Sometimes They Come Back is here to take a look at the horror genre and its love for remakes! We’ll be discussing both the original movie and its remake (sometimes multiple remakes) in detail before deciding who comes out on top! Are the originals always the best? Let’s find out!
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Whether you’ve seen When a Stranger Calls or not, chances are you are familiar with The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs urban legend on which the opening scenes are based.
Jill (Carol Kane) turns up for her first babysitting gig at the Mandrakis house. The children are already asleep, while Dr and Mrs Mandrakis are headed out for the night. They explain that if they’re just heading out for dinner they’ll only be a couple of hours, but they may head to a movie afterwards which would mean they won’t be home until after midnight.
While on the phone to her friend Nancy, Jill asks her to give the boy she likes, Bobby, her phone number at the Mandrakis house so he can get in touch with her. So later when she’s sitting doing homework and the phone rings, she thinks nothing of it, assuming it will be Bobby. The caller hangs up without saying anything, but rings back moments later to ask Jill “Have you checked the children?”
The caller calls back again with the same message, and Jill is understandably freaked out. Though not freaked out enough to actually check the children, it has to be said. After a few more calls, she tries to call Dr Mandrakis at the restaurant, but she’s missed him by 40 minutes, so decides to call the police instead. Because the caller hasn’t said anything very threatening the police say there isn’t much they can do, apart from suggesting Jill blow a whistle down the phone line in an attempt to deter the caller.
Soon the caller phones back again, asking Jill “Why haven’t you checked the children?” Worried that the caller can see what Jill is doing she pops the chain on the door and phones the police again. Her increased worry and the belief the caller is lurking outside, means the police offer to place a trace on any calls at her number so they can track the calls. With instructions to keep him on the line for at least a minute, Jill hangs up.
“It’s me”, the caller announces when he calls back with his eighth call of the evening. When Jill asks what the caller wants he replies “Your blood. All over me.” Despite the horror of this answer, Jill tires to keep the line open as long as possible, but the caller hangs up when Jill suggests that she’s called the police.
Shortly after the police ring Jill back in a panic. The calls have been coming from within the house, and she needs to get out of there as quickly as possible. Again, with zero regard for the children she’s looking after, Jill heads straight for the front door. As she’s making her escape, we see a door upstairs open, and a man’s shadow is cast across the wall. Jill struggles with the chain but eventually makes it outside to freedom.
With the police on the scene, we find out the children have been murdered, and have probably been dead for hours. They found the caller in their room, covered in blood, and have arrested him.
We cut to seven years later, where Detective John Clifford, who is now a private investigator, is investigating Curt Duncan (the caller) after he has escaped from the state hospital he was being held at. Dr Mandrakis hires Clifford to hunt Duncan down as they don’t think the police are prioritising the case. With Clifford being one of the first on the scene after the Mandrakis children were murdered, he has a personal interest in this case and is keen to help.
After speaking to the doctor at the state hospital, Clifford finds out that Duncan has been taking a lot of drugs, as well as receiving shock therapy for the past six years. And while his doctor doesn’t believe he’ll be heading out to kill children again any time soon, she does admit that there may be some deterioration in his condition now he’s going it alone.
In a bar, we focus on a creepy looking gentleman who is clearly Duncan. After harassing a woman, Tracy, who is having a drink by herself, Duncan gets himself beaten up and thrown out of the bar. He follows Tracy home, and rather than being freaked out about this teamed with his earlier behaviour, she apologies herself for her part in him being beaten up. He invites himself into her home, and while she’s obviously uncomfortable, she manages to get him to leave with promises of a cup of coffee together at another time.
Meanwhile, Clifford has made contact with his old workmate Garber, who was also on the scene at the Mandrakis murders. He gets access to the old files about the case and heads around the city handing out photos of Duncan to see if anyone has seen him since his escape. Duncan is sleeping rough, so people have seen him around, and through this Clifford manages to track down Tracy at her apartment.
Tracy is reluctant to get involved with the police to begin with, but when Clifford explains the extent of Duncan’s crimes, she agrees to cooperate. Apparently, the Mandrakis children were so badly damaged that it would have taken six whole days to put them back together for an open casket funeral, and Duncan inflicted all the damage with just his bare hands.
Now that he feels he’s closing in on Duncan, Clifford tells Garber that he wants to keep working the case alone. Garber thinks it’s because Clifford wants all the credit for recapturing Duncan, but Clifford reveals it’s because he plans to kill Duncan when he catches him to prevent him doing anything this horrific again. Garber is pretty outraged but eventually agrees to leave Clifford to handle it however he sees fit, as long as he doesn’t mess it all up.
