Trivia Originally planned as a sequel to Black Christmas (1974) when John Carpenter' s film Halloween (1978), which had originally been planned as the sequel, became a stand-alone film in its own right. This movie enjoyed the same "promotion" and Black Christmas remained without a sequel.
The score for this movie contained the huge, building chord, which is now famous as the sound for the THX logo.
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When A Stranger Calls (1979)
1st Dec 04
A high school girl babysitter is terrorised by a madman who has killed the children she is babysitting. He escapes the psychiatric hospital 7 years later. It’s not set on Halloween and the killer is not wearing a William Shatner mask. No music by John Carpenter.
This review contains spoilers.
When a Stranger Calls has always been such a curiosity for me. The title suggested that I had in fact seen it before, but the reality was that I had not – I had, on the other hand, seen a few movies that have titles that sound just like it, and from the same period, e.g. A Stranger is Watching, Someone’s Watching Me, etc. Any review I have ever read about this film has had the same thing to say: great first 15 minutes, a half-decent ending, and the rest is just plain boring. Such was the consistency of this critical perspective that my curiosity was aroused to the point where I had to place the little bugger in my Amazon shopping basket. With a price tag of £4.50, it seemed a very fair price to pay just to satisfy by somewhat geeky inquisitiveness. Add a £3.99 bottle of reduced Rioja, and I prepared myself for what was to be either a very boring evening, or a 90-minute surprise upon finding a hitherto ignored gem. Either way, the evening cost under £10, so I’d be happy.
Ten minutes into the film and I was slightly disappointed. A babysitter. Alone in a big house. The children asleep upstairs. The phone keeps ringing. She keeps answering. The man’s voice on the other end of the phone keeps asking, “Have you checked the children?” This is handled fairly well but at the end of the day, what was annoying me was that she didn’t check the children. I know that by convention, characters in horror/thrillers don’t need to have Einstein’s brains or indeed do anything remotely based on common sense but this seemed too ridiculous to me and this almost legendary “first fifteen minutes” part of the film was actually a bit of a let-down. Look, just go and check the goddamn kids, woman! What’s wrong with you?! Don’t get me wrong – it’s not terribly weak but it certainly didn’t have me on the edge of the seat like I was expecting. Any hopes for the rest of the film were not high. The bottle of Rioja was now 1/3 empty and I thought I was going to need another bottle to get me through to the end of this turkey. Shit. I was already planning to flog it on eBay, hoping some idiot might even pay more than the £4.50 I did.
Then the narrative cuts to seven years later. It turns out that the character that was making the calls, Curt Duncan, was actually inside the house and had killed the children in cold blood while they were asleep in bed. Pretty creepy. He was thus placed in a ‘special’ hospital and deemed to be psychotic, only to escape seven years later. This seven years later. The police detective who initially caught him, John Clifford, is now a private detective and still holds one hell of a grudge for Duncan. Clifford has a friend on the force who gives him the information he needs and he makes it clear to his ex-colleague (and us) that when he finds Duncan he’s going to kill him for what he did to those two children. And there you have it. A pretty simple premise, really.
We then follow Duncan as he becomes a vagrant on the streets of what looks like San Francisco. Tony Beckley plays the mentally unbalanced creep very convincingly. The gutter becomes his natural habitat and works to the advantage of everything the film has to offer at this point. The city streets are dark and moody as Duncan is walking around like some sort of confused, vulnerable lost street urchin. He’s definitely on the prowl for something though we have no idea what. This seeming lack of definite direction or intent may have something to do with this film getting a hard time over the years – is this supposed to be boring? As far as I could tell, this uncertainty about what is coming next is there for a reason, serving to displace the viewer’s apathy and reinforce the uneasy tension that already exists. The scene depicting Duncan having a breakdown in front of the mirror in a public toilet is pretty breathtaking. He then develops an obsession with a woman and as he begins to stalk her we have no idea just how far this guy is going to go. Was he cured in hospital? He seems like he wants to be a good boy, though we know exactly what he was once capable of...
It felt like hardly any running time had elapsed between this point and the build towards the climax, but it had. The last twenty minutes or so really sees the film clicking into top gear as we once again see the babysitter from the beginning scene, now a happily married women. She’s at a restaurant having a celebratory meal with her successful husband. The kids are at home. With a babysitter. Can you see what’s coming here? A waiter approaches the table stating that there’s a phone call for her. So she takes it, thinking it will be the babysitter. She answers. “Have you checked the children?” Cue blood-curdling scream as she collapses onto the floor of the restaurant before the final push and closure of the story. Folks, this packs one hell of a punch and I have to say that it freaked me out. The ending, which I will not spoil, continues in the same direction and is at once deadly sinister and unsettling – the kind of stuff nightmares are made of. If it pushes the envelope in terms of logic, which it may well do, this does not matter. It’s one of those classic frightening twists that works beautifully.
Shot with a fairly economic style, When a Stranger Calls does not rely on any fancy effects or gore to either get the point across or make you jump out of your seat. Rather, it tends to build an uneasy and threatening sense of dread, albeit with seemingly uncertain aims. When sound or image is manipulated in any way whatsoever, it is executed at perfect, key moments where the effect is intensified by the action on screen.
Don’t get me wrong – this no masterpiece, but most elements that need to be in place are in place. With a strong cast and decent direction, it follows a slightly different structure and pacing than what you may be expecting. Worth seeing.