When a Stranger Calls is one of those mild genre classics that has somehow eluded my 31 years on this planet. Despite my mother's constant quoting of "The call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!" at several opportune moments in my life, I just never got around to Fred Walton’s 1979‘s's thriller.
Quick Plot: Everybody's favorite sugar-voiced dame Carol Kane plays Jill, a young babysitter whose charges are fast asleep when she reports for duty and supposed to stay that way all night. Before you can say Jamie Lee, Jill is stuck fielding creepy phone calls asking, very simply, "Have you checked the children?"
Now most responsible babysitters would take the deep breather's words to heart, but since Jill was told that the kids should not be disturbed, we'll give her the benefit of the doubt, especially after a police officer on the line assures her that since the door is locked, everything will be fine.
Ahhhh, the 70s.
When a Stranger Calls is probably most well-known for its opening, and it's easy to see why. Director Fred Walton sets a simple, incredibly tense tone as Jill sits in dim lighting, a villainous telephone never too far from her shaky reach. From those first twenty minutes, When a Stranger Calls earns its place as one of the decade’s most memorable thrillers.
It’s a shame that the rest of the film can’t sustain that energy. Charles Durning (not to be confused with Charles S. Dutton, unless you’re me and can’t EVER remember which is which) takes over as John Clifford, the policeman who collared the phone killer, an insane Brit named Curt Duncan. Seven years later, Duncan has escaped and John is on the case as a private detective to track him down. The film rotates between John’s investigation and Duncan’s hobo-like existence as the latter spends his days hitting on Colleen Dewhurst and getting into bar fights.
This isn’t uninteresting. Played by then-ailing actor Tony Beckley, Duncan is not your typical horror slasher. He’s scrawny and weak-looking, the kind of character you might smell from two cars down on the subway and walk a little closer to the street to avoid on the sidewalk. On one hand, he’s far less intimidating in nature than the kind of mad man we usually meet in these kinds of films. Made just one year after Halloween changed the film industry, When a Stranger Calls isn’t yet a slave to the formula that would come to define the genre. While Duncan is somewhat easily knockdownable, he’s also unsettlingly real.
The downside of not working with an established formula is that sometimes, you just don’t know where to go. The film starts out as a taut thriller, transitions into grizzled detective yarn, flirts with psychological drama, and finally ends on a note akin to Lifetime horror.
Enough can’t be said about this film’s opening, which was incredibly tense even if I knew what the final punchline was going to be. I could only imagine how effective the reveal would have been for fresh eyes in 1979
Focusing on three different characters--Durning’s detective, Duncan the killer, and Kane’s Jill--could certainly work, but the film spreads out the coverage so oddly that it’s hard to ever latch onto whose story this is
It's nice to offer your babysitter free reign of the fridge, but emphasizing that it includes low-FAT yogurt might be taken the wrong way
The best thing about having Charles Durning pursue you on foot is that even if you haven’t eaten in a few days, you’ll probably be able to outrun him pretty easily
When someone keeps asking you if you’ve checked the children, maybe it’s time to, oh I don’t know, CHECK the children
When a Stranger Calls isn’t necessarily a genre classic, but it’s well worth a visit if you’ve never seen it. Though the opening sets a tone that the rest can’t come close to living up to, the film features strong, interesting performances from the type of cast you just won’t normally find in this type of story. Director Fred Walton (who went on to work primarily in television movies with the affectionate exception of April Fool’s Day) knows how to build suspense, and while it’s not maintained in a typical way, When a Stranger Calls still manages to make for some tense and worthwhile viewing.