Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Remake Comparison Project - Have You Checked the Children?

An urban legend comes to cinematic life as Cody and Priscilla watch strangers call in 1979 and 2006.


With no obvious remake pairing to do for March, we had to fall back to our list of possibilities for this month's article. Many were considered, but when it came down to it, Priscilla's winning choice was When a Stranger Calls.

Like previous Remake Comparison subject Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls has its roots in the babysitter urban legend that first started spreading around in the 1960s. In fact, when director/co-writer Fred Walton first set out to make the movie, it was only going to be a short film adaptation of that urban legend. The first twenty-three minutes of the finished feature are what would have been that entire short.

Carol Kane, always instantly recognizable by her unique voice, has well over one hundred credits on her filmography now, but her career was in its early stages when she was cast as the movie's babysitter of legend, Jill Johnson. A young student, Jill has been hired to watch the children of Doctor Mandrakis and his wife, a job which seems like it's going to be rather easy, since Jill only has to go to the Mandrakis household once it's dark outside and their two young kids have already been put to bed. All she has to do is hang out in the living room and do her homework.

Apparently Jill was recommended for this job by a friend of hers named Nancy, and she never met the Mandrakis family before reporting for duty. Despite having never spoken to her before, Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis feel comfortable leaving Jill alone with their kids within a minute of meeting her. Ah, those were simpler times.

Much simpler indeed. I don't see something like that happening these days at all. And it makes me wonder... is all the paranoia and "conspiracy theory" thinking a result of times changing, or did that behavior actually contribute to how different the world we live in is today?

Her pal Nancy got her hired for this gig, but when they talk on the phone soon after the Mandrakis parents leave, Nancy doesn't seem to be the most pleasant friend a girl could have. She and Jill are both interested in the same guy, and when Jill assures her "You are my friend", Nancy brushes it off with an unenthusiastic "Yeah, I guess."

I always get the impression that Nancy called Jill to get "permission" to go out with this guy Bobby. And when that doesn't happen, since Jill makes it clear that she's into him and won't just let Nancy have him, she almost behaves like a spoiled kid who didn't get what she wanted for Christmas. Makes me wonder how good of a friend Nancy really was. And how great Bobby must've been, for both of them to be so interested in him.

Nancy may not be the best friend or conversationalist, but she's wonderful compared to the person who starts calling the Mandrakis phone line soon afterward. What starts off as a simple hang-up call soon escalates to a man relentlessly calling Jill to repeatedly ask her, "Have you checked the children?" And when she doesn't go up and check on them, he calls again to ask, "Why haven't you checked the children?" How would he know whether she did or not? He's obviously watching her... What does he want? "Your blood, all over me."

Jill never does check on the sleeping children, but she does get unnerved enough to call the police and have her harasser's calls traced. When she manages to keep her creepy caller on the line long enough, the police trace his call... and we get the famous "The calls are coming from inside the house!" twist that Black Christmas also used five years earlier.

Once notified that the man is calling her from a second line in the upstairs of the house, Jill heads to the front door to make her escape. As she struggles with the lock, a door slowly swings open upstairs, spilling light into the dark stairway. A man's shadow steps into the light just as Jill pulls the door open...

This part really got to me when I watched it for the first time. They worked it all so well that you almost feel like you can jump in the TV and help her get that door open. It's really unnerving.

If Jill had checked on the children, she would've found a man named Curt Duncan lying in wait for her. Duncan, a British merchant seaman who had been in the United States for less than a week, snuck into the house and killed the Mandrakis children with his bare hands, tearing their bodies apart and bathing in their blood.

This makes so many questions pop into my mind... How did Duncan know where and when to go, was he stalking the family? Did he snap once he got to the United States? Was he "normal" before? He's a very mysterious character, even after the movie concentrates on him. It shows him too much then, but we still don't know anything about him.

