Join me as we take a trip down memory lane, before cell phones and instant notifications and DM’s and everything else that makes me sound like an informational paranoid and crotchety old man (actually, I am!). Let’s take a look at an urban legend stretched out to feature length with Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979), a mesmerizing-then-decent-then-gripping suspense thriller.
Released by Columbia Pictures stateside in late October, When a Stranger Calls was a big hit with audiences, returning over $21 million against a $1.5 million budget. Critics were quicker to hang up, however; although nearly all praised the opening 20 minute set up, filled as it is with a promise impossible to match. That’s okay though, because I still think When a Stranger Calls is ultimately worth staying on the line for.
Babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane – Addams Family Values) arrives at the Mandrakis (Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano) household to look after their two children while they go out for dinner and a movie. With the children already in bed upstairs, Jill settles in to do her homework. The phone rings, she answers; a whispered voice on the other end enquires, “Have you checked the children?” Jill, rattled, quickly hangs up. It’s a short time before the phone rings again, with the same query; this time Jill asks if it’s Dr. Mandrakis on the line. It is not. Jill calls the police, who inform her that if he calls back, keeping him on the line for a minute will allow them to trace the call. He does, and she does (barely), at which point the police call her back and tell her to get out because the calls are coming from inside the house! As she heads for the front door, she sees a shadowed figure descend the stairs, opens the door and is greeted by…cop John Clifford (Charles Durning – Dark Night of the Scarecrow) before passing out. The intruder is captured on sight, but the children were brutally ripped apart before poor Jill even made it upstairs.
Fast forward 7 years; we quickly learn that the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley – The Italian Job), has recently escaped from a mental institution and Clifford, now a P.I., is hired by the Mandrakis’ to track him down. Which suits Clifford just fine; this was the case that broke him of police work, and he makes it his mission to find Duncan and…well, not return him to justice, but return him to the earth. Let the chase begin.
When a Stranger Calls is a film of three parts, two of which are great, and one that is less than so yet still engages, albeit at a slower pace. The first 20 minutes are a reworking of a short film by Walton (April Fool’s Day) and co-writer Steve Feke (Mac and Me) called The Sitter; in the wake of Halloween’s massive success, they were offered a chance to expand it into feature length. The film’s popularity hinged (and still does) on this opening salvo; undeniably suspenseful, it’s still talked about as one of the tensest scenarios in horror.
As far as urban legend to horror trope ratios go, When a Stranger Calls’ “the calls are coming from inside the house” was pretty new at the time, at least for general audiences; those who originally witnessed Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (’74) were familiar, but that didn’t gain a real footing until the video boom of the ‘80s. So, the conceit worked, because it was true; this grizzled old fool was a kid in the ‘70s, and I used to prank call my mom on the downstairs line in our home all the time. Audiences could very much relate to the plight of this terrified teenager – a plausible ploy told with razor-sharp precision.
Part two abandons Jill altogether and instead focuses on Clifford’s pursuit of Duncan, and this is where most viewers tune out; after the terse surroundings of an unknown home and an unwanted stranger, the straightforward procedural and character portrait of act two can’t help but land a lot softer. (Clifford takes care of the former while Duncan fills the latter slot.) But I think it works well enough due to fine performances from Durning and Beckley, who was terminally ill at the time of filming and brings a palpable anguish to Duncan’s extended storyline; Colleen Dewhurst (The Dead Zone) is effective as a barfly that helps Clifford trap Duncan, even if the sub-plot feels a little unnecessary.
Part three brings Jill back, happily married with kids of her own; when Duncan sees her name in a local paper he decides to track her down and finish what he started, leading to an effective climax between Jill, Clifford, and Duncan tying everything together into a neat and bloody bow. Kane’s vulnerability as Jill sells every moment she’s on screen, which isn’t enough, but at least bookends the film.
When a Stranger Calls will always be known as “that babysitter movie”, which is enough to permanently place it in horror’s hallowed halls. But if you stick around, you’ll also witness a peek behind a monster’s mask before he dons it again. Besides, don’t you want to see if Jill checks on her own children?
When a Stranger Calls is available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment as part of a Double Feature with Happy Birthday to Me.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966)