Tracy places herself at the bar again for another night of drinking, but Duncan doesn’t show up, so she heads home. Clifford follows her back to her apartment and says he’ll continue to hang around nearby in case Duncan does show up. While Tracy makes coffee inside, Duncan emerges from Tracy’s closet and attacks her. Tracy screams the place down, and Clifford bursts into her apartment as Duncan makes his escape out her patio doors.
Duncan takes refuge in a homeless shelter so he can get a bed for the night, but Clifford gets a tip from another homeless man about where he is hiding and chases him through a series of buildings before losing him in a crowd.
It’s time to catch up with Jill now, and she’s living in a lovely house with two cute children, and her husband Stephen wants to take her out for dinner tonight to celebrate his new promotion. They hire a babysitter called Sharon, though I honestly feel like leaving your kids with a babysitter may be a sore spot for Jill. Though maybe Sharon will actually check on the children more than Jill did.
Sharon mentions how lovely Jill’s photo was in the newspaper the other day, which explains the ominous shot we got minutes before of Duncan’s feet shuffling along a gutter before picking up a particular newspaper.
While out for dinner that night, the couple receives a phone call which Jill offers to take. Assuming it’s Sharon calling, she isn’t worried, but when the caller asks her “Have you checked the children?”, she breaks down screaming in the restaurant. Stephen immediately calls Sharon, who says everything is fine at the house. However, when she goes to actually check on the children, the phone line goes dead.
Jill, Stephen, and the police head back to the house to find everything is fine. The children are safe, and the police offer to drive Sharon home to make sure nothing happens to her. Jill and Stephen head to bed and Stephen pops a loaded gun beside their bed to try and make Jill feel better.
Word of the incident reaches Garber at the police station, and he phones Clifford to keep him updated. Clifford tries to phone Jill to see what’s happening, but her phone line is mysteriously dead.
Jill is out of bed and wandering the house after not being able to sleep. She checks on her kids again, and while they seem fine, her son has somehow acquired a lolly that he didn’t have before, though he’s too sleepy to tell her where he got it. Returning to her bedroom, she tries to use the phone on her nightstand but finds it dead. After she hears some mumbling coming from the closet, she tries to wake Stephen, and it turns out it’s actually Duncan in bed beside her. Luckily Clifford arrives just in time and shoots Duncan multiple times. He confirms that Stephen is responsible for the noises from the closet, but is unharmed, as Jill collapses crying into Clifford’s arms.
When a Stranger Calls (2006)
In the remake of When a Stranger Calls, we get a little introduction to the Stranger (Tommy Flanagan) before he starts harassing our main babysitter Jill, in the form of several vaguely threatening sounding phone calls made to an unseen character called Stacey over the opening credits. The townsfolk mostly seem to be attending a carnival, but in a nearby house, we see a light come on, and the shadow of a man pounce before the night is filled with a woman’s screams.
The next morning, the police along with most of the town have gathered outside the house. We find out that a young woman and the two children inside the house have been murdered, with an unknown person calling the crime in just after it happened. The policeman on scene says the coroner is still “wading through it all”, as the victims were killed with no obvious murder weapon and are pretty much in pieces. This fact is further cemented when we see their bodies being carried out in several black bin bags.
We cut to Jill (Camilla Belle and her fantastic eyebrows), training for her running team during gym class on some weird, ceiling-suspending running track, with a bunch of her classmates playing basketball down below her. This scene is here for two reasons – 1) Jill is really good at running fast and she’ll have to do that a lot later, and 2) we can see her visibly distracted by one of the boys, so we know this is an important (using that word loosely here) plot point.
In what many would describe as a hard case of first-world problems, Jill is grounded for going over her mobile phone minutes after many a serious discussion with her boyfriend Bobby after he kissed her best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy). And to top it all off, it means she can’t even attend the bonfire party that, like, everyone else will totally be at. Jill’s father (Clark Gregg) has arranged for her to babysit for his friend to help pay off the debt she has accrued from going 800 minutes over her plan and not even waiting until after 8 pm. This movie has not aged well.
As her father drives her to Dr Mandrakis’ house, he mentions how far away and remote it is twice in about the space of a minute, and boy is he right. Not only is the house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by a massive lake or dense woodland, but it’s literally the most ridiculous house I have ever seen. It looks like something Jigsaw would have to designed to be a murderer’s dream house.
