A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
Director: Fred Walton
Urban legends have been around for quite some time. These modern versions of the tall tale often take shape as campfire tales, Internet chain mail, and stories heard from "a friend of a friend." Many of the more popular urban legends are the tales of terror: stories about hauntings, gruesome murders, deceased pets. One such urban legend served as the basis for the 1979 horror film When A Stranger Calls. Inspired by one of many urban legends centering around a terrorized babysitter, When A Stranger Calls has become a popular part of '70s horror movies thanks to the minor influence it has had on the genre since then. Though it isn't quite as notable as other movies from the decade, I wonder if it should have more attention than it gets.
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is an ordinary high school student, hired by Dr. Alexander Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) and his wife (Rutanya Alda) to babysit their two children while they enjoy a night out on the town. The children are already tucked in for the night, so Jill naturally assumes it'll be a slow night of homework and chatting with friends on the telephone. But this is a horror movie; things don't always work out that way. During the night, Jill begins to get repeated phone calls that initially begin with the caller hanging up as soon as she says hello. The calls become more and more frequent, and Jill finally decides to call the police for some assistance. The officer that answers her, Sgt. Sacker (William Boyett), merely tells Jill that if she could find a loud whistle and blow it into the receiver next time he calls, he'll probably stop.
The calls continue, as the anonymous caller begins asking Jill if she has checked the children. She calls the police again, and Sgt. Sacker tells her that they'll trace the next call from the station as long as Jill keeps him on the phone for at least sixty seconds. And call back does the anonymous voice, and Jill tries her hand at striking up a conversation. This in turn creates the classic bit of dialogue:
"What do you want?"
The caller: "Your blood... all over me."
He hangs up as soon as she announces she called the police, and Sgt. Sacker immediately calls to inform Jill that the calls are not coming from an outside line... they're coming from inside the house. The caller opens the door at the top of the steps, just as Jill bolts for the front door and discovers the police on the front porch.
Fast forward seven years into the future. The caller, identified as a British merchant seaman named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), has been committed to a mental institution following that fateful night. It turns out that he mutilated both children with his bare hands, and called from the house's second phone line with the intention of killing Jill as soon as she checked on the children. Maybe it's a good thing she decided to hang out in the living room all night. But seven years have passed, and Duncan has escaped from the institution. Arresting officer John Clifford (Charles Dunning) has gotten out of the force and into the private investigation business, and Dr. Mandrakis hires him to track Duncan down and maybe kill him if he feels up to it.
From here, we cut to some cheap San Francisco pool hall named Torchy's. I didn't really have to say the name of the place, because it's a minor, unimportant detail. But come on, the place is named Torchy's. Either that's the coolest name for a bar ever, or the lamest. I'm not sure yet. Anyway, Duncan strolls into the place and starts flirting with a gruff barfly named Tracy Fuller (Colleen Dewhurst). She isn't exactly too taken by his advances, but he keeps on pressing anyway. He's nothing if not dedicated to what he does. But that dedication also manages to annoy one of the other patrons, who more or less defends Tracy's honor by beating Duncan bloody and throwing him out into the street. Duncan ends up following Tracy to her apartment and lets himself in, and tries pulling the "woe is me" card. But she ain't having it, and she boots him out the door. That's what she should have done to begin with. Unless she has no problem with random weirdoes just waltzing into her apartment uninvited and making themselves at home. Anyway, he tries to get back into the house a little more forcefully, but gives that up when he doesn't get very far. I guess he's not as dedicated to his craft as I initially believed.
Shortly thereafter, Detective Clifford is out hitting the streets in search of Duncan. He follows a trail of clues to Torchy's, where he learns that his quarry was there harassing a patron the night before. He gets the patron's name and heads over to Tracy's apartment to speak to her. And let's say that ol' Clifford isn't the most polite person there is. The guy practically kicks her door down trying to get inside and speak with her. Then he has the nerve to act surprised when she doesn't believe he's a real detective. He somehow manages to talk her into letting him inside, and he tells her the story of the two Mandrakis kids. Clifford also suggests that she contact him if she runs into him again. If it were me, I would suggest that she purchase a firearm and shoot him on sight. But I didn't write the movie, so what do I know.
