Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Film Vs Film: When a Stranger Calls

It was SuperBowl extravaganza over the last few days for our American cousins and during this typically quieter period at the weekend box office, a teen thriller with “no real stars and no real budget” crept in to the number one spot with a cool $22m. The film is When a Stranger Calls, a remake of the 1979 cult classic of the same name.

As a script reader, occasionally you will be asked to do a variation on the standard coverage and routine of read a script/do a report. This may come in the form of synopsising a book, chapter by chapter, so that execs can skim read what it’s all about without them actually reading the book. Or it could mean going against your script reader principles (pause to chuckle) and doing ‘positive coverage’ for a script they like even though flies buzz around it because it stinks so much.

Three years ago, I was given the 1979 version of When a Stranger Calls to assess for remake material. Note: not the script, or a treatment, or an outline of what the remake might look like. I was simply given a VHS copy of the 1979 film and told to do a standard report but to focus on any merits it had for remake potential. As a reader, you welcome these diversions. It’s a break from the norm, you get to watch something instead of read it, and you feel genuinely important to the development thinking of a project that may or may not go into production.

Here’s what I wrote (***spoilers of the 1979 version, and possibly remake version, ahead***):

“This film is an effective combination of teen suspense and a cat and mouse cop thriller. It tells a simple, straightforward story and doesn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to enthral the audience. As a result, the story line is well paced and structured to ensure that the frights and suspense are well managed but the story is a little bit too straightforward, and it doesn’t take full advantage of its neat premise and interesting characters.

At first, the story presents itself as a teen suspense flick when a babysitter is terrorised by an anonymous caller who wants her blood but the twist is that the anonymous caller is actually phoning from inside the house! This is a good and inventive premise but just when you’re thinking that you’re in for 90 mins of the babysitter and the psycho, this plot line is used only for the first act before the story pushes forward to seven years later to begin a cat and mouse cop thriller between the arresting officer and the escaped psycho.

This cat and mouse scenario takes up all of the second act, a good hour, before making a welcome return to the babysitter, now married with kids herself, for the third act showdown between her, the psycho and the arresting officer. So in reality, the ‘When a Stranger Calls’ title and the nuisance phone calls are only one part of a broader story involving the psycho’s uneven state.

This film was made in 1979 and did good business – it has a 1993 TV sequel, “When a Stranger Calls Back” - but its appeal for the modern market as a remake is not that great because of the familiar genre and similar story lines that have cluttered up the multiplex over the last few years. The first act involving the terrorised babysitter and the anonymous caller has been done far more stylishly and gorier in the ten minute opening sequence of “Scream” involving Drew Barrymore.

The second act cat and mouse cop chase is a fairly routine case of getting close to the killer but him getting away at a crucial moment, and the final act showdown between the three main characters is your typical confrontation that leads to a sudden death for the psycho. Because the film doesn’t crank up the cheap shock tactics, the story and suspense works quite well, and perhaps with a stylish 21st century make over, this film could be worth investing time and money in, but the central idea and story line seems too familiar and common, and it does not seem wholly original or inventive to reappraise this specific material for a remake.

This is not to scoff at the notion of a remake but it just gives the impression that the premise and story line lacks a certain cutting edge, and does not sit up with enough appeal or potential. The characterisation of the main characters is curiously two dimensional and we do not get any insight or gain valuable information about the private eye, the psycho or the babysitter. This is regretful but the performances make up for this characterisation short fall, in particular English actor (the psycho naturally) Tony Beckley giving a convincing and sympathetic performance.

It could be argued that there is no protagonist for this film because it divides itself between the babysitter and the private eye for top billing but their story lines effectively interweave so that the audience doesn’t feel detached from their particular fears and concerns. The simple and clear structure of the story is quite basic but effective and a 21st century makeover would need to beef up the style, structure and characterisation of the piece to make it have true appeal for the modern market.

As it stands, it’s a modest and entertaining suspense thriller that does the job nicely but its premise and story line have now become too familiar and common place so it is unlikely that a significant audience would appreciate a modern remake of well-known ideas.”

$22m in its opening weekend. A budget of $15m. "No real stars, no real budget". Some clever peeps in the film industry are congratulating themselves. But the title of the sequel cracks me up: When a Stranger Calls Back. Hitting our cinemas in 2008?


Tim Clague said...

Hey Danny. How did you feel at your Doctors episode?

Danny Stack said...

Oh, see the comments under the 'London or Bust' post as it came up there...