As originally conceived, When a Stranger Calls may well have ended right when Jill escapes from the Mandrakis house... if she had been able to escape in the short version of the story. But after seeing the box office success John Carpenter's Halloween enjoyed in 1978, Fred Walton realized that there was a market for that type of movie and decided to expand the idea into a feature.

Among the police officers who responds to the scene is detective John Clifford, and it's this character who Walton and co-writer Steve Feke decided to make the protagonist for the following hour plus.

After Duncan is apprehended, the story jumps ahead seven years, by which time Clifford has become a private investigator. When Duncan escapes from the state mental institution he had been locked up in, Doctor Mandrakis hires Clifford to track down the killer of his children and bring him to justice. Again.

Haunted by what he saw at the Mandarkis house, Clifford doesn't intend to just make sure Duncan gets arrested and sent back to the mental institution. No, he plans to kill the killer. With lock needles. He just has to find Duncan before he claims more victims because, although Duncan has received years of medication and shock therapy since the night of the murders, his doctor warns now that he's loose in the city and untreated, it's only a matter of time until his mental condition deteriorates.

The bulk of the film is split between following Clifford while he tracks down Duncan, and following Duncan as he tries to get on with his life in the big city and experiences the mental deterioration his doctor said would happen. Much of Duncan's plotline involves his obsession with becoming friends with a middle-aged woman he meets in a dive bar one night. He doesn't seem to realize that breaking into a woman's home while she's out so you can hide in a closet until she gets back is not a proper way to make friends.

Tracy, the woman he becomes obsessed with, either feels bad for him or simply doesn't realize that he could be a dangerous man when he follows her to her apartment after their first meeting. She leaves the door open and doesn't seem too surprised to see him there at all. Another sign of how times are different now or was it just her being naïve?

Eventually, Duncan's mind does again completely snap and he reverts to his old ways, seeking out Jill Johnson... and when he discovers that she is now married with children, he decides to play the old "Have you checked the children?" phone game with her while she's out with her husband one night. Can Jill survive a second encounter with Curt Duncan? Will Clifford be able to carry out his plan to kill the psycho?

Thirty-five years after its release, When a Stranger Calls is still a popular entry in the horror genre, and its reputation preceded it when I was a young genre fan watching his way through the horror sections of the local video stores. I read references to it in horror magazines, saw its listing in movie review books, and my first exposure to footage from it was in the 1984 documentary Terror in the Aisles, which was basically just a collection of clips hosted by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. It was already a certainty that I needed to see this movie when my fifth grade teacher told a story during class one day about the first R-rated movie she had ever seen at the theatre: When a Stranger Calls.

I first watched When a Stranger Calls (and Terror in the Aisles, actually) a few years ago. I watched the remake before the original, which made me even more curious about the '79 movie. But I must have escaped the hype that surrounds the original somehow, and I'm sure that helped. I didn't have high expectations, I was just genuinely curious about it.

As my teacher told it, she was absolutely terrified by the movie, and when she came back home she had to tell her sister all about it. A teenage student herself at the time, my teacher was working as a babysitter in 1979, and during her next late night job, she started getting phone calls - a creepy voice on the line asking her, "Have you checked the children?" Of course, it was just her sister playing a prank on her, but it was enough to keep her freaked out all that night. Things got even creepier when her employers got back home and asked her why the light was on in the attic. She hadn't been up in the attic that night...

When a copy of When a Stranger Calls eventually turned up in one of the local video stores, I rented it at the first opportunity. As I slid the VHS into my VCR, I was excited to finally get a chance to see this classic I had been missing out on... and I was sorely disappointed.

I think the hype is to blame for Cody's disappointment. But part of me gets it, because the first time I watched it, I was expecting something different, something more like the remake. And it simply isn't.

Anytime When a Stranger Calls is discussed, people only ever talk about the "Have you checked the children?" phone calls. I had been led to believe that the opening babysitter sequence was the entire movie. While that sequence was going on, the movie was indeed awesome. But then that ended after twenty-three minutes, and the movie went off in a completely different direction.

