There was a time in horror when a phone call was scarier than a knife. All it took to unnerve someone was a vague but menacing message delivered in a creepy voice. Killers throughout the genre have traditionally used telephones to intimidate their victims. Yet, what happens when the roles are reversed, and the villain is now on the receiving end?

Given their wider availability after the 1940s, storytellers back then naturally thought up ideas revolving around telephones. Films like Sorry, Wrong NumberDial M for Murder, and Midnight Lace not only reflected the times, but they were all based on books. Ursula Curtiss followed the trend when her ’64 mystery Out of the Dark was turned into a William Castle picture. In the original novel, six unattended children’s prank calls lead them to an undiscovered killer. William P. McGivern’s screenplay made adjustments here and there, which included cutting the number of callers down to three. This Joan Crawford vehicle was later remade for television, and it aired on CBS in ‘88. Curtiss’ novel is cited as the source material, but the TV-movie is heavily based on Castle’s adaptation.

Libby and Kit are already best friends in Castle’s film, but Lisa and Kim hardly know each other in the I Saw What You Did remake. The new kid in school, Kim (Shawnee Smith), randomly invites classmate Lisa (Tammy Lauren) to her house for dinner while her father is away. Lisa initially declines before she realizes she can use this as an opportunity to see her boyfriend. What Lisa does not realize, though, is Kim’s house is in the middle of nowhere. To pass the time until her secret rendezvous, Lisa plays a game of prank calls with Kim and her younger sister, Julie (Candace Cameron Bure).

At first these calls made to random people in the phonebook are innocent. Lisa then pushes the envelope when she suggests telling the other party, “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” This leads to a few amusing responses, but Kim and her accomplices’ grim yet otherwise baseless allegation has a profound effect on Adrian Lancer (Robert Carradine). The troubled musician, who is in the throes of a mental breakdown, just finished murdering his girlfriend when Kim called. Believing she somehow witnessed his crime, Adrian sets out to find her.

With both her face and name so emphasized in the promotional material, unaware viewers would think Joan Crawford is the main star of the original I Saw What You Did. On the contrary, Crawford plays a minor character; Amy is the killer’s unrequited lover who stumbles upon his grisly misdeed. In Fred Walton’s remake, the hopeless character is replaced by Adrian’s concerned brother Stephen (David Carradine). Doing away with the nosy and pathetic neighbor results in a smoother thriller. Stephen exercises a similar kind of unconditional love for Adrian, minus the needless melodrama of the ‘65 film.

Castle’s adaptation has the hardest time establishing a single tone. One minute the film is a “woman in jeopardy” thriller, and the next it behaves like a vintage family sitcom with music to match. The remake is a great deal more consistent on account of Cynthia Cidre’s always foreboding script and Fred Walton’s focused direction. Walton keeps a tight rein on I Saw What You Did, never straying from the story right in front of him. Over the course of his career, Walton has shown a flair for manifesting people’s fear of the unknown and disrupting complacency. Marry that with Cidre’s perceptive study of teen girls and the social pressures they live under, and this remake is more involving than its basic premise would suggest.

Kim and Lisa not being friends from the start allows for a different kind of overarching tension having nothing to do with murder. Kim is first shown to be the brainy transfer who her teacher uses to shame the less academic students. Bit by bit it becomes clear Smith’s character is inexperienced in everything but school and chores. This is why she reaches out to the class rebel who falls asleep in class and is chronically tardy to gym. Having come from an all-girls’ school, Kim feels lost around boys. She secretly hopes being friends with Lisa will soon change all that.

When it comes to dating, someone like Kim requires a substantial learning curve. Lisa, on the other hand, is in a hurry to grow up and thinks everyone her age should do the same. She fails to ponder Kim’s real needs as she pushes her toward meeting Adrian. With Kim being so unseasoned in all things romantic, she yields to Lisa’s impulsive behavior under the belief she actually wants what is best for her. However, the girls’ nascent friendship is ostensibly axed once Lisa’s ulterior motive comes to light. Mending things is more of a challenge now, seeing as the two teens have no apparent obligations to one another. The path to young friendship here is certainly less simple than others, but in the end, Kim and Lisa’s reunion is a whole lot more rewarding to watch because of the obstacles involved.

This version of I Saw What You Did plays out like a long dream. The music in particular implies a surreal quality and serves as a constant reminder of how bizarre this story truly is. The film opens with Adrian’s dreadful video reel set to “Mr. Sandman”. A highly synthesized and haunting theme composed by Fred Walton’s associate Dana Kaproff is regularly heard, keeping viewers trapped in this bad dream. The increasingly uneasy events of this awful night finally culminate in a frightful ending that can only be the work of someone’s worst nightmare.

Fred Walton’s talent for creating suspense only got better with time. His mastery of slow-building terror along with the sharp screenplay make for a considerable reimagining of a notable yet uneven film. Fans of classic phone terror are strongly advised to take this call.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

Fred Walton I Saw What You Did

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