Director: Fred Walton
Screenplay: Fred Walton, Steven Feke
Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley, Gene Lythgow, Jill Schoelin
Year: 1979 / 1993
Duration: 97 mins
BBFC Certification: 12
Both, When a Stranger Calls and its sequel, When a Stranger calls Back are psychological horrors based on the urban myth of a babysitter being tormented by a psycho-killer who turns out to be in the house. Whilst When a Stranger Calls has some good cinematic, tense, chilling horror scenes, its later ‘made for TV’ movie sequel, lacks some of the brilliantly executed suspense of the original.
Directed by Fred Walton, the original film is based on a short film directed by Walton called The Sitter. This debut feature length film co-written by Walton and Steven Feke, although clearly influenced by Black Christmas 1974 (Bob Clark), gives the audience a slightly different take on the slasher horrors that were starting to emerge towards the end of the 1970s.
Being an avid horror fan, I couldn’t wait to watch this film and I’m glad to say it didn’t disappoint. Well not all of it. When a stranger Calls is very much a film of 2 thirds. The opening third is superb and the ending third is pretty good too. However, the middle of the film is a little slow and lacking in the same atmospheric feel of the beginning and end.
The opening scene of this film is very tense, and it is no coincidence that Wes Craven later introduced his film Scream 1996, in the same way. Even when you know what is about to happen (assuming you already know something about the urban myth) each call fills you with more and more dread as Walton expertly directs the build-up backed by a great music score by Dana Kaproff.
The film starts with just another night of babysitting. When Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arrives to babysit, the two Mandrakis children are already in bed. Like a good mother, Mrs Mandrakis lets Jill know that there is a contact number on the fridge door, should she need it. The Mandrakis’ leave and Jill is now alone. Sometime later, she receives the first call, considered just a prankster trying to scare her. Soon after another. This time the suspense starts to mount a little more as we see Jill start to realise that this is not just one of her friends messing around. And so, the tense chill starts to kick in as the remainder of this scenario plays out, the final straw being a phone call back from the police who inform Jill that the calls are coming from within the house.
We are then taken 7 years into the future. This is where the film starts to lose some of its velocity. Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) the original murderer has escaped from the mental asylum in which he has been incarcerated for the past 7 years. Finding a bar to shelter within, Duncan attempts to seduce a drunk middle-aged woman (Colleen Dewhurst) only to find himself beaten to the floor by some locals. Does this stop him? Of course not. This only fuel’s Duncan’s madness further as he starts to stalk the woman, closely followed by John Clifford (Charles Durning) who had been part of the original arresting police crew, and who since learning of Duncan’s escape, vowed to kill him at all cost.
Finally, we are fully returned to the suspense and chill of the beginning of the film when Duncan returns to torment Jill, who is now married with her own children. The final scenes playout much like the first until Clifford arrives and fulfils his desire to stop Duncan, once and for all.
The cinematography at the beginning and end of this film is easily comparable with that of other more renowned horror / slasher movies of the time such as Halloween 1978 (John Carpenter) and Black Christmas 1974 (Bob Clark). Director Walton manages to expose the audience to shots shrouded in darkness with just a few angles of light falling upon the subject of the shot, casting an eeriness of shadow typical of horror. This accompanied by the musical score of Dana Kaproff and the great performances of its cast, secure an almost breath-taking chill as we find ourselves ever closer to the edge of our seats before the climax of the scenes.
In contrast, the middle section has less of this eeriness, focussing more on bright artificial light, almost institutional, and more in keeping with the later psychological thriller Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer 1989 (John McNaughton) as we start to delve deeper into the psyche of Curt Duncan in his decent back into the killer he once was. Although clearly not as intense as its bookend counterparts, the cinematic direction and score works well with the narrative, even if the narrative itself does not quite fit in with the style and tone of the rest of the film.
Apart from the cinematography and musical accompaniment, the other area that should be commended are the performances of the films cast. Carol Kane portrays both a convincing scared teenage babysitter at the beginning of the film and a distraught mother at the end. Charles Durning also plays his part well as the pursuing Private Investigator, hell bent on bringing Duncan to justice. In all, even supporting actors were believable in their performances. But the best performance was undoubtably that of British actor Tony Beckley as the psychotic stalker and murderer Curt Duncan. Beckley perfectly captures this ordinary character with some serious underlying issues, without going totally over the top. In fact, his demise into his former psychotic self, is what keeps the middle section of this film alive.
