‘Stranger’ remake takes original’s first act, stretches it too thin

With older movies being remade by Hollywood at a record rate, one might wonder: Was it really necessary to remake? What changes have been made? How does it compare to the original?

This week we look at “When a Stranger Calls,” the original from 1979 and the newest version from 2006.

The story

Babysitter Jill Johnson takes an easy sitting job; the kids are asleep and she can just hang out and wait for her boyfriend to call. But then she starts receiving strange calls _” with the person on the other end either just breathing or asking if she’s checked the children. After she has cops trace the call, they tell her that the calls are coming _” as revealed in both movies’ trailers _” from inside the house.

A big difference in the new movie is that scary bit of information isn’t revealed until an hour into the film, even though it’s what the movie is being sold on. In the original, this all takes place within the first 20 minutes, after which it’s revealed (27-year-old spoiler alert!) that the stranger has already killed the children. It then pulls a “Psycho” bait-and-switch and jumps seven years ahead to focus on a private detective tracking the recently escaped killer, and turns into a boring, sub-par cop movie with no mention of Jill until the last 20 minutes _” where it turns back into a powerfully effective psychological horror film.

The remake was right to stay away from the original’s weak middle section, but cheats the viewer out of the excellent ending and instead delivers a watered down thriller.

The house

The original’s house was just a normal house. After all, babysitting in a strange house is already a little uncomfortable, and something that is easy to relate to. The remake instead puts Jill in a secluded, glass-walled mansion with motion-controlled lights in every room, an indoor aviary, live-in maid and adjacent guest house. Gimmicks won out in the remake, and the audience knows that when Jill accidentally turns on the remote-controlled fireplace, chances are that it will be important later.

False alarms

To take the unnerving and creepy first 20 minutes of the original and turn it into a full-length movie, it would have to be padded out quite a bit. The makers of the new version decided to fill the spaces between almost word-for-word recreations of the original’s dialog with a nearly endless amount of false alarms. The phone rings. Scary music builds up. She answers, and there’s a moment of silence before – it’s the mother. Then the phone rings again, there’s another slow build up, she answers – it’s her boyfriend, or the security company, or a prankster from school. In fact, the number of incoming calls is about twice that of the original, even though the stranger only makes about half as many calls as before. The filmmakers even added a cat to the story just for a couple of extra false jumps. Not to mention the maid, the best friend and a coat hanger. Seriously.

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The stranger

In both movies, he has the uncanny ability to appear in any house regardless of security and move other people around without ever being seen or making noise. In the original, with its greatly expanded story, we get to actually see “the stranger” as a somewhat normal person, Curt Duncan. Unfortunately, it’s his incredibly boring presence that makes the film’s second act so tedious. He doesn’t act anything like how he does when going after Jill at the beginning and end of the older version. In the new version, he doesn’t really speak, the audience is left without any real information about him, and he doesn’t even have much of a presence until almost an hour into the film. The new version has more chasing and fighting in the big fancy house toward the end, and tacks on a contrived conclusion.

The verdict

Both versions need heavy editing, but in the original it just involves cutting out most of the middle without Jill. In the new version, it would mean cutting out all the useless stuff _” essentially taking it down to the same 20 minutes of the original’s beginning. But only the original has the shocking revelation of the first act and the truly bloodcurdling horror of the third act. It was pointless to remake this movie if it’s going to have way too much filler, but leave out most of the good stuff.