A terrified young baby-sitter… an incessantly ringing phone… and whispered threats set the stage for one of the most suspenseful chillers ever filmed. Carol Kane stars as the baby-sitter who is tormented by a series of ominous phone calls until a compulsive cop (Charles Durning) is brought on the scene to apprehend the psychotic killer.
Seven years later, however, the nightmare begins again when the madman return to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and mother. No longer a naÃ¯ve girl – though still terrified, but prepared – she moves boldly to thwart the maniac’s attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion.
eyelights: the stunning first act. the mood it creates. the tension it builds. its structure. its aggressive yet effective score. its long shots of Los Angeles.
eyesores: its abrupt and unlikely ending.
“Have you checked the children?”
For years I’d heard of ‘When a Stranger Calls’, the 1979 horror cult classic. I’d even heard somehow of its belated sequel and recent remake. But its title meant very little to me, and I’d heard no first hand account of the picture, so I largely dismissed it; I had no intention of seeing it.
But it was released on blu-ray in a double feature with ‘Happy Birthday to Me‘, which I had been looking to purchase. Basically, I wound up with ‘When a Stranger Calls’ by default. So I decided to give it a chance. After all, if it’s a cult classic – it couldn’t possibly be all bad, right?
Well, I’m so glad that I did.
While ‘When a Stranger Calls’ is hardly Masterpiece Theatre, and certainly not the best horror film I’ve ever seen, its first act alone cements its reputation: It’s one of the most tension-filled, white-knuckled twenty minutes of cinema that I’ve experienced in a long, long time.
The set-up is very plain: Jill goes to the babysit for Mr. and Ms. Mandrakis late one night. As she’s doing her homework, the phone rings. Expecting a call from Bobby, a boy she likes, she picks up. Except that it’s not Bobby. And the creep keeps calling and calling and calling…
I won’t say much more about that bit other than it’s all in the way that co-writer and director Fred Walton set up the sequence, isolating Jill in that big empty house, in the shadows, with long shots, cutting to various inserts, highlighting the long-drawn silence, the emptiness.
And then the phone rings. And it keeps ringing. Louder and louder. Slow zooms take in the tension growing on Jill’s face. At first, the person hangs up. On the next call, a creep speaks. He might hang up again the next time. Or speak. And who knows what he will say to Jill…
If you want something spooky and you haven’t seen this yet, just see the damned movie without reading any more about it. Don’t let anything spoil it. Just know that the rest of the picture isn’t nearly as intense – instead, it’s far more focused on humanizing its antagonist.
But I loved almost every minute of it.
Because it displayed an unusual level of empathy, because it showed the man’s loneliness, because it highlighted his mental struggles, and because it suggests that his slow mental unraveling is a by-product of being homeless, struggling to survive on the streets by himself.
And yet, it still manages to be disquieting: our antagonist, Curt Duncan, is clearly unwell, and he stalks people he wants to befriend – given his past behaviour, we are constantly worried about what he will do next. We’re always on edge, even when he seems mild-mannered.
Duncan is played by Tony Beckley, in his last appearance. He was terminally ill at the time, which I think may have helped his performance: Duncan looks unwell, ragged, desperate, if not defeated. He’s just clawing at anything to stay afloat, and Beckley completely embodies that.
Charles Durning plays John Clifford, a private investigator who has been hired by Dr. Mandrakis to find Duncan. He’s an atypical hero in that he doesn’t remotely have leading man qualities. He’s not even in good enough shape to hunt Duncan down. But that’s part of his charm.
Colleen Dewhurst is Tracy Fuller, a woman that Duncan accosts in a bar one night, and proceeds to hound. Dewhurst makes Tracy utterly implacable – wary of Duncan, but not especially nervous. She even allows Clifford to use her as bait and walks the city’s shadows at night.
Carol Kane plays Jill, both in the opening sequence and later in the movie (which takes place seven years after the first incident). She has a tendency for over-emoting at times, but her big round eyes grow immeasurably, giving her a haunted look. She’s a terrific prey.
Since the picture follows an unusual structure (for the genre), what with a nerve-wracking first act that would typically be in the closing position, followed by a near-character study, followed by a more standard finale, it keeps its audience on edge, unsure of what could come next.
But the fact remains that the rest of the picture is carried by the wake of the first act (which is a shot-by-shot remake of Walton’s own 1977 short film, ‘The Sitter’): the sheer terror from those first 20 minutes permeate the second act as we follow and get to know Duncan.
He may seem a bit mollified by that point, but he’s disturbed just enough that it brings echoes of what he’s done, leaving us troubled. In fact, it’s the main reason why this second part works: balancing empathy and wariness is a near-impossible feat, but they converge well here.
On the one hand, we see Duncan hanging around food kitchens and shelters, panhandling and scrounging, and then, in one of the most eerie moments of the picture, he looks at his naked self in a mirror, with flashes of the most traumatic moments in his life shredding apart his sanity.
The second act has some weaknesses, leaving us mildly incredulous, but it’s only the very end that drops the ball, with a final attack by Duncan and a surprise appearance by Clifford, who comes out of nowhere to save the day. How he got there is unexplained and fairly unlikely.
But it doesn’t nag enough to diminish the tension that was being built in this mirror sequence to the opening act. In fact, that Walton would playfully bookend the picture this way seemed very appropriate to me; reversing Jill’s role seemed like the correct thing to do here.
I approve, even if it’s sloppy in its execution.
In any event, ‘When a Stranger Calls’ was a nice surprise. I had very low expectations, but I can see now why it’s a cult classic and how it influenced other films of its ilk, including the meta-heavy ‘Scream‘. I know for a fact that this film will become a regular in my blu-ray player.
Date of viewing: August 29, 2016