WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) Reviews and overview

 

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‘Every babysitter’s nightmare becomes real…’

When a Stranger Calls is a 1979 psychological horror film directed by Fred Walton (The Stepford Husbands; I Saw What You Did [1988]; April Fool’s Day) from a screenplay co-written with co-producer Steve Feke. The movie stars Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst and Tony Beckley.

A massive success at the US box office, taking $21,411,158, the movie was followed by the 1993 made-for-cable-television sequel When a Stranger Calls Back – also written and directed by Walton – and a remake in 2006.

When a Stranger Calls is essentially an expanded remake of Fred Walton’s $12,000 short film The Sitter, which comprised the first 20 minutes of this film. Walton was inspired to turn the short into a feature-length film after the massive success of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The film derives its story from the classic urban legend of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs”.

Tony Beckley, who plays Curt Duncan, was terminally ill throughout production. Because of this, he did not at all fit the description of the killer, but Fred Walton declined to replace him. Beckley passed away soon after he finished filming his scenes. The 1993 sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, was dedicated to his memory.

Plot:

High school student Jill Johnson is traumatised over an evening of babysitting by a caller who repeatedly asks, “Have you checked the children lately?” After notifying the police, Jill is told that the calls are coming from inside the house…

when a stranger calls 2Review:

Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) is the visual embodiment of personal hell, dressed in blood and told through the terrified groans of a young babysitter. A psychopath in between the same four walls you lay your back against in fear, tearing your world limb from limb. This month, the film as notorious for the sleepless nights as the homages it’s inspired comes to Amazon Prime Video, just as the act of sitting looks likely to return to our peculiar world.

When I was in the eatery trade the story told of a crying baby, and the cuddly clown in the corner thought to have caused the fright. “What clown?” the parent would ask, before running out of the restaurant. Quite why my hometown’s iteration folded a clown into the mix I don’t know, but I’m sure every area has its own take on the story that’s been frightening babysitters witless since the ’60s.

The opening twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls represent the original version of the tale told vividly, and perhaps as frighteningly as cinema has ever seen. Carol Kane weaves her way into horror legend as Jill Johnson, the teen taking the calls. “Have you checked the children?” a man asks, increasingly more menacingly with every call.

It’s these minutes that film fans return to time and time again, and in which first-time viewers will see exactly what inspired so many of their favourite scenes from other movies. It’s regarded as one of the most terrifying opening sequences in cinema history, and with good reason. The ringing phone pierces deeper into your brain with every call, until you wince at its very sound. Every corner of the frame demands attention, so fearful does the viewer become of a killer filling it. But more so it’s the subtle touches; the blood-red of her jumper and lipstick, the swinging pendulum of a tall clock, and the glare against each uncovered window that haunts the viewer long past act one. Perhaps for as long as forty-two years after the credits have rolled.

While the first act focuses on the killer’s most notorious crime, the next centres on the man himself. After we learn of his escape from a psychiatric facility, we watch as Curt Duncan (frighteningly enlivened by Tony Beckley in his last screen performance) stalks the streets of Los Angeles, chased by the investigator involved in his initial case, Clifford (Charles Durning). It’s in these scenes, which many viewers may feel have been lifted from a completely different movie to the first, that the film moves away from pure thrill, and into even darker territory.

Duncan is shown to be lonely; wandering aimlessly through the city attaching himself to the people he stumbles upon. In a particularly jarring scene, he stares at his naked body in the mirror and folds over in tears as flashbacks of his crime, and torturous punishment, replay over the reflected image. In these pictures, he is the starkest and most violent example of the film’s central premise, namely the exploration of those foreign agents within each of us that can tear a person apart. For Clifford, he talks of the desire to kill, rather than capture, Duncan, clearly over-stretching his responsibilities.

For Duncan, his focused, maniacal calmness falls away as he recognises his demons. Even Johnson is shown, in a quiet teenage way, to have insecurities; clearly concerned about her friend’s relationship with a shared love interest in an early phone conversation. The telephone encapsulates these feelings; an instrument of increased communication and openness manipulated by evil, bloodthirsty impulse. And Duncan’s self-disgust is no more evident than in a scene in which he hides from Clifford and recounts to himself, “nobody can see me anymore. Nobody can hear me. No-one touches me. I’m not here. I don’t exist. I was never born,” with eyes as wide as the lens.

And though these words chill in the very moment that they’re uttered, it’s their placement directly before the beginning of the third act that truly authorises their enduring ability to scare. In the film’s final scenes, Duncan returns to haunt Johnson, now older, and her sleeping children, bringing his telephoned pleas and corridor-stalking with him. The disparate nature of the middle section from the film’s first and final moments might leave some confused, but it’s important in highlighting the depths of the villain’s obsessive personality, and the torturous elements of his unspecified mental condition.

