When A Stranger Calls (1979)
5 out of 10 stars.
Even though Halloween, John Carpenter’s 1978 tale of a masked killer stalking babysitters on the titular holiday, is regarded (by some at least) to be the first slasher movie, it wasn’t until 1980’s Friday the 13th that the innovations solidified into conventions. It was the blockbuster success of that film that cemented the slasher as a new subgenre of horror. The period in between those two films was a rather shaky one, and 1979’s When a Stranger Calls reflects that. After a masterfully suspenseful first twenty minutes that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat, When a Stranger Calls quickly, and without warning, turns into a confusing mess and winds up an entirely disappointing failure.
Directed by Fred Walton, the movie opens with a very promising first act as babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) comes to watch the children of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis. The couple leaves for their night out, and the kids are already in bed, so Jill makes herself at home. An hour into her stay, the phone rings. She answers, expecting a call from a boy, but there’s no response on the other end. Jill hangs up. The phone quickly rings afterwards, only this time a man eerily asks her, “Have you checked the children?” At first she blows it off as a prank, but soon the calls become more frequent and menacing, and it becomes clear to Jill that this is no prank. It may be all-too-familiar to a lot of moviegoers these days, but with pacing, sparse music, light and shadow, and Kane’s performance, Walton creates a tense, nail-biting sequence that, to this day, effectively builds to a heart-stopping climax. This is also where the film offers a memorable plot twist that has since become ingrained in the popular consciousness (even though Black Christmas used it five years before). Sadly, the rest of the film does next to nothing to deliver on the promise.
The movie moves ahead seven years, as private investigator John Clifford, played by Charles Durning, is called upon by Dr. Mandrakis. Clifford was the detective called to the scene of the crime, and who later put the maniac behind bars. We learn that the madman behind the phone is English immigrant Curt Duncan, played by Tom Beckley in his final role (and who was actually ill during filming). Duncan has escaped from a mental hospital, and the doctor hires the P.I. to track him down. At this point When a Stranger Calls unexpectedly ceases from being a straight-ahead slasher and becomes somewhat of an urban crime thriller…and a really poor one at that. For close to an hour the film meanders along as Clifford searches the seedy city streets for Duncan, who’s now a homeless derelict wandering about and pestering a middle-aged woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst). None of what made the opening sequence of the film so nerve-wrecking is present here. The pacing is dreadfully dull, there are no thrills to speak of, and the story goes nowhere. Beckley is a good performer, but the mystique surrounding his character is all but evaporated, and Duncan is reduced to a pathetic, socially-awkward creep. Durning just plods along in a role that is so clichéd (the hard-nosed, no-nonsense cop) we can’t root for him. As if to apologize for the sudden shift in direction, Walton tacks on a contrived ending that has the killer once again attacking Jill, who somehow managed to be adjusted enough to get married and have two kids in a span of only seven years. Carol Kane’s character in this part of the movie is so underwritten it resembles more of a parody of her earlier appearance.
So how could a picture start out so effectively frightening only to quickly squander all that potential? According to the Internet Movie Database, the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls was shot as a short film entitled “The Sitter”. After the success of Halloween, though, Walton decided to expand the script into a feature. It’s painfully obvious that there wasn’t a lot of work put into building upon the initial story, resulting in a movie that has no idea what it wants to be. If it had remained what it was originally intended to be, it could’ve been the best short horror film ever made. Instead, When a Stranger Calls stands as a wobbly bridge between the Hitchcock-ian past and the slasher future. If you do wish to watch this movie, watch it for only those first twenty minutes!
~ Doctor Splatter