The walk around the house that Mrs Mandrakis gives Jill in this next segment is pretty intense because we get a lot of information to absorb. It’s basically a walkthrough of all the shit in the house that is going to cause Jill a lot of trouble later. The kitchen is in the back of the house, right behind the massive fucking bird/pond room. If you hear banging about upstairs, it’s just the maid, Rosa. Oh, and our son might appear at the guest house. Who knows? The kids are asleep already, Jill is told not to wake them, and after being given the alarm code in the super secure way of writing it down on a piece of paper, the Mandrakis parents disappear into the night, saying they’ll be home by midnight at the latest.
Soon enough it’s dark, which is really easy to see because the whole bloody house is made out of glass. Jill is also sitting with about two lights on, just to make it even darker. She tries to turn the TV on, but after turning the fire on by mistake and then blasting the stereo loudly, she gives up and settles on her homework instead.
While Jill has a snoop in the Mandrakis bedroom, we discover most of the rooms have sensor lights in them, meaning they turn on and off automatically when someone enters the room. I have a feeling that is going to suck later. Jill makes a hasty escape when she hears a noise somewhere else in the house but discovers it’s just Rosa feeding the birds and the fish in the weird indoor zoo room.
This is when the strange phone calls start for Jill, though to begin with the caller only stays silent for a few seconds before hanging up. Jill calls her friend Scarlet (Tessa Thompson) to talk about her babysitting gig, and Scarlet informs her that Bobby has been asking for her number so they can talk more than the 800 minutes they’ve already been talking. She tells Scarlet to pass the number on so they can finish this thing once and for all.
Just then the alarm goes off, though both Jill and Mrs Mandrakis when she phones assume that it was merely Rosa forgetting to set it properly when she left the house. The prank phone calls start to pick up, once where the caller asks “Is everything okay?” and another where a different sounding caller asks Jill what she is wearing. A third call comes through, and it turns out to be Tiffany, who is in the house with Jill. She tells Jill the garage door was open, and that’s how she made her way inside.
Tiffany offers a poor attempt at an apology to Jill, then offer to do a truce shot with her (which is how I will be mending all my friendships from now on), before agreeing to leave and head off to join everyone else at the bonfire party. Tiffany manages to hit every car key cliche on her way out to her car, first by not having them ready, then by not being able to find the right key, and finally by dropping them under the car where she has to scrabble about blindly to find them. She makes it in the car to safety, but when she has to venture outside again to clear a fallen branch from the road an unseen force rushes towards her.
Both Bobby and Scarlet call Jill from the bonfire party, where apparently no one is getting a good mobile phone reception. Bobby confirms one of the prank phone calls was his friend, but denies any knowledge of the rest of them, and when another weird call comes through from Tiffany’s mobile phone, Jill starts to take action. She phones her dad and Mrs Mandrakis but gets their answer machines both times. So also tries the restaurant the Mandrakis parents are dining at, but they’ve already left. She finally calls the police, who tell her they can’t do much unless the caller is actually threatening her. It’s at this point Jill notices that Rosa’s car is still in the driveway, and assuming that means she’s still in the house, she starts to feel a little better.
As Rosa’s phone number is on the fridge, Jill tries calling her but finds the phone unattended in Rosa’s handbag. The house phone rings again, and this time the caller (finally) asks “Have you checked the children?” Proving herself a more sympathetic babysitter than Carol Kane, Jill heads up to check on the kids and finds them both asleep and alive. Back downstairs the stranger calls back to ask “How were the children?” and Jill understandably freaks out that he can see her. She tries to cover the window in the living room but this house is 98% glass, so it’s a challenge.
She calls back the police and informs them that she’s worried the Stranger can see her, so the police officer agrees to put a trace on the phone line so they can track the caller if she can keep him on the phone for more than a minute. He also says they will dispatch a squad car, but it will take about 20 minutes to get to her.
Armed with a stopwatch Jill is ready to help catch this guy when she sees a light go on in the guesthouse. She tries to phone across to get help, but no one answers. However, she does see a shadow cross the window and so decides to risk it. After locking the door and setting the alarm, she runs very fast (told you it would come back later) across to the guest house but finds it empty. The guest house phone rings, and though she manages to keep him on the line for more than a minute, she soon realises it was the wrong phone line and therefore pointless. Across the water, a light comes on in the house and Jill, assuming it’s Rosa, makes another dash across the grounds. Jill, I hate to break it to you, but Rosa is dead. I know it, everyone else watching knows it. You need to stop wasting time looking for her.
Back in the main house, the phone rings once again, and Jill tries her best to keep him on the phone for the allotted time while also searching for Rosa. On Rosa’s floor we can hear a shower running, and as Jill makes her way towards it, she asks why the stranger keeps calling her and what he wants. “Your blood. All over me”, he replies, and Jill disconnects the call in disgust. The phone rings again, and this time it’s the police informing Jill that the calls are coming from inside the house, just as the power cuts out and plunges the house into darkness. Well, slightly more darkness, because it was pretty bloody dark as it was.