The parts with Jill are still the best by far, no doubt about it. My favorite scene is the opening one, it's getting really dark outside and the way Jill walks down the street to the Mandrakis house just fits in perfectly with the score, which to me is amazing.

Everything comes together great in those first twenty-three minutes. The direction by Fred Walton, the performance by Carol Kane, the shadowy cinematography by Don Peterman, the great orchestral score by Dana Kaproff. As Jill wanders around the dark house being terrorized by the constant phone calls, the atmosphere is thick with dread, the movie is genuinely creepy.

During those twenty-three minutes, it's all about suspense. We don't know why the guy's so adamant about her checking the children, we don't know how he even knows she's there babysitting, we don't know where he can see her from or even if he's really serious. It leaves us wondering. Carol Kane's performance, the cinematography, and the extremely tense score make that part of the movie flawless to me.

The next hour and change, the stuff that was tacked on to reach feature length, it just can't live up to it. Sure, the cinematography and score continue along the same level, but I just do not find the Clifford and Duncan show to be interesting. It's a slog for me to get through, and has been ever since my first viewing of the movie in the mid-'90s. It is a bit more watchable to me now than it was then, but I still just don't care about Duncan's experience as a homeless man or his infatuation with the woman from the bar.

The first few minutes after the cops arrive at the Mandrakis house are also very good, when we're still getting to know a little bit about Curt Duncan and his time at the mental institution. But soon after that the tone just changes completely and makes you even stop to question yourself for a second, "Wait, is this the same movie?", because it doesn't feel like it. Duncan in bar fights, chasing some woman around, and living in the streets almost feels sleazy. What saves this part of the movie is the acting, and also the score. If those two aspects weren't so solid, the movie would be impossible to watch after that. And even though it really bothered me the first time I watched the movie, I find it that every time I watch it now, I'm able to appreciate those two aspects more and more, and they make my viewings much more enjoyable.

It's not the cast's fault that what they're doing isn't interesting to me. Charles Durning has some solid moments as John Clifford; when he tells a police officer pal (played by Ron O'Neal of Super Fly) of his intention to kill Duncan with lock pick needles, it's a nice hard-boiled tough guy moment, and the scene in which he's looking over the beds of sleeping homeless men in a rescue mission with a lock needle at the ready in case he discovers one of them is Duncan is pretty cool, but his is not the most engrossing investigation.

Well, Clifford is old and out of shape, so it makes it hard to take him seriously as an effective detective. But Charles Durning's performance as a man who's still shaken up by the visions of the hideous crime Duncan committed years ago is very believable. And his scene with the lady doctor at the mental hospital is one of my favorites, as is the scene at the party being held by his police officer friend who has a baby now, where they agree that a man who's done such terrible things should be eliminated.

Tony Beckley, who was tragically terminally ill during the filming of the movie, gives a great performance as the rapidly deteriorating Duncan, but I really don't like spending so much time with that character. It's a different approach for this type of movie, to spend time studying the killer, but it could have been done in a much more interesting manner.

They show us more of Duncan than we ever wanted or needed to see. When the movie starts focusing on him, it almost makes you feel bad for the guy, for like a second. I think they wanted to try and make the audience see what Duncan's been through not only during his years in the mental institution but also what he's going through now. All alone, no friends, nowhere to live, feeling all crazed and confused. But hey... the guy is a cold-blooded killer, what he's done is unforgivable and can't be overlooked, not for a second. So, I don't see the point in exploring this character that way, especially when they fail to tell us more about his story, so there's just no way to relate to him or understand his actions. And if all those years of therapy didn't work, I think nothing would. They make us kind of question that as well, because he had the chance to kill Jill's kids and husband, but didn't. So, was he a slightly better man post-treatment after all? I don't know, but I still find it impossible to sympathize.