Reverting to this familiar haunt, Walton threads tension and shocks through the story, where they were missed slightly through the film’s centre. And though the scenes involving Johnson are the most memorable, having frightened their way into the consciousness of horror-lovers across generations, it’s in the relatively shock-free middle that the film is most interesting; chilling in its depiction of physically-manifested personal demons.

Whether you find When a Stranger Calls via the folk tales, the inferior 2006 remake, or its notorious reputation, film fans will find more than the most famous sequences to enjoy. There’s frights, tension, and depth aplenty, and it’s definitely best enjoyed with your phone switched off.

Thomas Hutchinson, MOVIES and MANIA

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Other reviews:

“I admire Walton for not having relied solely on cheap scare tactics to carry the day, and for having the courage to attempt something on the order of a character-oriented thriller, even though he does allow the story to give way to some contrivances along the way.” Jack Sommersby, Monsters at Play

“While it is occasionally effective, When a Stranger Calls is also a somewhat listless film. Fred Walton strains for atmosphere and tension but the story hangs in a vacuum – the characters are virtual enigmas about which we are told almost nothing, and the exchanges of dialogue are banal. It is only Dana Kaproff’s excellent score that gives the film any atmosphere, creating a great deal of menace and tension in all the right places.” Richard Scheib, Moria

“Filmmaker Fred Walton does an absolutely superb job ratcheting up the tension during When a Stranger Calls‘ almost flawlessly executed first act, and it’s clear, too, that Kane’s utterly affable performance plays a key role in the movie’s early success. It’s equally obvious, however, that the film’s hold on the viewer dwindles considerably once that opening stretch concludes…” David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

“Long before Drew Barrymore inadvertently answered her cell, poor Jill found herself in an increasingly demoralizing pickle. In truth, Walton’s film belonged more to the thriller genre than slasher and could not possibly expect to maintain the high levels of apprehension it delivered so effectively in its prologue. What an icebreaker though!” Rivers of Grue

“After the initial opening sequence when the film shifts to the escaped lunatic seven years later, the overall tone of the film also changes drastically from a tense and unbearable horror film to a slow, seedy dramatic thriller almost akin to the depressing character study of Taxi Driver. Quite unexpected, this change doesn’t really work for the film as a whole and these two sections feel like separate films with different agendas.” Tyler Baptist, Sound on Sight

“Quirky actress Carol Kane is very good as the young babysitter at the beginning of the film and as the older near-victim during the last half hour. A terrific opening and ending – and a watchable middle involving the search for the killer – make When a Stranger Calls a must see.” The Terror Trap

“In the ’79 film, the mid-section is pitifully dull. There’s a brief catch-up on the case when the cops learn Duncan has skipped the asylum and then largely nothing happens for about an hour. What differentiates When a Stranger Calls from the other slasher films of the era is that we get to know Curt Duncan a little.” Vegan Voorhees

“While flawed and overlong, When a Stranger Calls ’79 is still a solid enough movie for genre fans that like their slasher flicks more on the respectable side.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

Home viewing releases:

On December 17, 2018, Second Sight is issuing the film in the UK on Blu-ray as a Special Edition.

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.com

Brand new scan and restoration
The sequel When a Stranger Calls Back in HD
New interview with director Fred Walton
New interview with actor Rutanya Alda
New interview with composer Dana Kaproff
Reversible sleeve with new artwork by Obviously Creative and original poster artwork
English subtitles for the hearing impaired for both films
Original Soundtrack CD
A 40-page perfect-bound booklet with a new essay by Kevin Lyons
Reversible poster with new and original artwork
Rigid slipcase packaging

Cast and characters:

  • Carol Kane … Jill Johnson –Vampirina TV series; Ava’s PossessionsOffice KillerAddams Family Values; Transylvania 6-5000Pandemonium; The Mafu Cage
  • Rutanya Alda … Mrs. Mandrakis – Late Phases; The Dark Half; The StuffAmityville II: The Possession; Christmas Evil; The Fury; Rosemary’s Baby (voice only)
  • Carmen Argenziano … Doctor Mandrakis
  • Kirsten Larkin … Nancy
  • Bill Boyett … Sgt. Sacker
  • Charles Durning … John Clifford – Dark Night of the Scarecrow
  • Ron O’Neal … Lt. Charlie Garber
  • Heetu Heetu … Houseboy
  • Rachel Roberts … Doctor Monk
  • Tony Beckley … Curt Duncan – Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom; Assault
  • Colleen Dewhurst … Tracy
  • Michael Champion … Bill
  • Joe Reale … Bartender
  • Ed Wright … Retired Man
  • Louise Wright … Retired Woman

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Buy with Happy Birthday to Me on Blu-ray from Amazon.com

Related:

Black Christmas (1974)

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)

When a Stranger Calls (2006)

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