Thursday, February 23, 2017

Have You Checked The Kids? Again? And Again?: When A Stranger Calls Triple Bill Review

From saying forbidden names to invoke a killer, to inspiring murder methods or the modus of deranged maniacs, it's fair to say that urban legends have been good influences to a great deal of slasher movies, from the likes of masterpieces such as Candyman (1992) or the underrated Urban Legend (1998), to oddballs like The Hook of Woodland Heights (1992) or the strange sorta-anthology Amusement (2009).

Among these tales that may have happened to someone you know who knew someone you know, is the story involving a babysitter and a man upstairs that appears to be a repeating influence, inspiring villains from Wes Craven's Scream, Black Chirstmas (1974), the new throwback slasher Fender Bender (in a way with a cellphone) and possibly many more horror sickos out there to call their victims creepily before going for the kill. Apart from this, the legend is also the main plot element of a strange little franchise. One that barely shed any blood but works really hard on the creep department. One that simply follows what happens... When a Stranger Calls!

When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Rating: **1/2
Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Rutanya Alda

Young Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) wasn't expecting much from her evening babysitting the Mendrakis children. Both kids were already asleep when their parents left them under her care, leaving her with hours to kill before the folks return. The night unfortunately turns chilling when a raspy caller starts phoning the household and asking Jill if she checked the children. The further the night goes, the more erratic the calls become, so much so that Jill eventually phones the cops and was advised to have him talk long enough for them to trace. This only leads to a shocking revelation as the calls were coming from inside the house.

Jill survived as the police managed to get there in time to save her, but the same can't be said for children as the caller already made his way to them, tearing them to pieces with nothing but his bare hands. All of this in the first 20 minutes into the movie and it is rightfully considered by many as the best sequence not just from the film, but also one out of many horror flicks out there with its well-escalated tension and perfectly timed reveal working perfectly with the already nightmarish scenario.

After this lengthy scare, the plot jumps ahead seven years and we now watch our killer, Curt Duncan, trying to live a normal existence after escaping his asylum, shifting the film's gears from a potential slasher to a slow-burning hybrid between a cop thriller and a character study. It's a route that gambled with the audience's expectations, particularly those who were expecting the same stalk-and-murder hijinks many slashers this film influenced later in the years, and though I am one of the many who didn't enjoy this shift per se, I cannot deny the few good points this curveball had to offer.

For one, I have to give credit to the late Tony Beckley for his portrayal of our titular Stranger, giving us a rather pathetic and depressing look into a psychopath's world which may have been influenced by Beckley's ailing health as he struggles with cancer during filming. Seeing our supposed villain at his lowest, seeking empathy, a cold brew and a bed to sleep on for the night is not a struggle we normally see and we almost feel bad for him, especially since we can see at some extent that he is trying.

The cat-and-mouse element was even turned against Duncan when John Clifford (Charles Durning), the cop that saved Jill-turned-private investigator for hire, starts to hunt him down with an intent to kill instead of returning him to the asylum. Think Dr. Loomis to Michael Myers from John Carpenter's Halloween except, well, we can really tell Duncan is human and desperately needs help rather than to be put down six feet under. Should the film found a more satisfying way to work this inverted slasher set-up, I would have liked Stranger more, but its monumentally dragging pace, one-note atmosphere, and near-absence of relatable characters made it hard for me to follow.

You could say that too much of the gloom went into the middle act that it almost felt like one long sulking session and barely anything else. This turned Stranger into a chore to sit through that not even it's last act, in which Duncan finally snaps back to his old habits and somehow found a way to terrorize Jill again and threaten her new family, seems to be all that worthy of the trouble. Not to say I didn't enjoy the last 15 to 10 minutes of the film, certainly not with its level of creepiness and chilling twists, but so much of the downbeat middle act drained any good opportunity to be excited about this last confrontation between Jill and Duncan that it just felt compromised. (I mean, if Duncan's going to resort hunting her down anyway, why waste an entire hour with him working his way to a random lady he met at a bar? Sure would have been nice to catch up with Jill post-babysitting peril a tad better too, instead of just throwing her in right out of the blue!)

As a whole, When A Stranger Calls just didn't work too well for me. Though I love the opening and the ideas this film had for its boogeyman, the sudden tone shift and lack of any exciting material to go with said shift just killed the entirety. Still, I cannot disregard this movie's earned respect and fan following, especially with the strong leverage it has on a lot of slasher flicks, which is kinda impressive for a film that barely counts as a slasher. As that one guy who always believe in the saying "to each his/her own", this seems to be my case with this "slasher" classic.