Jill hears a cell phone ringing and turns around to find Tiffany’s body stashed in the corner. She makes a run for it, but because she’s a nice person, she stops in at the kids’ bedroom on the way to save them as well. The kids clearly know something is up because their beds are empty, and Jill finds them hiding in their toybox. As she rescues them, the lights come back on, which is unfortunate because the kids have these spinning lanterns that cast a whole bunch of shapes all over the room, making it very hard for Jill to see what’s going on. However, the Stranger is hiding in the ceiling rafters, and Jill and the children make a hasty escape through a window which leads into (you knew it was coming) the bird room.
Jill follows the sensor lights as it seems the Stranger is making his way closer and closer to them, but it turns out the be the cat, and Jill turns around to find the stranger directly on the other side of the glass. She hits the sprinkler button, plunging the room into a sea of mist, and obscuring the Stranger’s view. Jill hides the kids in the corner and climbs into the water to hide herself under the bridge as the Stranger enters the room. He stands on the bridge right above Jill, and she submerges herself in the water for an extra layer of protection, only to come face-to-face with Rosa’s body. Told you!
It seems like now would be a good time for the kids to run, so Jill signals them, but unfortunately for them, it’s right now that the sprinklers turn off. They make it into the hall, but they’re too short to reach the lock on the door, and so are stuck.
The killer finds Jill’s hiding place, and after spending a lot of time just sticking alternate arms in the water to try and reach her, Jill flips the bridge and makes a run for the door. The stranger grabs her hair as she’s escaping, but she’s badass, and locks the door on her hair and then just rips it out her head to get away. She finally unlocks the front door, but the kids are missing again. Maybe Carol Kane did have the right idea by leaving them behind.
Jill searches the house for the kids, and when she walks back into the kitchen, there’s a little yellow bird sitting on the countertop. Jill then starts to notice more birds all over the place (including one getting munched by the cat which is listed as one of the six dead on IMDB) and realises the Stranger has escaped the bird room. She finally finds the kids, and they make a break for it out the front door, but the Stranger grabs Jill and pulls her inside at the last minute.
This has been more than 20 minutes in movie time at this point, so I would assume in the real world it’s been a really long time and the police are once again letting poor horror movie characters down. A fight ensues between Jill and the Stranger, during which Jill throws a bottle of alcohol over him, and then uses the remote control to turn the fire on, which ignites the alcohol and burns the Stranger. Jill then stabs him through the hand with a fire poker and runs out the door into the police.
The kids are fine, the killer is in the back of a police car, and Jill is taken to the hospital. We hear on the news that the Stranger has been involved in the deaths of 15 people, mainly young women who he harassed beforehand. I feel like if this was the case, the police might have sent someone out to see if Jill was okay a bit earlier.
The film closes on a ‘clearly a dream sequence’ extremely empty hospital, with Jill wandering the corridors after she hears a phone ringing. The phone stops, and when Jill turns around in the in the mirror, the Stranger is right behind her. Jill then wakes up, screaming in her hospital bed, because horror movie encounters are fucking traumatising.
When a Stranger Calls (1979) vs When a Stranger Calls (2006) – The Final Verdict
If we’re talking about which movie has the better opening scene here, there really is no competition. In the 2006 version, the opening scene is there to establish the Stranger as a killer. A killer who stalks babysitters on the phone and then murders them as well as the children. It’s there so we know there’s a threat waiting for Jill later on and that he does not mess about. We don’t really need it to be honest, as I think we could just start with our introduction to Jill and her story, and it would still work really well. That way, when things started to get creepy, we wouldn’t have this prior knowledge of a babysitter-stalking killer going around.
In the 1979 version, however, the opening scene is pretty much the best part of the entire movie. Those 20 minutes are better than a lot of full-length horror movies I have sat through. The action really goes from 0 to 100 in the space of a few minutes, and it feels like we’re living the whole situation in real time with Jill. We don’t know anything about the killer, we don’t know he’s in the house, and we certainly don’t know the kids have been dead pretty much the whole time. To be honest, the character of Duncan is sort of a disappointment after the opening scene.
There’s not too much to say about the setting of the 1979 version, other than the opening house. The whole movie is split over a number of locations, but the opening is just a normal suburban house. This adds to the whole fear level because even though Jill is in a pretty normal location, quite close to possible sources of help, she is still very isolated and very close to being in danger. Much like Halloween (1978) before it, When a Stranger Calls brings the sort of horror that is usually reserved for typically scary locations such as remote hotels or gothic castles right into your front garden. Jill doesn’t make any stupid decisions. She doesn’t ignore a creepy gas station attendant. She’s simply babysitting some local children, and the thought of a threat being present in that situation is far more terrifying.