The sequel to this classic film, When a Stranger Calls Back 1993, works very much along the same lines of the original. Starting in much the same way, our new babysitter Julia (Jill Schoelin) is terrorised by a man at the door, rather than by telephone. Made for TV, this movie, also directed by Walton, lacks some of the chilling, nail-biting tension of the first but does feel more complete as a movie.
In this sequel, Walton takes the film down the route of psychological thriller rather than horror and to be fair, he does it quite well. It focuses more on the torment that Julia goes through in the 5 years after the babysitting event where madman William Landis (Gene Lythgow) once again tracks her down, presumably to finish what he started. As a result, the film is much slower to get started but it does support the narrative better than the similar section of the original film which is more disjointed.
The film opens in the same way as the original – the babysitter arrives, the children are in bed already and the parents quickly exit for a night out. After checking on the children and sitting down for the night to do her homework, Julia hears a knock on the door. Obviously aware of her potential danger, being (more or less) alone in a strange house obscured from neighbours, she refrains from opening the door and merely asks who it is from inside. A man answers, saying that he has car trouble, and can he ring for help. At this point we are not entirely sure if he is a psychotic killer or genuine in his request. Julia agrees to phone for him and he is later seen through the window leaving the property. On checking the phone, we assume that it has been disconnected as Julia presses on the handset with no dial tone. Later the man returns, and following this, events pan out much like the original, the madman William Landis (Gene Lythegow) finally running away and a discovery that the 2 children are missing.
5 years later, Julia is in college and starts to find odd things happening around her apartment, Landis back from wherever he went ready to continue his reign of psychological terror on the girl. Soon after, we see the return of John Gifford (Charles Durning) and Jill (Carol Kane) from the original. Jill now a self-defence teacher, joins in the hunt to find the madman.
As the movie progresses, Julia and Jill become quite attached and Jill speaks to the girl of her own ordeal many years ago, telling her to be vigilant in checking her apartment and assume nothing. However, Julia is later found beaten almost to death. Somehow, Clifford manages to find out about Landis and tracks him down to an unsavoury club where Landis performs a quite disturbing scene with a faceless dummy. This then leads him to a hotel room where he finds proof of Landis’s intent in photographs of Julia, unconscious in hospital.
In the final scenes, Walton manages to recapture the chill and suspense of the original as Landis hides out in Jill’s apartment in one of the best ways, I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. A slip up by Landis leads the way to his ultimate demise as Clifford shoots him dead, saving Jill from his brutal hands.
Although overall the movie is reasonable for a sequel, there are a few points that the film fails to fully explain. In one scene it is hinted that Jill is a recovering alcoholic but there is no mention of her family from the first film. Are we to assume that Jill’s alcoholism was a result of the trauma at the end of the original film and that is why she is no longer with her family? Not clear. The psycho killer Landis is also at one point mentioned as searching for the mother of his children who went missing, but this is never really explained.
On the plus side, performances from the cast were just as strong as in the original. The opening scenes of Jill Schoelin’s Julia being terrorised by the madman is perfectly believable and it was great to see the return of both Charles Durning as the Private Investigator, John Clifford and Carol Kane as former victim come self-defence teacher, Jill Johnson, both giving strong performances. Although not seen for much of the film, tending to lurk in the background as a voice rather than a physical presence, Gene Lythgow portrays the role of troubled and psychotic madman Landis perfectly with just a hint of creepiness.
Overall both films are well worth a watch, with the first 20 minutes of both films a triumph in horror cinema. Although neither film is perfect, the original film definitely has more of a horror vibe, whilst the sequel is much more about the suspense. If you’re after gore and guts, this is not going to do it for you, but if you prefer intense psychological horror, both are worth a watch.
This new edition Blu-ray is released by Second Sight and includes the following extras:
• Brand new scan and restoration
• The sequel When a Stranger Calls Back in HD
• New scan and restoration of the original short film The Sitter
• Reversible sleeve with new artwork by Obviously Creative and original poster artwork
• English subtitles for the hearing impaired for both films
• Directing A Stranger : An Interview with director Fred Walton
• Carol Kane on When a Stranger Calls
• Rutanya Alda on When a Stranger Calls
• Scoring A Stranger : An interview with composer Dana Kaproff