No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

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