1 boy and 1 girl implied mangled
1 male shot dead
Total: 3

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)
Rating: **
Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Jill Schoelen

Fourteen years after director Fred Walton brought big screen scares with nothing but a phone, a voice, and an unnecessarily long yet interesting look into a psychopath's depression, he returns to the directorial chair to give 90s TV a direct sequel to his chiller classic When A Stranger Calls. Whether this is an improvement or not seems to be subjective.

Much like the original, When a Stranger Calls Back begins with another babysitter-in-peril act, this time with late 80s/early 90s scream queen Jill Schoelen as Julia, the tormented sitter. While busy killing time while her wards are sleeping, she gets a strange phone call and a man suddenly talking to her behind a closed door, claiming his car broke down and needs her help. While Julia tries to lie her way out from interacting with the man any further, their conversation grows sinister and things around her house starts to reappear in different places without her noticing. Julia soon realizes that someone had broken in and, much to her horror, abducted the children.

Five years later and Julia is now a young college student, unable forget the events of that fateful night and will learn, much to her horror again, that it might be far from over as someone apparently broke into her apartment and left a single piece of child's clothing for her to find. Sure that the same man from years ago is back and stalking her, she goes to the police who are more than sure to shoot her claims down as paranoia, save one Jill (Carol Kane), the survivor from the last movie and the campus' director of women services, who sees a bit of her own past struggles on the girl's predicament. While agreeing to look after Julia and teach the girl how to defend herself, Jill also tagged along an old friend, retired investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), to look into the stalking case and see if there might be something they can do to further help her. Unknown to them all, the stalker is closing in and isn't too happy with this new set-up. So much so that he might as well just hurt Julia...

Much like the first movie, I wanted to enjoy When A Stranger Calls Back but couldn't all the way due to a lot of set backs, the first of many being the opening in which Schoelen gets terrorized by the titular stranger. For some  reason, I just couldn't find watching a girl be "harassed" by someone behind a door to be that interesting, even with the added "scares" of things turning up in places they weren't supposed to be. The phone calls from the original movie work because it's pretty simple yet the twist managed to heighten the creep factor from 0 to 10 in just a matter of seconds. Here, conversing with an unknown stranger is creepy and there is a bit of shock value regarding said stranger's whereabouts, but it didn't have the same simplistic yet powerful impact as the urban legend-based scare of the original.

Much of the story after the opening followed the same format of the first film, again dropping the potential slasher plot and shifting the genre to a crime thriller about a possible stalking case. This means no blood, (surprisingly) no implied murders for the most part, and a lot of these scenes simply concerns Jill helping Julia defend herself by teaching her all sorts of defenses including gun saftey classes, while Clifford starts to investigate what happened that night the children were taken. It's should have been fine and dandy for me, but it felt overly long due to the absence of the stalker and that many of the supposed stalkings occurring were simply implied through Julia's cries and suspicions, thus killing a lot of the film's intensity and perhaps teased itself too much.

Thankfully there's a decent focus on our leads that I actually enjoyed, this including a stronger and more mature portrayal of Carol Kane's Jill, as well as a more approachable and likable Charles Durning with his more grounded and less vigilante-esque John. Unfortunately, I can't say I felt all that invested with Schoelen's character however as, while I find it understandable that her Julia had to be an emotional wreck after the events that transpired many moons ago, it felt like the story just used her to get a point to Jill, that history is repeating itself, before discarding her for the rest of the second act and pretty much had the story focus on Kane's character. (Think Psycho's man girl shifting from Marion Crane to Lisa Crane, only "Lisa" gets introduced earlier.)

I also felt a lot of disappointment regarding the stalker once we finally get to see him. He definitely has unnerving scenes (the hospital "visit" being his creepiest) and I did find his "disappearing gimmick" rather note-worthy in a way that I can barely recall any other horror psychos out there pulling off something like that, but he's basically just another shadowy loon, hardly fleshed out and
ended a little way too easy after all that lengthy build-up. Not impressive at all.

I understand attempts and, again like the first movie, I actually like a few ideas played here. I like how the two main casts from the original grew up in the right direction here. I like the outlandish traits our villain mastered. Just wishing they could have pulled it off a little better, perhaps evened out the  thriller elements with some proper scares once in a while to actually make the troubles our stranger were doing seems all that worthy of being worked up upon. But nope, The ball dropped pretty low for me from the very beginning, but at least I get to see When A Stranger Calls Back try to keep it somewhat watchable. Sometimes that's rather enough.