Later in the evening, Tracy returns to her apartment after a few drinks at Torchy's, only to discover that Duncan has broken into her apartment. He restrains her and tries explaining that he only wants to be her friend, but she manages to let out a scream, which prompts Clifford who had been keeping tabs on her from a distance to bust in and break things up. Duncan makes it out the back door and into an alley, managing to get several blocks away before Clifford can even get outside. Maybe if Duncan was running to the closest McDonald's, Clifford would have got him. Not to imply the guy is fat or anything, but I'm just sayin'. Sometime later that night, Duncan acquires a bed at a homeless shelter. And I don't think he's doing too well, because he starts having flashbacks to killing the children and calling Jill, which prompts him to start having a nervous breakdown. I think it was a nervous breakdown; he just started sobbing hysterically while totally naked in the shelter's communal bathroom. Either way, I think any doubts regarding his insanity have been erased with this scene. But in any event, Clifford manages to get a few clues from some wino and tracks Duncan to the shelter. But like last time, Duncan manages to slip out through the shelter's back halls and elude Clifford once again.
So now that that's out of the way, let's find out what's been going on elsewhere. The seven years that have passed have seen Jill Johnson become Jill Lockhart, a mother of two children (Richard Bail and Sara Damman) whose husband Stephen (Steven Anderson) is a yuppie dork with a goofy haircut that makes him look like Weird Al Yankovic. Though to be honest, making that comparison is insulting to Weird Al. Stephen comes home from work late one afternoon and proclaims that he got a big promotion, and to celebrate, they leave the kids with a babysitter while they go enjoy a fancy dinner. While they're enjoying themselves and having a good time, the maître d' informs Jill that she has a phone call at the front desk. She puts the receiver to her ear, at which point she hears a voice from her past: "Have you checked the children?" Duncan has somehow found Jill once again, and the movie comes full circle as Clifford must stop Duncan before he can claim his intended victim from seven years prior.
I asked at the beginning of the review if When A Stranger Calls should get more attention than it does. And to be perfectly honest, I do not know. The middle hour is both tedious and useless, because it doesn't really lead anywhere. The movie would have been better served following Jill for the entire movie, because the storyline that we're taken down changes the movie from a straight horror film into something resembling a poorly done crime drama. Really, if you watch the first twenty minutes and final twenty minutes, and skipped that plodding, go-nowhere second act, then you'd have seen a movie that wasn't too bad at all. And I point the finger of blame squarely at the screenplay penned by Steve Feke and Fred Walton. To be succinct, their script is ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag. It probably doesn't help that Feke's résumé also includes such cinematic stinkburgers like Poltergeist III and Mac And Me.
The characters are so flat and one-dimensional, it's almost insulting. It's as if they were placeholders for characters. Clifford is an abrasive, obnoxious jerk despite being the hero, Duncan is more pathetic than psychotic, and the character of Tracy is thoroughly unnecessary. The only character that's remotely likable is Jill, and that's only because we're not given enough time to hate her like the others. Even then, Jill comes across as being stupid and irresponsible. She continues to gets threatening calls, but she did almost nothing. Sure, it was smart of her to call the cops, but outside of that, she spent every last minute answering these calls. Why not call someone's parents whether it be hers or the Mandrakises right out of the gate? Why not call a friend and ask them to come over and keep her company? Why not even do her job and check the freaking children? While doing that would make the most sense, the whole movie would have been ruined. She has to sit on the couch and continually answer these threatening telephone calls because if she does check the children, Duncan kills her and either he moves to another babysitter like a typical slasher movie, or the movie grinds to a screeching halt. As convenient as her not doing that may be for the story, it doesn't prevent the segment from becoming illogical and unrealistic.
