Babysitting is probably one of toughest gigs in the horror genre. Halloween, The House of the Devil, The Amityville Horror, Better Watch Out – babysitters have it tough in horror movies. Mixing the ‘babysitter-in-peril’ narrative with the ‘killer is in the house’ trope, When a Stranger Calls was a minor 1970’s box office success. Critics weren’t impressed, but the thriller’s extending opening is among the best in the genre. Not surprisingly then, Hollywood eventually turned its attention to this small hit during the 2000’s raid of 70’s and 80’s horror movies. The When a Stranger Calls remake was a box office success. But how well would the worn ‘the killer is in the house’ trick work in 2006?
When a Stranger Calls A Middling 1970’s Thriller
For many horror fans, When a Stranger Calls is a minor classic. Director Fred Walton would go on to direct another minor slasher classic, April Fool’s Day. Alongside Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls popularized a favourite slasher trope – the ‘killer is in the house’. Personally, I’ve never regarded the 1979 thriller as a particularly good movie. It’s an average psychological thriller book-ended by two fantastic sequences. But for a good portion of its runtime, When a Stranger Calls alternates between standard police procedural and the kind of psychological study of killers popular in the late 70’s (Maniac, The Driller Killer), albeit much less violent. In fact, Dalton’s thriller borders on the boring side nearly a good hour. Tonally, the movie is a bit all over the place. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of movie that would benefit from a remake.
A Killer Opening and Finale Define When a Stranger Calls
Unfortunately, the only real challenge for updating When a Stranger Calls is its classic opening scene. Technically, Wes Craven paid homage to the opening with Scream’s now classic introductory scene. For the first 15 to 20 minutes, Dalton crafts one of the most suspenseful scenes in a slasher movie. It’s a very minimalist scene that relies on the familiarity of its setting and actor Tony Beckley’s chilling phone voice. Beckley’s repeating, ‘Have you checked the children’ will give you nightmares. The tension is expertly ratcheted up to a conclusion that completely subverts your expectations.
For the first 15 to 20 minutes, Dalton crafts one of the most suspenseful scenes in a slasher movie.
Though not quite as good as this opening, When a Stranger Calls’ finale still delivers a creepy surprise. After a false alarm, the now adult babysitter, Jill, settles into bed with her husband, but then hears the killer’s voice coming from the dark. When she tries to wake her husband, she discover’s it’s the killer himself who has been lying in bed with her. Even if you figured out what was going to happen, Dalton’s twist is executed in such a way as to elicit a decent jolt. It’s an unnerving ending to what’s largely an uneven thriller.
When a Strangers Calls Remake A Wrong Number
Spoiler alert – the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls is bad movie. A really bad movie. Like most of the 2000’s remakes of 70’s and 80’s horror classics, When a Stranger Calls is a limp, scare-free update of the original. All the mistakes made by similar remakes, including Prom Night, The Stepfather, and The Hitcher, are present and accounted for. Cast young, attractive, and mostly forgettable performers. Check. Take out any explicit violence to get that safe PG-13 rating for your MTV target audience. Check. Use rapid editing and loud sound effects in place of actual scares. Check.
Though it ditches the original’s boring middle, the 2006 When a Stranger Calls still manages to be uneventful for long stretches.
To be fair, screenwriter Jake Wade Wall ditches the original movie’s plodding police procedural story. Instead, the 2006 When a Stranger Calls just takes the original movie’s opening scene and extends it into an entire movie. Moreover, the remake throws in a couple of additional characters for which purpose I’m assuming was to up the ‘body count’. It’s a story divergence that proves to be utterly pointless given the movie’s lack of violence and gore. Both deaths occur off-screen. This is a bloodless, safe remake that takes no risks with the material. It also happens to be a remake lacking any real scares. Though it ditches the original’s boring middle, the 2006 When a Stranger Calls still manages to be uneventful for long stretches.
Remember That Scary Opening … The Remake, Not So Much
Director Simon West switches out the original movie’s nail-biting opening for an unremarkable prologue. When a Stranger Calls opens with a loud, rapidly edited sequence that could have been the beginning to any horror movie. It’s every bit as unremarkable as the original movie’s prologue was remarkable. Not much else in the remake works. Despite Lance Henriksen voicing the ‘stranger’, the phone calls are either uneventful or tepid rehashes of the original movie’s dialogue. Fake scares abound amid frequent trips up and down large house hallways. None of the jump scares work. Perhaps the only thing that works in the remake is ‘The Stranger’s’ first emergence from the shadows. It’s a brief flash of ‘what could have been’ that’s never replicated.
Don’t Answer This Prank Call
Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls is by no means a perfect horror movie. At best, the 1979 thriller is an uneven, occasionally dull movie with a killer opening. But compared to the remake, the original movie might as well be The Exorcist. Similar to many of the 2000’s horror remakes, the 2006 When a Stranger Calls is scare-free movie cynically produced to take money from its intended teen audience. If you’re babysitting and the kids are asleep upstairs, stick with the 1979 original and hit ‘Block’ on the remake.