Saturday, July 17, 2010

When A Stranger Calls

If Fred Walton’s feature debut had ended after twenty minutes, 1979's WHEN A STRANGER CALLS would be known as one of the greatest suspense thrillers of all time. And, in fact, it actually began as a short film called THE SITTER, which was so highly acclaimed that Columbia Pictures asked Walton to expand it to feature-length. Unfortunately, the premise that worked so great at twenty minutes was too thin to stretch to 97, leaving WHEN A STRANGER CALLS a thoroughly routine cop-versus-killer drama bookended by a truly chilling opening and closing.

Of course, the main gimmick of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS has been ripped off, parodied, and remade so many times that one may be tempted to take it for granted, and it’s to Walton’s credit that it still packs a punch, even though at this point we know what’s coming. Carol Kane (TAXI) plays Jill, a teenage babysitter who receives mysterious telephone calls from a psychopath begging her to go upstairs and “check the children.”

After this virtuoso opening—and this is a good place to mention Dana Kaproff’s masterful scoring—that ends with the capture of a dangerous serial killer, Walton and co-writer Steve Feke (MAC AND ME) jump ahead seven years to the escape of the murderer (Tony Beckley) and the obsessive detective (top-billed Charles Durning) who arrested him the first time. Walton’s climax is almost as good as his opening, reuniting the sadistic killer with an adult Jill, now a wife and mother.

The first and third acts are strong enough to make up for the somewhat flabby middle portion, which shows Durning pounding the streets interviewing witnesses and Beckley trying to befriend a middle-aged barfly (Colleen Dewhurst). The acting is strong throughout. Walton couldn’t have been influenced by HALLOWEEN, which wasn’t out yet when he shot WHEN A STRANGER CALLS in 1978, but the scare scenes are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s work. The R rating must have been earned for its general suspense, because Walton delivers a top-notch thriller with little blood.

Walton’s career never lived up to the expectations resulting from his first hit. He even got back together with Durning and Kane for a made-for-cable sequel in 1993. Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Carmen Argenziano, Michael Champion, Rachel Roberts, Rutanya Alda, and Wally Taylor also appear with William Boyett (ADAM-12), the archetypal screen flatfoot, fine in a voice-only role as the cop who talks to Jill over the phone (and gets the film’s most famous line).

The difference in quality between Fred Walton’s original WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and Simon West’s 2006 remake is evident just from watching the opening minutes of both. While Walton sets an ominous tone with an extended shot of babysitter Carol Kane walking alone down a dark suburban street behind Dana Kaproff’s masterful, menacing score, West opens with a jar full of clichés poured all over the celluloid: jumpy edits, clumsy symbolism (yes, the death of a child is marked with both a runaway balloon—colored red, of course—and a slow-motion merry-go-round), an itchy soundtrack of crackles and hollow booms meant to be music. In three minutes, West delivers his first kill (off-screen), just so we don’t get too bored too early.

Babysitter Jill (Camilla Belle) is no longer a normal teen doing her homework, as was Kane, but a brooding hottie with a superfluous backstory involving a cheating boyfriend (Peter Geraghty) and a bitchy best friend—named Tiffany, natch (and played by perennial bitch Katie Cassidy from SUPERNATURAL and MELROSE PLACE). And instead of a modest this-could-happen-to-you-or-me home in the ‘burbs, West sets the remake in a creepy lakeside mansion way out in the boonies—where better to dilute the terror. It isn’t adequately explained why the parents need a babysitter in the first place, since they have a live-in maid on the premises, which is great for artificially upping the body count, but not when it’s to your advantage to isolate your antagonist against a mysterious predator.

It takes 49 minutes for Lance Henriksen, playing the scary voice on the phone, to ask Jill, “Have you checked the children?,” by which time you’ve long lost interest. I’ll agree it was probably a wise decision by screenwriter Jake Wade Wall (who also penned the HITCHER remake) to ditch the flabby midsection of Walton’s original, but the basic premise of a babysitter being menaced by a stalker inside the house proves to be too weak to sustain for ninety minutes, and Wall and West are unable to substitute anything besides thunder, lightning, and leaping cats to create a mood.

It does manage to squeeze Belle into a wet tank top, so it’s got that going for it.

That same year, 2006, The Asylum jumped on the “terrorized babysitter” bandwagon with a shameless ripoff of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS that hit DVD at the same time Screen Gems’ STRANGER remake made it to theaters. It would be hard to make a worse film than Simon West’s remake, but director Peter Mervis, whose starstudded career also includes SNAKES ON A TRAIN and THE DAVINCI TREASURE, has done it.

WHEN A KILLER CALLS is even wretched by The Asylum’s standards. The digital photography is washed out and grainy, and the production so shoddy that several botched line readings are left in the final print. Trisha (Rebekah Kochan) is the teen babysitter plagued by a mysterious caller who also sends threatening photos and text messages to her cell phone. To boost the body count, Trisha’s boyfriend Matt (Buckley) stops by with his jerk friends Frank (Derek Osedach) and Christy (Sarah Hall).

Mervis is inept at creating suspense. He shows us the killer prowling around the yard early in the picture, and the various stalk-and-slash sequences are shot without imagination. Unfortunately, KILLER has more in common with the trendy “torture porn” features of the era than with WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. The killer manages to capture the teens fairly easily and then spend the rest of the picture tormenting them in unpleasant style. While Kochan is a somewhat appealing leading lady (the other actors are horrid), there’s nothing to recommend about WHEN A KILLER CALLS, which is not uncommon for a film by The Asylum.


Neil Sarver said...

Great post! It was interesting to see these contrasted in descending order. Very interesting. Almost makes me want to sit down to this triple feature, despite the obvious flaws in that plan.

English Teacher X said...

I've been enjoying a few of these remake + original double-bills myself lately -- like to see you write up a few more of these, like THE CRAZIES or DAY OF THE DEAD.