The first twenty-three minutes of the movie are perfect. Walton and Feke had a great idea for a short and that section of the movie is why it's still well known today, but the feature filler sinks it for me.

Like I said, not only the first twenty-three minutes of the movie, but the parts with Jill make the movie for me. The part in between isn't the best, but it grows on you once you're able to appreciate and focus on the acting and score. At least that's how it's been for me with each new viewing. 


Sony's Screen Gems division developed the When a Stranger Calls remake and got it released to theatres at the height of the remake boom of the oughts decade, with writer Jake Wade Wall and director Simon West adapting the original film into a PG-13 production aimed at the modern youth market, more of whom may have thought this was a Scream cash-in than realized it was a remake of a '70s movie.

To establish its killer, the '06 version starts not with the ordeal of the film's babysitter heroine, but with the standard opening death sequence, where we hear the creepy, deep-voiced killer making taunting phone calls to a young girl before eventually killing her. This is all presented as voiceover - and with a shot of the killer's shadow striking - that plays out during the opening title sequence.

Simon West was not an obvious choice to direct this type of movie, he's known for big, fast paced action flicks like Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and more recently The Expendables 2. West's natural inclination to go big is evident all through the movie, starting with the opening title sequence, which is made up primarily of shots of a carnival that has been set up right next door to the home of the killer's victim, these shots cut together in a flashy, erratic music video style. There's some crane shots of the oil rig at the edge of the property, too.

I really like the opening sequence. All the colors and sounds from the carnival, the - deceiving - look of a small, safe community, and then something awful taking place. The girl's shrieks blended in with the score is pretty creepy. By then, if you don't know what this movie is about, you can easily think that it is going to be a Scream ripoff indeed.

While showing shots of the neighborhood the home is in, West puts a garish, neon "Jesus Saves" sign right in the foreground of one crane shot, a sign which looks totally out of place for this area, and is only in there because at one point in the original film Curt Duncan stared up at a "Jesus Saves" sign that was much less of an eyesore.

Like Curt Duncan before him, the killer in this film tears his victim apart with his bare hands, her body needing to be carried out in multiple small bags. With the presence of a killer and the brutality he's capable of set up, the movie moves on to its variation on heroine Jill Johnson, here played by Camilla Belle.

A high school student and track athlete, Jill is first shown running laps in the gym, and this is the coolest high school gym I've ever seen - the track is elevated, so there's boys' basketball practice going on down below as the track girls run laps above.

That type of school gym proves not to be the best one when Jill fails to match her time record because she gets distracted looking at her boyfriend Bobby down below. I can understand how hard it'd be for some of them to focus and ignore all the noises and other people around, being a teenager.

This Jill has a similar problem to Carol Kane's Jill in that she and a questionable friend are both interested in the same guy, but the situation has gone further in this case - Jill's questionable friend Tiffany actually kissed Bobby, which has made things very awkward between all of them.

They try to make light of the fact that Tiffany kissed Bobby, like it's no big deal. They dumb the kids down too much in this movie, because they seem even more shallow than what you'd expect and very dull with a kind of "whatever" overall attitude.

We're supposed to really like Jill, but it's hard to like a character who has a "bitch" for a best friend, knows it, and still hangs out with her.

In trying to deal with her messy relationships, Jill has gone eight hundred minutes over the monthly limit on her cell phone usage, costing her parents a whole lot of money. Future Marvel Cinematic Universe star Clark Gregg appears in a small role as Jill's father, who lays out the rules of her punishment - she has been grounded for one month with no phone or car - as he drives her out to the secluded, gated, lakeside home of the wealthy Doctor Mandrakis and his younger wife. Jill has to make some babysitting money to pay her parents back.

So... Jill can talk to Bobby for that long over the phone, but ignores him in person?

