. It kinda makes the film feel a little horror/thriller-light, if you will, which is perfectly fine. It’s the kind of film that would probably be a good choice to show your squeamish friends/kids to help ease them into the genre. It’s a fun film that’s nice to look at and engaging enough to keep your interest, but not necessarily something to be held up as a pinnacle of the genre. I like it.
Both versions of When a Stranger Calls are available on various streaming services.
They are also both available on DVD and Bluray.