Walton's direction, on the other hand, is not too bad. The first twenty minutes make for one of the more popular sequences in horror movie fandom, and the direction is a large part of it. The first twenty minutes are wonderful, as Walton sets a frighteningly eerie stage as Jill is all alone in this enormous house, yet trapped by a fear that becomes almost claustrophobic and confining. There are two moments in the movie where Walton's direction is particularly notable. One is a quite suspenseful bit where Jill hunts down the source of a bizarre cracking sound, only to discover that it's the refridgerator's ice machine. Ninety percent of the time, that would be used as a cheap scare, like a cat jumping out of a closet, but the way Walton sets it up makes it a very tense moment. The second (and my personal favorite) portion of the segment occurs at the end, when we discover that Duncan is in the house. Jill makes a run for the front door, and just as she begins to unlock it, a door at the top of the steps opens. All we see is light from inside the room shining onto a far wall, a light which is soon filled by Duncan's shadow peering down the steps. My description does not do it justice, as this particular moment is fabulously frightening. But as the movie progresses, the direction along with Donald Peterman's cinematography becomes akin to just about any random cop show from the '70s before returning to a scarier horror-inclined style for the finale. However, the movie does boast an impressive, terrifying score by Dana Kaproff, though the music does get a little overbearing at times.
Lastly, the acting is give or take. Charles Dunning is supposed to be the hero, but he's just a mean, thoroughly unpleasant bully to everyone he meets. The guy treats everyone around him like dirt, and we're expected to root for him? The character isn't the least bit sympathetic, and Dunning's performance does it no favors. Besides, it doesn't help that the guy has two scenes where he chases the villain on foot, despite being a rather corpulent individual. Dunning looked like if he put any more effort into running, he'd keel over from a heart attack. I'll admit that I'm not exactly the paradigm of proper health and fitness, but couldn't they have casted a guy who was a little more in shape? Tony Beckley's performance the last of his career before his death due to cancer on April 19, 1980 isn't as scary as perhaps it should have been. While I have no problems with him at all in the opening, he becomes more of a depressed, simpering wuss as the movie progresses. In only one scene after his big reveal does he actually come across as having a few screws loose, but it doesn't help anything because it's too late into the movie to really prove anything. However, I will say that he did the best with what he was given, since the script is mostly to blame for a lot of the flaws. The best performance in the movie would have to belong to Carol Kane, mostly due to the process of elimination. Kane has garnered most of her fame from playing daffy characters like Simka Dahblitz-Gravas on Taxi and Miracle Max's wife in The Princess Bride, but her work here as the harried would-be murder victim is not bad. While the character of Jill is not exactly the brightest bulb in the lamp, Kane is believable as she moves from somewhat dismayed into terrified out of her mind.
If contained to itself, the first twenty minutes of the movie would have been up there with Halloween as one of the best movies of its ilk. The entire section of the movie is absolutely enthralling, some of the best horror filmmaking I've seen. Sure, there's the big gaping holes in its logic, but that isn't all that distracting. Want to know how good the opening act is? It directly inspired the first thirteen minutes of Wes Craven's love letter to horror films, Scream. Don't believe me? Watch both scenes side-by-side, and tell me if this doesn't seem a little familiar: A pretty blonde girl all alone, getting increasingly threatening phone calls from a deranged psychopath hiding somewhere in her house. The psychopath has already killed someone in the house, and is now after her. Yeah, it could just as easily be an homage to Black Christmas as well, but the similarities are there. I know I've been singing the praises of that segment of the movie for the entire review, but really, it's probably the only really favorable thing I can say about the movie. The movie would have perhaps worked best if the opening had been included in a movie similar to Trilogy of Terror or Creepshow, but as it stands now, it's merely a great ingredient in a mediocre stew. I'm going to give When A Stranger Calls a thumbs in the middle with two and a half stars. But as always, your mileage may vary.
Final Rating: **½