First off, let me say what a great idea it was to remake this film. The original has enjoyed elevated status far too long based only on an intense 23-minute opening sequence. And as good as that opening piece of suspense is, the same exact premise punctuates Bob Clark’s earlier 1974 masterpiece Black Christmas – so even what When a Stranger Calls does well owes a debt of gratitude to an overall better film. Still, I’ll give the Devil his due – knock-off or not, that sequence stands as an effective, inte…se short film, which carries the baggage of an additional three-quarters worth of movie, poorly executed with a wandering eye from character-to-character that spoils the memories of what was done right in the first place. With that said, let me now state what a missed opportunity this remake is. It fails to an equal extent, but does so in different ways. Director Simon West decides to set his redo in one night using a plot twist, whose shock value has had nearly thirty years to dissipate. Most know simply by watching the previews on TV what the big reveal is going to be, and that advanced knowledge causes the audience to sit through half the film twiddling thumbs. The suspense scenes at the end are well-shot, but largely uninspired… there is simply nothing visceral about this polished piece of lightweight teeny-bopper horror, and the premise itself is spread too thin across the 87-minute running time.
Now I’m going to do something unprecedented. I am going to beg Sony Pictures to remake this film again, and I am even going to give them a way they can do it, make big bucks, and a suspenseful classic (which both incarnations should have been to begin with) at the same time… and I’m going to go on record out of my love for the idea with no vain hopes they’ll see fit to compensate me for the time and trouble. This is a freebie, Sony… take note! The next time you remake this film, use the structure of the original. Act one – the “Oh no, the babysitter’s screwed” moment (also, kill the children). Act two – five-to-ten years later: only this time, instead of having the film float from character-to-character like it has ADD, stick with the girl. Set up her life elsewhere. Have her be someone the killer selected for a reason. Have her as the object of his obsession. This way, it makes sense when he comes after her upon escaping years later. Her living in another location would also provide a plausible explanation for her not knowing this guy is on the loose. Then, make the rest of the act about the killer slowly working his way back into her life, and perhaps even whittling away on the people close to her. Act three – he comes after her. This is where the heroine can really be seen for her strength. Give her something to lose (as the first one did) – perhaps even children, so the killer can break out his famous line one last time. Put her through hell and high water to reach the inevitable happy ending, continue to keep the killer a mystery (NOT like the original interpretation), go for the throat with an R-rating, and release to box office records. I say all this to prove a point: there’s a good film – no, a great film – hiding in the original idea for this story. But while both versions currently out there have strong points, neither puts in the hard work to cultivate the material into something truly special. If you’re in the mood for something similar (that has more punch to it), stick with Black Christmas and the far superior sequel to the original When a Stranger Calls Back.
The widescreen edition appears in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and, despite a couple of glitches that I believe to be disc-specific, it looks terrific. However, twice during the film, I noticed short moments of artifacting one would not expect from a brand new major release (once when the babysitter – played by Camilla Belle – is receiving her list of things to remember from the parents; again, during a housing exploration by babysitter after she knows something isn’t quite right). Still, these glitches are nothing to detract from the presentation, and they may not even show up on all discs. Who knows? As for the rest of the feature, it looks perhaps too good for its own good. The bright colors, the ornate Hollywood production values, the Teen Magazine actors and lingo… all of it undermines the visceral quality the original manages to get right (NOTE: one of few things the original gets right). Overall, this disc boasts a spectacular-looking image. However, I am interested to know if any viewers experience similar glitches in their copies.
The track is a standard digital 5.1, and it succeeds as being the only aspect of the disc void of complaints. The film’s main star – the house itself – is not only a sight, but also a sound, to behold. Of course, film quality suffers as a result of this, but the many audible opportunities the house provides make for a pleasing aesthetic. Each pop or creak or alarm malfunction shocks, jostles, and jolts, with the necessary, and expected, intensity. The track carries with it a naturally high volume for dialogue and bass. There isn’t really a soundtrack to speak of, only individual sounds and noises with a forgettable musical score thrown in for good measure.
There are two pretty useless deleted scenes accompanying this “special edition” package. The Making of When a Stranger Calls turns out short, but informative. It’s at least clear, through this featurette, the participants are proud of their film, and they do offer viable, if not flawed, reasoning for some of the decisions made. If you find the urge for a more in-depth explanation, however, two commentaries are provided: firstly, a director and cast commentary; secondly, a writer’s commentary. Both are insightful of the production, but the featurette will probably quench curiosity.
The urge is there to say, “Give it up!” You’ve tried making a decent film out of a great idea twice, and failed on both counts. But I say, the third time could definitely be the charm, so long as Sony learns from their mistakes. Think it through next time! Other than the film itself being sub-par, the disc looks and sounds great; and it does offer over three hours of bonus material (factoring in commentaries). The tragedy here: it fails to improve upon the original, and even detracts from what that mediocre effort did right by spreading itself too thin, and targeting a starkly horrific concept to the George Lucas crowd.
Special Features List
- Director and cast commentary
- Writer’s commentary
- Deleted Scenes
- The Making of When a Stranger Calls