The 2006 remake slightly misses the mark with this element by chucking the Mandrakis house out in the middle of nowhere. Not only that but they make it this insanely designed house, which is clearly only full of all these weird features to make the tension higher and chase sequences that bit more interesting. I guess they needed something to pad out the story from about 20 minutes to 80 minutes, which even then is a very short movie.
Some elements of the mad murder house do work very well though. The bird room, while a little bit over the top, does add a lot of good elements to the film. Especially when Jill walks back into the kitchen, and we can spot the little bird sitting behind her before she notices it. We know what that bird being free means and it is not good news for Jill.
While the darkness in the 2006 movie is a little too much, as in you just can’t see a lot of the time rather than it being scary, I do appreciate the other things they do to make it hard for Jill to see what is going on. The reflections of the indoor pond, the swirling lights in the kids’ bedroom, and the trees blowing in the storm through the excess of glass all create interesting shadows and shapes on the walls which give a quite unsettling vibe without having to resort to loads of jumpscares, even though there are loads of those as well because the Mandrakis family have a cat, and that’s what horror movie cats do.
In both cases, we don’t really know much about the Stranger and what has lead him to this point in his life. In the 1979 version, we do know that he’s English seaman who’s only been in the country about a week, and apparently immediately got the taste for the blood of children. I do feel though that all the mystery that is set up around Duncan in the opening is sort of ruined in the rest of the film. He spends most of the film slumming around the city looking for somewhere to live, and doesn’t come across as particularly threatening.
We know even less about the 2006 Stranger, apart from the fact that he has been murdering people for some time now. He pulls off menacing quite well though, as he doesn’t say anything that isn’t through the telephone apart from various grunts when he’s fighting with Jill. Though this could primarily be because the Stranger’s voice was playing by a different actor (Lance Henriksen believe it or not). We also don’t see his face until he’s finally captured by the police when we finally get a glimpse of what he looks like.
What both Strangers have in common is their ability to sneak into your house without you knowing they are there, which is more than a little terrifying. The 2006 Stranger also manages to enter and exit the house a number of times, as he clearly heads outside to sneak around the guest house and murder Tiffany.
The Final Girl
In the original When a Stranger Calls, Jill definitely feels like our final girl, even though we spend most of the movie without her. She only spends about 30 minutes of the movie actually being harassed by the Stranger, and we can only assume she is living her life quite happily in the time in between. I do still have a problem with the fact Jill not only never checks the children, but also just makes a run for the door without going to protect them. The kids in this movie are much younger, at three and four-years-old, and I feel like if someone were threatening the kids I was looking after and me, I would be right up there to see if they were okay. I mean, that probably would have seen Jill getting murdered straight away, but at least she would have died with a clean conscience.
In fact, when Jill gets the call from Duncan at the restaurant, one of the first things she screams at the babysitter is asking her when was the last time she checked the children. Perhaps this is residual guilt from the kids dying on her watch seven years earlier.
Remake Jill is pretty badass considering the situation and probably a lot braver than I would have been. Even going to close the garage door when Tiffany tells her it’s open would be too scary for me. I’d just lock myself in a bathroom. She runs across the massive garden twice, never give up on the kids, and tears a huge chunk of her own hair out to save the day and escape the killer.
In quite a strange situation for a horror movie, we don’t actually see anyone die on screen apart from Duncan in the original movie. The kids Jill is babysitting are the only victims of the killer as well, and we merely hear the details of their death, which is enough, to be honest. The thought of someone ripping two children apart with their bare hands is more than enough.
The remake gives us a few extra deaths to make up for the fact that they decided not to kill the Mandrakis children, but we still don’t actually see anyone bite the dust on screen. All we get to see are their dead bodies.
This is a tough one because I am in no way saying When a Stranger Calls (2006) is the perfect film, however, it is one that I enjoy, and enjoy enough to own on DVD. The 1979 version has one of the best opening segments I’ve ever seen in horror. However, the rest of the movie fell quite flat for me. It feels more like a Columbo (1968) episode rather than a horror movie and comes up especially dull after the opening.
Having seen the remake before the original, I wasn’t actually aware that the remake was just an extension of the opening segment, so I was quite shocked and disappointed when the original took the turn it did.
I would say the opening of the original is better than the remake and were it a short film I would be picking it as the winner. But overall, I like the remake better because I like the simple babysitter stalking premise encompassing the whole story and getting the chance to know our final girl a little better, even if it was a bit of a cop-out that the kids survived.