As in the original, Jill's first time meeting the Mandrakis couple is when she arrives for the babysitting gig, and they are immediately quite trusting, but they have hired her at the recommendation of their friends the Thompsons, so since this Jill has an established babysitting track record, it's a little more understandable.

It makes more sense that they'd hire someone that's been recommended to them, especially since it seemed to be pretty last minute, and they probably didn't have any other choice. What doesn't make sense though, is why a couple that's so wealthy doesn't have a full time nanny. Or why their live-in housekeeper Rosa couldn't watch the children when they needed.

Also less understandable is the fact that the Mandrakis children are already asleep when Jill arrives, since it's only just dusk when she gets to the home. These kids must have a crazy early bedtime.

It's mentioned, like in the first movie, that the kids have been sick, maybe they were groggy from some kind of cold medication. I don't think that their usual bedtime would be that early.

Just over three minutes after meeting her, the Mandrakises leave Jill to watch their sleeping children in their mansion with its security alarm system, motion sensor lights in every room, mid-house atrium, and a guest house across the way.

The Mandrakises were either very trusting people or Jill's recommendation was outstanding, because they don't bother to even close some rooms that have expensive items in them, and they have no problem giving Jill the code for the alarm. That was for their kids own safety and it could always be changed later, but they just seem to really trust her. And it's not that she'd steal anything, but the scene where she tries perfume and jewelry on always makes me go "oh my". Because she could've accidentally dropped the bottle, or dropped something in the sink drain... something could've happened. She is a teen after all, totally impressionable and amazed by the wonderful things she sees.

I can't blame her for walking around exploring though... I wouldn't exactly do the things she did, but I'd be very stupefied at a mansion like that. I'd want to babysit for them, too!

West's "go big" vision is again on display here; this house is pretty ridiculous.

The house is unbelievably secluded, big and majestic. I love it. The mid-house atrium, the sensor lights and the exquisite decor are delightful and yet spooky at the same time. All the wood, glass and stainless steel makes you wonder how much something that elaborate would cost for real. The downside is the lack of privacy with the huge glass windows, since the house is in the middle of the woods and can easily be seen from so many different spots, without the residents even being aware.

It's a little over 16 minutes into the film when Jill is left in the house, and soon after, the creepy phone calls begin, starting off a night of terror that will continue on through almost the entire rest of the running time. Writer Jake Wade Wall expands the babysitting sequence to feature length by adding in more characters, red herrings and victims. The Mandrakises have a live-in housekeeper (who apparently doesn't take care of the kids), there's a college age son who lives in the guest house and is prone to showing up without notice. Could he be the caller? Are those sounds of doors opening and closing in the house just the housekeeper? Or someone else?

The calls in the remake are boring. The "have you checked the children?" over and over that we have in the original works better than the caller just being silent 90% of the time when he calls in the remake. And it seems like Jill only checks the caller I.D. when she feels like it. Sometimes she does it, sometimes not, and it takes a while for her to start doing it at all. I find that weird.

Jill doesn't only get calls from the killer --

And, unlike the original Jill, when the calling stranger asks "Have you checked the children?", she actually does go up and check on them. They're fine. It's when she goes back downstairs from checking on them and the stranger calls back to ask how they are that Jill realizes she's being watched.

-- she also gets prank calls from some creep named Cody, a friend of her boyfriend's.

Codys are usually nice people!

There are some cutaways to the party Jill's boyfriend and most of the other teens in town are attending, which is said to be "a bonfire". People go to bonfire parties here in the Ohio countryside, and when they do they gather around a large pile of burning wood. That's not good enough for a Simon West movie, this director's version of a bonfire makes it look like the high schoolers have gone to the set of this same year's remake of The Wicker Man to watch Nicolas Cage get cooked.

Oh, so that's not common? We don't really have bonfire parties here in Brazil... at least I've never heard of one, so it always made me wonder what was up with that truly bizarre one.