1 boy and 1 girl mentioned passed away
1 male shot dead
Total: 3

When A Stranger Calls (2006)
Rating: ***
Starring: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan, Katie Cassidy

Much like most "remakes" that happened in the 90s/2000s, When a Stranger Calls circa 2006 was less about re-telling the original 1979 thriller classic of the same title to a new generation of movie-goers. Instead, it was more of casually nodding to said original while building it's own story which, in this case, is a slasher. A bloodless, partially tedious yet satisfyingly okay-ish slasher.

When a Stranger Calls '06 follows Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle), a teenager who is currently grounded for going over the minutes of her cellphone plan and will be taking a babysitting gig at the Mandrakis' lakeside fortress mansion this one night as a part of her punishment and as a mean to save up for her bills. With the children already asleep by the time she got there, her phone taken away as a begrudging agreement with her parents and her friends partying at a bonfire elsewhere, Jill is simply sullen and bored out of her wits, but it all soon takes a sinister turn when a random caller starts to reach her repeatedly, asking her if she checked the kids.

For a while, Jill thought it's just someone fooling around (and seemingly so when her supposed bestie drops by, trying to make peace for kissing Jill's boyfriend), but with the house keeper suddenly disappearing and the alarm keeps going off, she soon learns that something's amiss and the increasingly violent calls are coming from someplace she least expected...

Unlike the original, which was a slow-burning thriller with a strong psychological aftertaste, When a Stranger Calls '06 has a structure resembling a classic slasher, less in the sense of bodycounting and exploiting blood, guts and gratuitous nudity, but more on building tension and a focused cat-and-mouse antic the subgenre is commonly known for, at least around the next half of the film's run. Until then, replacing the gore and T&A is a copious amount of teen-centered dilemma, problems that pander to the teenage demographic this film was aimed at and do nothing but tests the patience of the rest. This being said, those expecting limbs flying or blades stabbing will be disappointed by the movie's dryness, even though one can see one or two opportunities the movie could have spilled just a little blood, while those wanting nail-biting terror may have to sit through Jill being the millennial teenager before the creepy calls finally goes graphic, the classic twist is revealed and the stranger finally makes an appearance.

Personally, I have no problem going through the teen drama as Camilla Belle played Jill pretty well. The only real issue I have with Calls '06 is the effectiveness of the twist; even if, let's say, you never heard of the Babysitter And The Man Upstairs urban legend the plot was inspired from, the movie not only ruined the reveal by incorporating it to the opening credits-slash-opening murders (which, on a hindsight, is pretty chilling on it's own, a lot to say for something that lets us hear the murders instead of showing it), but some of the film's trailers also blatantly gave this away. This overselling killed off whatever fun can be made out of this movie's only worthwhile gimmick, making the transition from drama to thriller feel rather lengthy despite the near-90 minute run and might as well be the very reason why this movie didn't work out too well, a shame because everything that happens after the reveal is pretty workable.

Taking advantage of the ridiculously large house and it's isolated state, Calls '06 pulls off what can be one of the more entertaining cat-and-mouse act I've seen in a PG-13 horror flick. The added fact that we have additional survivors frighteningly clinging unto Jill's guidance also heightened the intensity of the stranger's attacks, as we root and hope for the safety of not only our lead girl, but also for these little surprises.

I also love how the movie's lighting, camera work and editing managed to make a seemingly everyday loonie more menacing, keeping his face hidden underneath shadows and behind tainted glass until that one chilling moment wherein both Jill and this stranger lock eyes, one filled with worry while the other filled with rage. The stranger here may not be all that memorable in any standards, either as a slasher villain or as a personality, but at least he had Lance Henriksen (Pumpkinhead (1988)'s Ed Harley) voicing him, and the actor used kinda looks like Kevin Spacey from Se7en so that has to count for something, especially since Spacey was friggin' unnerving at that movie.

Overall and over time, I learned to accept the flaws When A Stranger Calls '06 have and it kinda earned a spot as one of my many guilty pleasures. It may not have an impressive kill count, or kills for that matter, but whatever counts in this thriller counts pretty okay and sometimes that's all I could ask for. Worth a rent or for keeps!

1 female, 1 boy and 2 girls mangled offcamera, screams heard
1 female murdered, method unknown
1 female found dead inside a greenhouse
Total: 6

And there you have it. Apparently I'm one of the few dumb ones who prefer things the old-fashioned way, even if said old-fashioned way lacks most of the very elements I enjoy from a bodycounting gore-spilling slasher flick. As a franchise, When A Stranger Calls is an interesting series, one that shows how one plot can influence many from a certain horror subgenre and how flexible the slasher formula can be. Granted it's not the best series to cater for my taste of slasher fun, at least each entry has something to offer and I am glad I gave each a try. 

Now with that done, I wonder when are we going to have a horror franchise focusing on the Humans can lick too urban legend?

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