Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When A Stranger Calls (1979) - A Review

“Every babysitter’s nightmare becomes real…”

Considered to contain one of the scariest scenes in horror history, When A Stranger Calls has achieved cult status simply due to the first 20 minutes of the film. The story of a babysitter and a dangerous man upstairs evokes terrifying imagery, and has become an archetypical scenario for hundreds of horror movies to follow (i.e. The House of the Devil). Inspired by the success of Halloween in 1978, Fred Walton decided to revisit a short film that he had done entitled The Sitter, which became what we now know as When A Stranger Calls, one of the first of many home invasion films to come out of the horror genre. 

Title: When A Stranger CallsDirector(s): Fred Walton
Writer(s): Steve Feke, Fred Walton
Producer(s): Doug Chapin, Steve Feke
Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Release: October 26, 1979
Running Time: 97 Minutes


Jill Johnson is a beautiful young girl who has been hired by Dr. Mandrakis and his wife to watch their two children for the night while they go out for dinner and possibly, a movie. She is told that the two children, who are getting over a cold, are already asleep and to do everything possible to avoid waking them as Mrs. Mandrakis had a difficult time getting them to sleep. 

What starts as a normal night quickly turns to fear, as she begins receiving phone calls asking  “Have you checked the children?”. When the phone calls escalate to threats of wanting to “Drip with her blood”, Jill finds out that the phone calls are coming from within the house. After a narrow escape that ends in the death of the two Mandrakis children, the stranger is shipped off to a mental institution. After seven years pass, Curt Duncan escapes and becomes a homeless vagrant and loner. After trying to befriend a rather unfriendly middle aged woman in a bar leads to him being beaten, he finds Jill once again and continues where he left off, still wondering if she’s checked the children, only this time it’s her own children that he’s set his eyes on…

This film contains one of the most memorable horror movie moments of all time. It’s so infamous, that it’s borderline impossible to go into without the big reveal having already been spoiled. It’s like the Planet of the Apes of horror films. Unfortunately for this film, it greatly loses steam after the initial 20 minutes of the film. 

The film starts strong, we see Jill getting settled in the Mandrakis’ living room, chatting with a friend and studying her schoolwork. When the phone calls begin, the sense of dread is built quite well. Through the effective use of the soundtrack, the film begins picking up pace rather quickly (along with your heartbeat) and you’re quickly pulled into the fear along with Jill (Carol Kane). While I feel that Kane’s acting got off to a bit of a rough start, she recovered quickly and I feel that her performance during this iconic scene was pretty good. It was enough to get me on her side, and sit with bated breath as I watched her inch closer to the door, all along hoping just as much as she does that she makes it out alive. 

Unfortunately for this film, once the initial scene has concluded the film devolves and seems to lose not only its pace but its character as well. We do not see Carol Kane until the final 15 minutes of the film, which leaves us with close to an hour of what seems like dead space. The entire mood of the film seems to change, and it seems like Walton wanted to put this film together as quickly as possible in order to cash-in/compete with the success of Halloween at the time.  I feel that if he had focused on the events of what happened in the Mandrakis’ house for the entirety of the film he could have created a subtle, terrifying and ominous film that would have greatly surpassed the film that we are left with today.

I feel a lot of the change of mood was due to the fact that it then became less of a slasher film and more of a crime-drama. After Jill’s harrowing escape, we are following John Clifford (Charles Durning), a Private Investigator who investigated the original murders and is now in hot pursuit, attempting to track down Duncan before he can kill again. There is very little suspense due to the fact that we now know who this “stranger” is, what he looks like and where he is. He is no longer the ominous voice on the other end of the line which is what makes those first twenty minutes so absolutely terrifying. 

Another factor, and also the most unfortunate, is that of Tony Beckley’s performance of Curt Duncan. He was terminally ill during filming which caused his portrayal of Duncan to be so weak and frail that it made it difficult to believe that he was capable of killing and mutilating two small children beyond recognition with only his bare hands. It greatly reduced the threat that Duncan imposed, so much that at times you feel bad for him in the same way you’d pity a homeless puppy. Walton refused to replace him, and Duncan went on to pass away shortly after he concluded filming his scenes. 

1. The opening scene.
This truly is one of the greatest scenes in horror history. The suspense is masterfully created, and thus, it has gone on to become iconic and ingrained in the minds of horror fans the world over. It’s only unfortunate that the film did not maintain the same air of suspense that the first 20 minutes did.

1. Disjointed storyline.
While there was a coherent storyline, it seemed that it may as well have had two different directors. While the first twenty minutes are pieced together perfectly with a coherent flow and idea, it seemed like the final hour and fifteen minutes of the film were quickly thrown together. It is very apparent that this film was an expanded short film, and that’s not exactly what you want when you are going to head down that path in the first place.

2. Tony Beckley. It is such an unfortunate case, with what happened to Tony Beckley. You can’t hold it against him, the man had a terminal illness, but I do feel that Walton should have recast the part and given it to an actor who could play the part of a psychopath capable of ravaging a human being with their bare hands.   

While it’s not a terrible film, it’s not exactly an amazing film either. I still believe that it’s a film that every horror fan should sit down and watch, if nothing else than for that first scene. There’s a very valid reason as to why it’s considered one of the scariest scenes of all time. 


- Rg Lovecraft

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