When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Every Babysitter’s Nightmare Becomes Real…

Theatrical poster for 1979's When a Stranger Calls

While watching the Mandrakis children, teenage babysitter Jill Johnson continually receives crank phone calls that ask her “Have you checked the children?” When the police trace the call, Jill is given the horrifying results: THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! Jill escapes with her life, but the children are not so lucky. Seven years later, her tormentor returns for more…

Tony Beckley as seen in 1979's When a Stranger Calls

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is part slasher and part police drama, with a rock solid beginning and ending. It’s too bad that it sags so much in the middle. Great performances, moments of high tension, and genuine scares on either end prevent this from landing in the waste bin. Instead, it just kind of balances on the rim…

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is considered something of a classic, but it’s difficult for me to whole-heartedly agree. Without question, the opening 20 minutes are truly exceptional and have influenced a number of other horror films, including the (also exceptional) opening to SCREAM. The final 20 minutes are decent enough, even if the climax does come too suddenly to be as effective as it should be. It’s that hour in the middle, though, that really kills me, where it shifts dramatically from a horror film to an occasionally dull procedural drama—giving this film a memorably bizarre structure, if nothing else.

For the most part, the tension is palpable at all the right moments and the bulk of the performances are solid and believable. Carol Kane as the besieged Jill Johnson comes across as suitably naïve and vulnerable as a teenager, and a fully-formed woman as an adult. I only wish we got to see a bit of her transformation somewhere in between. Tony Beckley did what he was physically able to as the deadly Curt Duncan, but he was dying of cancer at the time—indeed this was his last role—and wasn’t able to command as much intimidation as the character really required. He did, however, perfectly capture Duncan’s emotional torment and turmoil. The scene which has Duncan weeping naked on the floor of a public restroom is as unexpected as it is unsettling. There are few special effects to speak of, as this movie relies more on the threat and implication of violence than it does on the actual portrayal of it. Unless you’re a jaded gorehound, you won’t even miss it.

Naked Tony Beckley, as seen in 1979's When a Stranger Calls

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is based on the familiar urban legend “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs”, which itself is likely based in fact—the unsolved 1950 murder of young babysitter Jannet Christman in Missouri. The connection between this real murder and the urban legend is explored in the chilling and thoroughly entertaining documentary KILLER LEGENDS (2014).

To say that the opening segment of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is an excellent short film in and of itself is pretty on the nose. In fact, that sequence is a remake of the 1977 short film THE SITTER, also from director Fred Walton.

Aside from THE SITTER and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, Fred Walton directed the segment An Unlocked Door from the pilot episode of the 1985 reboot of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, which showcased a group of nurses terrorized by a serial killer; the semi-classic slasher APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986); THE ROSARY MURDERS (1987); the TV movie I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1988), based on the same Ursula Curtiss novel as William Castle’s film from 1965; 1996’s THE STEPFORD HUSBANDS; and a few scattered others. He returned to the characters that made him famous in 1993 with the belated sequel WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK, made for cable channel Showtime.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS was scripted by Walton and Steve Feke. Feke never exactly set Hollywood on fire, but at least this movie got him away from LET’S MAKE A DEAL, where he got his start. He also gave us episodes of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING and BEASTMASTER, and was partially responsible for MAC AND ME (1988).

Carol Kane as seen in 1979's When a Stranger Calls

Carol Kane has nearly 150 credits to her name, but if you’re a fan of her horror chops, check her out in THE MAFU CAGE (1978), horror-comedy TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000 (1985), the TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today (1990), ADDAM’S FAMILY VALUES (1993), AVA’S POSSESSIONS (2015), and of course WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK. Tony Beckley can be found in cult favorites THE PENTHOUSE (1967), THE LOST CONTINENT (1968), THE ITALIAN JOB (1969), GET CARTER (1971), IN THE DEVIL’S GARDEN (1971), BEWARE MY BRETHREN (1972), and DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (1975).

Charles Durning played investigator John Clifford, who carried the middle of the film. His catalogue of roles is quite expansive, but genre fans can find him in Brian DePalma’s SISTERS (1973) and THE FURY (1978); DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981); SOLARBABIES (1986); and Fred Walton’s THE ROSARY MURDERS (1987). He also reprised his role of Clifford for the film’s sequel.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS was remade in 2006 by screenwriter Jake Wade Wall and director Simon West. This time around, they dropped the whole “seven years later” angle and concentrated solely on the incidents that unfolded in the first 20 minutes of the original film. This choice made sense, as this is the portion of the film that everyone remembers and loves, but the results were less than spectacular. All tension and atmosphere were eradicated and we were given a toothless reimagining that spent more effort giving us a believable explanation as to why a modern babysitter didn’t have access to a cell phone than it did in trying to offer any solid scares.

Torchy’s Bar, by the way, which served as an important location in the film was a real bar at 218 ½ W. Fifth Street in downtown Los Angeles. The bar was also seen in 48 HOURS (1982) and BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (1985), among others. Torchy’s has since closed down, but the building remains intact—minus the fabulously tacky signage. All of this is probably for the best.

It seemed like a pretty dangerous place. Just look at what happened to Curt Duncan.


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