Fred Walton, 1979
Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley
Jill Johnson, a young babysitter, is watching two children when she begins receiving menacing phone calls telling her to “check on the children.” Disturbed, she calls the police, but they ignore her. The calls continue and the police begin to track them, discovering that they are coming from within the house. Jill survives, but the murderer, Curt Duncan, has killed both the children by tearing them apart with his bare hands.
Seven years later, Duncan breaks out of the insane asylum and an original officer on the case, John Clifford, is determined to catch him. Duncan is portrayed sympathetically - he lives on the street, is rejected by women, and is beaten up by patrons of a bar. Clifford, obsessed with killing him, nearly catches him one night, but he escapes and remembers Jill. The adult Jill, now married and with two children, receives a call from Duncan when she and her husband are out to dinner. Panicking, she returns home, but the children and their babysitter are fine. Later, Duncan waits for her in the darkness of her own home.
When a Stranger Calls has long been known for it’s chilling opening sequence and loosely regarded as a minor ‘70s horror classic. It’s certainly not the best ‘70s horror film, but has enough to offer fans of the genre that it’s worth checking out at least once. The opening, which is basically spoiled by the film’s trailers, is one of the creepiest in ‘70s horror. When Jill asks “What do you want?” The killer replies, “Your blood. All over me!”
Director Fred Walton, who does a competent job here, also made April Fools Day and another horror film with Charles Durning, The Rosary Murders. He handles the scenes of suspense very capably, but is unable to keep the script flowing evenly. Director of photography, Donald Peterman (Point Break, Star Trek IV), began his career with this film and there are a number of nice shots, particularly of the grimy, bleak city nights.
Part of the reason the script is so disjointed is because the project began as Walton’s short film, made up only of the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls. There is also the issue that the core tale is based on an old urban legend, “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” so the overall plot is a bit predictable. The script is essentially split into three parts. The first involves the murderer, Curt Duncan, killing two children and terrorizing their babysitter. The film resumes several years later, after Duncan escapes from of the psychiatric hospital and an ex-cop, now private detective hunts him down. The third, final act has Duncan somewhat randomly discovering the adult Jill and again terrorizing her and her own children. This divided plot makes the film feel confused and interrupts the building tension.
In the middle of the film, a strange amount of time is spent on Duncan’s personality and day to day life, which feels forced and also like filler, biding time before the script can again connect Jill and Duncan. Clifford’s obsession with Duncan is also not particularly clear and the scenes of them running around the city are just comical. There is also the issue of diving the film between city and suburbs, another disjointed element.
The typically quirky Carol Kane (Annie Hall, Princess Bride) was an unwise choice for Jill Johnson, because Jill is loosely the protagonist and should be immediately likable. There also aren’t any scenes that develop her character, outside of the fact that she is clearly a terrible babysitter. We learn that the children have been dead for hours and she’s never once checked on them, a fact the killer reminds her of by continually calling.
The casting is off all around. Though Tony Beckley (The Lost Continent) is effectively creepy as Duncan, he was terminally ill during the production and does not look physically capable of tearing children apart. The rotund, prolific Charles Durning (The Muppet Movie, Tootsie) is the best actor in the film, but his character is an odd foil for Duncan and it would be better if more time was spent exploring his motivations and obsession with the killer.
When a Stranger Calls is available on DVD. A made for TV sequel came out in 1993 and the film was remade in 2006. Though it isn’t the finest ‘70s horror film, it’s still a fun, worthwhile entry.