Directed by: Fred Walton
Written by: Steve Feke and Fred Walton
Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Tony Beckley, Collen Dewhurst and Ron O’Neal
“Have you checked the children?” – Caller
Babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) survives a frightful encounter with lunatic Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who is subsequently locked away in a mental institution for the murder of two children. Five years later Duncan escapes and John Clifford (Charles Durning), the cop who arrested him and who’s now a private detective, vows to find and kill him.
Once outside Duncan prowls around in a constant state of unease and fixes on Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), a lonely and weary lady who frequents a local bar. Hot on Duncan’s heels is Clifford who’s inches away of catching his prey but falls short. As fate would have it Duncan finds out where Jill lives and pays the former babysitter a visit with payback in mind.
A classic in the slasher movie cycle but completely dependent on mood and old fashioned suspense instead of blood and gore; “When a Stranger Calls” is in many ways a trend setter but differs from most slashers with it’s emphasis on the killer’s psychological state and the detective who’s hunting him.
Distinctly divided into three acts; Act 1 is the most famous and the reason why the film is so fondly remembered among horror and suspense buffs. The first 25 minutes or so are solely devoted to Jill’s encounter with a frightening caller while babysitting. The tension mounts as the calls become more menacing and climaxes with one hell of a reveal that’s guaranteed to give viewers a jolt.
I was lucky enough to see the film at a young age and can still vividly remember how effective the scene is and I was scared out of my mind. Ever since then many films have paid the scene tribute in various forms and most (if not all) know the big twist. But it was, and still is, a very effective first act.
Act 2 starts when Duncan escapes and Clifford sets out to hunt him down. A great deal of time is devoted to Duncan as he nervously tries to get close to Tracy, a woman he meets at a bar. We also see him prowl the city streets in a state of unease as he’s got nowhere to go and he beds down in a homeless shelter. Clifford comes close to catching him and it’s clear that Duncan’s days are numbered.
It’s no small feat for an actor playing a lunatic killer of two children to elicit a bit of sympathy from the viewer as he wanders around and tries, in his pathetic way, to get close to a woman simply for companionship. Clearly a deranged mind trying to survive in a harsh environment and being hunted; this sorry individual comes across as a simpleton who’s beyond help. Tony Beckley (terminally ill during shooting and he passed away shortly after) gets in touch with something otherworldly and plays Duncan in a memorable fashion making him both pathetic and scary at the same time. The always reliable Durning turns in a forceful performance and displays well his character’s obsession with catching Duncan. Noteworthy also is Dewhurst in an understated performance as Tracy; a woman so clearly burned after many bad life experiences.
Act 3 starts when Duncan accidentally finds out where Jill is residing. Going out with her husband to celebrate; Jill gets a rude awakening when Duncan phones her at the restaurant with the chilling words; “Have you checked the children?”. Jill arrives home and the children are fine. But is Duncan in hiding somewhere close by?
Act 3 effectively closes the film with a chilling reunion between babysitter and lunatic and a suspenseful climax. Director Fred Walton certainly knows how to stage thrilling set pieces and Acts 1 and 3 are prime examples of how to wring the most possible tension out of a scenario. Skilfully shot and edited; the beginning and the end bring about two magnificent suspense sequences that have ensured the film’s legacy in the horror/suspense annals.
But it’s Act 2 that brings about the Cult-factor and leaves a lasting impression. Duncan makes for such a pathetic character and that makes him much more believable as a nut but no less scary. Madmen are often given such enviable traits (brilliant minds, physical attributes etc.) that us average Joe’s could only wish for and have such big personalities that they come off as larger than life. In short; they just look and feel like complete fiction. Not so with Duncan who comes across unnervingly real and how we would imagine a damaged mind could function. He’s not cool, not happy and not overly bright but he’s very dangerous. It’s not a far stretch to think of him as suicidal as he seems to want punishment for his crimes but on his own terms…so to speak. In the end; “When a Stranger Calls” is a fascinating little horror film in both the traditional sense and in the offbeat sense.
When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)
I’m going to be a cheerleader for this particular release of the film in physical format. There’s a host of interesting extras but the biggest treat is the Hi-Def presentation of the film’s sequel; “When a Stranger Calls Back”. Made for TV with a low budget; director Walton returned with a surprisingly effective effort that brought back Carol Kane and Charles Durning.
Babysitter Julia (Jill Schoelen) is terrorized by an unseen intruder. She escapes but the two children she was babysitting disappear. Fast forward a few years later and Julia is convinced someone is stalking her but the only one who believes her is Jill Johnson (Kane) and she calls on her friend John Clifford (Durning) to get to the bottom of things.
It’s quite remarkable how Walton manages to create another edge-of-your-seat opening that’s just different enough from the first time around yet equally as effective. The climax is also very well handled and suspenseful and overall “When a Stranger Calls Back” is a solid film. It’s not as interesting with the middle chapter but Kane and Durning turn in fine work and Jill Schoelen is quite good as the victim.
Kane’s character has been shaped by her ordeals from the first film and now she helps women who are terrorized and teaches self defence among other things. The film is quite lazy in the writing department as it never spells out what happened to her marriage or even mentions her children as it could have been placed in a single conversation with Durning or the like. Again the film’s evildoer is presented quite early, around midway through, and given a little bit of an introduction but he’s not nearly as effective as Curt Duncan but fairly memorable all the same.
While the first film was very stylish in some shots and juxtaposed with fairly grim visuals as well the sequel looks fairly flat visually which is to be expected for a TV movie of the period. That said; the magnificent opening and closing segments are well handled in all areas and truly deliver. All in all a decent sequel and not to be missed by a fan of the original.
I always encourage the acquisition of physical copies as I dread the day when films will only exist as files on computers and through streaming services. The companies that put the effort into making the discs, create new artwork or reproduce the originals, issue booklets and much more deserve all the financial support they can. Therefore, I will always mention the Blu-rays or DVD’s (and yes; also, if I review something streamed through Netflix or the like) even though I gain nothing from it personally.