For the Scream 101 episode about this very film, click here.
Director: Fred Walton
Cast: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
If you asked me to name a horror film more rabidly iconic than When a Stranger Calls, it would be possible but certainly a bit of a challenge. Tapping into a popular urban legend that resonates across generations, it’s invoked any time someone croaks “Have you checked the children?” or makes a comment about the calls coming from inside the house. But the thing is, everything – and I mean everything – that people remember about the film is relegated to its 20-minute opening sequence. There’s a whole hour and ten minutes here that has slipped the mind of the collective pop culture consciousness, and it is our duty today to reunite these disparate segments once more and review the damned thing in its entirety.
Wish me luck. I’ll need it.
So, the setup. Young babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is tormented by mysterious phone calls asking if she’s checked the children. To be fair, she hasn’t, but it’s a good thing because the killer is lurking in their room, covered in their blood, lying in wait for Jill. And oh, how I wish the movie ended there. But because I must have committed an egregious sin in some past life, it doesn’t.
Smash cut. It’s seven years later. The killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Buckley) has escaped the sanitarium and it’s up to private dick (so called because he’s both a detective and an asshole) John Clifford (Charles Durning) to catch him. Clifford Dr. Loomises around for an hour, being generally unhelpful as he attempts to use potential victim Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst) as bait. Then, about nine hours later, Jill shows up again with two of her own children in tow, just in time for a fateful rematch with the killer.
Only now, the babysitter has become the master.
Here’s the problem with When a Stranger Calls: it sympathizes with its killer. Now, this has been done before to great effect, allowing audiences to get in the mind of the villain, embrace them, and then get the rug pulled out from under them with something truly revolting. That’s certainly a viable channel for horror, but this film goes about it like a dad on Christmas morning who hasn’t read the manual yet. There is nothing redeemable about Curt Duncan, and the film assumes that we’ll come to understand him just because we learn his name and that fact that he’s British for some unfathomable reason.
To be fair, there is a certain physical bent to his physicality, because Buckley was visibly wasting away from a terminal illness at the time, but the vague creepiness of his visage (ranking somewhere between Kane in Poltergeist II and Donald Pleasance in Halloween 6) isn’t horror. It’s just depressing. And Curt Duncan is just plain poorly written, toeing the line between pathetic wimp and Pure Evil, blandly following the machinations of the plot instead of exploring his psychology in any meaningful way.
This is who the movie thought we’d rather spend time with than Carol Kane.
In addition to a shallow, wan villain and a useless, blustering cop, When a Stranger Calls’ middle hour also offers up sheaves upon sheaves of pure, unadulterated, post-consumer boredom. Literally nothing happens. Duncan isn’t caught. Tracy isn’t killed. Clifford learns no useful information. The second Carol Kane steps back onscreen for the final fifteen minutes, the film entirely ignores everything else that has happened, reverting Duncan back to the one-dimensional psychopath mold because the attempt at sympathizing just didn’t take.
Jill Johnson is an absurdly weak protagonist with nerves made of cellophane, but as a vessel for the pure terror of children being put in peril, Kane is terrific. She’s much better as a besieged adult than as a clueless teen (as, at the age of 27, is natural), and this sequence – while containing less instant iconography - is the most gripping of the entire film, including a stellar fright gag that’s head and shoulders above the stiff, slow-paced, but admittedly tense horror of the opening.
If this movie had spent all its time with Jill Johnson, exploring the aftermath of her tragedy and maybe tackling the issue of how she could possibly feel safe as the mother of two children after what she’s been through, it might actually have been great, or at the very least watchable. But as it stands, it’s a good movie sandwich, bookended by shallow but chilling urban legend material, and stuffed to the brim with an excess of low-quality, fatty drudgery.
I know the limitations of low budget filmmaking in the 70’s necessitated a lot of scenes where cops sit around describing crimes to one another, but usually they come packaged with a modicum of scariness. Seven years later, Fred Walton would redeem himself and apply his directorial talents to the goreless but amusing slasher April Fool’s Day, which survives on the strength of its characters. But if you can reasonably place April Fool’s Day on the top of your CV, you’ve done something dreadfully wrong.
TL;DR: When a Stranger Calls is a mindless slog bookended between two genuinely great sequences.
Word Count: 873