Her friend Tiffany (played by Katie Cassidy, who would also go on to appear in the remakes of Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street) also shows up at the Mandrakis household briefly to discuss the problems she and Jill have with each other.

She was only there for a minute. Why did she bother to drive that far when her "apology" didn't even seem sincere, and she couldn't wait to get out of there? I think she was going to throw herself at Bobby again and blame tequila for it... again.

And I have to note, Wade Wall does not write the best teenage girl dialogue. The moment in which Tiffany happily calls herself a bitch makes me cringe, as does the exchange earlier in the film when Jill and Tiffany's mutual friend Scarlett comments that their issues are "so high school" and Jill responds, "We're in high school."

I agree. Like I said... I do feel like they tried too hard to make the teens sound as depth-less as possible.

Tiffany hangs around the Mandrakis property a bit too long, because she gets knocked off by the killer. The old babysitter urban legend gets a 2006 update when the killer continues calling the house with Tiffany's cell phone so that her number shows up on the caller I.D.

Eventually, Jill is creeped out enough to get the police involved, and keeps the killer on the phone long enough for his call to be traced to another line within the Mandrakis house. At that point, the killer makes his presence known and attacks, going from being a voice on the phone, provided by the gravelly-toned Lance Henriksen, to a dangerous physical figure played by scar-faced Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan. As the killer does his best to add Jill to his bodycount, the babysitter tries to escape with the two young Mandrakis children in tow. Yes, the children survive in this film, safer in its PG-13 world than the kids were in the R-rated '79 movie.

Tommy Flanagan looks so scary in it. That last shot of him being taken away by the police is quite sinister. I also really like the one in the mid-house atrium when he tries so hard to pull Jill out of the water. But my favorite scene in the remake is probably when Jill sees him just watching her from the ceiling in the children's bedroom.

The police are very helpful in both movies, which normally doesn't happen in horror, and that's nice.

When a Stranger Calls is one of the rare cases where I like a recent remake more than its predecessor, and that is because I feel Jake Wade Wall made exactly the right choice when thinking of how to write a remake to When a Stranger Calls. It's also the obvious one - make the "babysitter gets threatening calls" sequence the whole movie. That's what I thought the original film would be, that's what I wanted it to be, so I'm glad that's what the remake is. I want to see the babysitter urban legend, not an hour and change of a homeless guy stalking a bar hag.

The acting and score are superior in the original, but the story is better told in the remake, which gives the audience what was wanted ever since the original came out.

With that said, the remake does have its weaknesses. In addition to some bad dialogue and the disappointment of how safe it plays things, the cinematography is way too glossy for my taste, I find it impossible to be creeped out when something looks this flashy and pretty. For me, Simon West's action movie aesthetics clashed with this small horror story.

The parts of the dialogue previously mentioned and how the teens are portrayed are cons. I do like that the children survived and that the bodycount was still higher regardless. One thing that gets to me is that the caller really chooses whose blood he wants all over him. Because the first kill was the only bloody one, and he had plenty of time to do serious damage to the kids, but it looks like he was more interested in doing some damage to Jill.

Camilla Belle is also not the most captivating actress, she plays Jill in such an incredibly subdued way that there is hardly any life to this character.

There's no way to compare the two Jills. Carol Kane delivers a very intense, inspired performance, and you want to help her, you feel bad for her, you can relate. The same can't be said about Camilla Belle's Jill. You only become more invested when the physical confrontation begins and when she tries her best to protect the children.

Still, when I want to watch a When a Stranger Calls movie, it's the 2006 version that I put in. While the opening twenty-three minutes of the '79 film are more effective than the entirety of '06, the update is more interesting than what comes after that.

It's almost a tie for me. I'd give the remake the edge because I saw it first and because the middle part of the original really isn't great. It is growing on me though, so my opinion might change someday... who knows? I do enjoy watching both anyway and I like the sequel to the original (1993's When a Stranger Calls Back) as well. I wonder if a sequel to the remake would have been any good.

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