When A Stranger Calls (1979)
I really believe When A Stranger Calls has gotten an inaccurate reputation for being some terrifying classic of horror cinema. That reputation merely applies to only part of the whole film – the opening and ending. Suffice it to say, this thriller starring Carol Kane as your average neighborhood baby-sitter, Charles Durning as a determined, heavy-set detective, and Tony Beckley as the chilling voice over the phone, is not what one would hope for. Even by the standards of a psychological thriller, this doesn’t offer you much to engage you outside of its opening and ending.
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is hired by the Mandrakis’ to babysit their children while they go out for dinner and a movie. It seems innocent enough, but sometime after the parents leave, Jill starts getting unsettling phone calls from a man simply stating, “Have you checked the children?” This goes on for hours, and terrifies her more and more. She eventually works with the phone company until they reveal the startling truth that there is a killer inside the house with her. Curt Duncan(Tony Beckley) is soon arrested for the murder of the children, and he remains committed to a mental institution for seven years until he escapes. He is soon pursued by Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) through an urban setting until everything comes full circle in the finale.
The first fifteen minutes of this film are what earned this movie its reputation. Despite knowing the full story, as it is a common urban legend, the entire sequence still came off as effectively suspenseful. The whole film really comes together here from the great performances of Carol Kane and Tony Beckley to the direction to the musical score and more. It is a simple, terrifying concept that was executed very well, and would’ve made for an excellent short film, which is exactly what When A Stranger Calls originally was. However, the success of Halloween motivated director Fred Walton to expand the story into a feature. So, he had to find a way to fill up a feature length runtime, and I think the lack of compelling ideas and disjointed tone blatantly show through.
When the film jumps ahead seven years is where the film takes a very lethargic and bland turn. The hunt for the escaped Curt Duncan ultimately turns into a bad episode of Cannon. Charles Durning is a very accomplished and acclaimed actor due to great work done throughout his career, but there’s really nothing exceptional for him to do in this film. There is a decent chase scene between Clifford and Duncan through the urban streets and alleyways, but it is very far from being a highly dramatic sequence. The film loses all strength of suspense and tension that it opened with when it switches gears in style and story focus. Only when we return to Carol Kane’s character at the end, who is now married with two small children, does this film get anywhere near the level of tension demonstrated in the opening sequence.
Some praise this film, others say it’s only worth a few minutes of tension and suspense. I say that anything that this film did with tension was done immensely better in the original Black Christmas. In that film, the caller is exponentially more disturbing as there is no method to his madness. The killer is deranged, and has completely broken from reality. Of course, in actuality, Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls are two different styles of film. The first is a bonafide horror flick. It is the prototypical slasher film, the one that inspired Halloween. When a Stranger Calls is simply a thriller, and isn’t really horror. So, partially why it’s featured during this month devoted to horror, both good and bad, is to correct a misconception about this movie. It certainly had the base elements for a solid horror film with a psychologically disturbed killer on the loose after having terrorized a young woman and murdered two children. Yet, when there are merely only two, justifiably, off-screen kills, a group of mildly disturbing phone calls, and basically, everything sandwiched in between is like some low grade, boring cue out of a second rate, dull crime thriller, you’re not gonna reach the level of a Halloween, Black Christmas, or Friday the 13th.
We follow the killer, Curt Duncan, around so much that, aside from one, late moment inside an apartment, he doesn’t seem very dangerous or disturbing. Mostly, he’s just wandering the streets looking for food, money, and shelter. Simply put, it’s boring. There’s nearly no deep exploration of his character or psyche, as one would expect from a psychological crime thriller. It really is a failure of the screenwriters and director that this lacks so much interesting material. This film was certainly made long before we had multi-layered serial killers populating cinema such as Hannibal Lecter to inspire more fascinating mentally disturbing characters. Still, I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock making this into a masterpiece of suspense with a better script and his remarkable direction. It’s all about substance and context, both of which this film gets wrong for the bulk of its runtime.
The old VHS box cover for When A Stranger Calls once labeled it as “The Terrifying Classic”, but I certainly don’t agree. Again, the first fifteen minutes or so of the film are suspenseful, but the concept had already been done immensely better in other films. When a Stranger Calls just doesn’t cut it for me. You sit around, waiting for this film to pick up for so long that you may lose interest. The ending is even shorter than the beginning, and isn’t quite as well done. Basically, if Carol Kane isn’t involved in the scene, the film doesn’t work. It’s not about her, it’s just the simple dynamic of the storytelling. Curt Duncan has almost no one to prey on outside of her scenes, which obviously makes for a markedly dull thriller. There was a cable television sequel made fourteen years later, and I do believe I saw it at one time. However, that was certainly a very long time ago, and I don’t recall much of anything from it. I’ve never seen the remake, and I don’t intend to. I just don’t think this narrow concept has enough juice to sustain a full feature film without more substance added in, or given more variation from an unseen killer tormenting a babysitter by phone.