random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

DVD REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (1979) ***

When a Stranger Calls (1979) poster

Rated R
97 min.
written by: Steve Feke & Fred Walton
produced by: Doug Chapin, Steve Feke, Larry Kostroff, Barry Krost & Melvin Simon
directed by: Fed Walton

I've been trying to get around to catching up on some suspense thrillers from the late 70's/early 80's lately. Some of the films on my list were seldom seen while others were eventually deemed classics. This film came a year and a day after John Carpenter's "Halloween" and has a similar feel to that slasher classic minus the body count. I can only imagine that once "Halloween" made it big both the idea of a teenage female babysitter being terrorized by some psycho became a hit for writers and parents had a hard time finding babysitters. Although, this is around the time that hack and slash films became popular and this film is often considered a horror film, it is definitely far from it.

Director Fred Walton creates a taut, uncomfortable, suspense thriller that steers clear of any bloody butchery or anything else that would become horror conventions of the genre. There's no sex scenes, no body counts, and really don't see any killing period. No instead we get proof that what is alluded to, what is unseen yet described is often more frightening.
The first 30 minutes or so of the film delivers one of the most real, eerie build-ups I've ever seen.

A young woman named Jill Johnson (
Carol Kane) shows up at the home of a wealthy doctor and his wife to watch their kids for the evening as they go out for dinner and a movie. As they're on their way out, the mother tells her that the kids are asleep and they've just gotten over bad colds and were a bit problematic, but that they shouldn't be hard to deal with as long as they don't wake up. Jill gets comfortable, talks to her friend on the phone about a boy named Bobby that she's interested in, and everything seems to be going just fine until the phone starts ringing.

Yes, hence the film's title and you know it's coming but Jill doesn't. That's what makes it all work. Sure, this kinda scenario has been played out but only because of this movie, least that's what it feels like. This isn't Drew Barrymore in "Scream" paying homage to all the classic phone scares of the past, no this is Kane before Simka and before she yelled "Humperdink! At first she doesn't pay much mind to the calls as they're just hang ups. But when the mystery man on the other end asks her 'Did you check on the children?' and then calls back a few minutes later only to ask her the same thing, she starts to get concerned. She calls the cops and after some pleading they agree to trace the call for her, only to report back to her with the news that whoever is harassing her is doing so from inside the same house. She runs outside, the cops show up, and in addition to a terrified babysitter they find a madman covered in blood and the corpses of two dead children.

Carol Kane-When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Seven years later, the man who killed the children, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), wasn't imprisoned because he was found insane. Instead, he was locked away in a mental hospital where he was subjected to electroshock therapy and a strict regiment of pills. Whether or not that was good for him or if his brain was fried, he managed to escape the and makes his way back to the city he once called home where he finds a place among the homeless population of the town and becomes obsessed with Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), a barfly he meets at some dive. He's awkward and creepy yet seems somewhat unassuming and harmless, he's no Hannibal Lector that's for sure. The intense scenes where he harasses is all the more nerve-racking cuz the woman is a tough barfly (as Dewhurst usually is), you fear for her cuz you know what she doesn't. That's the sign of a successful thriller.

Former Inspector Clifford (
Charles Durning) who was involved with the original case is now working on his own as a P.I. and when the parents of the children that Duncan murdered find out he's free, they hire him to catch him. With the help of some of his old friends in the department (one of whom is played by Ron O'Neal, that's right, Superfly) he sets out to stop Duncan permanently. That's right, portly Durning is determined to be an action hero as we see him chasing his psycho up and down city streets. Whoa, easy there Charles, you're no Joe Don Baker! Here's where the film goes from "a stranger calling" to a winded detective one step behind.

The character of Duncan is played with the right amount of uneasiness but Beckley also makes you feel for him a little too. He's unhinged in his head but he knows he doesn't have a place in society and can't seem to figure out any kind of social skills. You'd figure he'd be an easy man to catch cuz he's just wandering about but of course if that wasn't the case that wouldn't bring him back to Jill Johnson. Sure enough, we catch up to Jill who's now married (to a Mike Brady, circa afro-sportin' look-alike) with two children of her own. Kane still radiates the same terror when she finds out Duncan is back, even moreso knowing what this could possibly mean for her family.

From the film's introduction to the coda, Kane is great in the role. She looks innocent and naïve and is the perfect counterpart to the maniac on the other end of the line. As she gets scared, so do we. While a lot of people are familiar with her from her more popular comedic roles, she had actually done a good amount of dramas even before this. She's delivers the serious tone of this film and her unusual speaking voice just adds to her character's naïve qualities.

While I do think it's a great thriller that should at least be seen once, the movie is not without it's flaws. There are a couple of moments where you wonder why the characters are doing what they're doing, particularly when Tracy opens her apartment door after Clifford pounds on it like a lunatic. Anyone with half a brain would be locking the deadbolt and calling the cops if someone came to their door and behaved that way. Also, even in the late 70's, it would seem odd that someone could escape from a mental hospital but then again Michael Myers did and so did Randal P. McMurphy. But really, a double child murderer? Wouldn't there even be any evening news coverage or public outcry? And how does Duncan find Jill again and for that matter why did he pick on her to begin with? Thankfully the movie gets more than enough right that we're able to overlook the logic gaps and enjoy the bigger picture for what it is – a tense and well made thriller that relies not on cheap effects or jump scares but on purely psychological suspense and effectively build tension.


Special Features:

Move along, nothing to see here. It looks like the DVD was just slapped with a new label, likely in hopes of cashing in on the 2006 remake.

The Skinny:
  • Walton has remained a minor director who has frequently dabbled within the psycho-thriller genre. Fred Walton’s other films of interest are:– the slasher film April Fool’s Day (1986), the excellent Catholic psycho-thriller The Rosary Murders (1987) and the radio talkback host psycho-thriller Dead Air (1994). Walton then went onto make a whole host of genre tv movies, including a remake of I Saw What You Did (1988), another psycho-thriller Trapped (1989), Homewrecker (1992) about a rogue AI, and The Stepford Husbands (1996).
  • Walton returned to make a TV movie sequel When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), along with Kane and Durning who were now investigators helping stalked babysitter Jill Schoelen. The film was later remade, along with a host of other 1970s/80s horror films, as When a Stranger Calls (2006) by director Simon West.
  • Filmed in Brentwood, Los Angeles and Sacramento, California.
    Originally planned as a sequel to Black Christmas (1974) when 'John Carpenter' 's film Halloween (1978), which had originally been planned as the sequel, became a stand-alone film in its own right. This movie enjoyed the same "promotion" and Black Christmas remained without a sequel.
  • The movie was heavily based on the urban legend, "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs".
  • Number 28 on Bravo Channel's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
  • This would be Tony Beckley's last film. He would die from cancer a year later.
  • The concept of a killer calling another telephone in the same house is a durable urban legend, and is also used in the films Black Christmas and Scream.
  • Although the movie is fictional, there was an incident happened similar to the plot once shown on a TLC special where a man keeps calling the babysitter as she is downstairs reading a magazine while the boy is in bed. The man called at least 5 times, then the Police, however unlike the movie, the, Police came immediatelly, the boy wasn't murdered but a sock was tied to his mouth, and the Police caught the man. The man said his last words slurred.

Here's a hilarious lil promo for the movie

The climax to the first part of "When a Stranger Calls" makes you

scared of Charles Durning instead of what Carol Kane is scared of!

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