From the DVD case: A terrified young babysitter, an incessantly ringing phone, and whispered threats set the stage for one of the most suspenseful filled chillers ever filmed. Carol Kane stars as the babysitter 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 returns to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and mother. No longer a naïve girl, though still terrified, but prepared – she moves boldly to thwart the maniac’s attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion. (1979, color)
Mark says: When a Stranger Calls (written by Steve Feke and Director Fred Walton) is based on an urban legend that has been around at least since the 1960s (see The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs). The story is told in three parts, with Carol Kane’s character serving as bookends to a detective drama played out in the midsection.
The opening sequence sets the tone immediately. A teenage Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, who’ll I’ll always affectionately remember as Latka’s bride, Simka, on TV’s Taxi) strolls with a stack of schoolbooks to a babysitting job. It’s an early misty evening, and streetlamps shine predominately in the eerily quiet suburban neighborhood. By the time Jill reaches her destination, the credits have rolled and her employers are giving her last minute instructions and updating her on the condition of the two children (both getting over colds and sleeping upstairs).
Carol Kane was approximately 27 years old when she played this role, and she pulls it off admirably. Her facial expressions and vocal cadence convey the attitude of a teenager, and her tiny frame completes the illusion. Of foremost importance, she is completely vulnerable.
After the parents have left for the evening, Jill begins to receive disturbing phone calls from a man who menacingly whispers, “Have you checked the children?” These scenes are undeniably suspenseful, with Kane’s initial dismissal of the calls as a prank, to her utter alarm as the calls become more frequent and hostile. The juxtaposition of the silence of the house with the sudden ringing of the phone sets the viewer’s nerves on edge. Even the sound of something as mundane as ice cubes falling into a tray raises the tension level. Of course, the music by Dana Kaproff (Empire of the Ants) can not be underestimated.
As the urban legend dictates, Jill eventually phones the police who trace the call and inform her that the man who has been threatening her is phoning from within the house. The tension builds to a crescendo as Jill eases towards the door and the shadow of a figure appears from upstairs.
Luckily, Jill was a terrible babysitter and didn’t even check the children once, or she would have suffered their fate. (Actually, at one point, Jill did start up the stairs but was ironically distracted by a call from the killer.) Both children were brutally ravaged by the killer’s bare hands. Officers arrive in the nick of time (for Jill, not so much for the children) and the murderer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley, The Fiend), is apprehended. Thus ends the first segment of the film, lasting approximately 22 minutes.
The next portion of the film is set seven years later. Curt Duncan has escaped from an insane asylum and John Clifford (veteran actor Charles Durning) is a private investigator hired to hunt him down. Duncan, meanwhile, is living in a rescue mission and stalking Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst, The Dead Zone), a local bar patron.
Charles Durning plays his role well as a man tenaciously dedicated to apprehending the killer. We get a good feel for his character and are not surprised when Clifford announces that his intention is not just to capture Duncan, but to kill him. I was a little shocked, though, at his choice of weapon. Lock needles? Surely he could have thought of something more efficient. Coincidentally, Duncan escapes Clifford twice before the film’s climax.
Tony Beckley is effectively creepy as the psycho, Curt Duncan. We don’t learn much about Duncan’s history, but we can assume he has some serious issues. There is a particularly disturbing scene in a men’s restroom where a naked Duncan stares at himself in a mirror and relives his crime and his confinement. By the scene’s end we just feel icky about the guy.
Likewise, Colleen Dewhurst is convincing in the role of Tracy, Duncan’s new obsession. However, we have to question her reasoning when she treats Duncan like a leper when he offers to light her cigarette, but then greets him warmly when she finds he has followed her to her apartment. The poor psychopath is obviously getting mixed signals.
Unfortunately, this portion of the film is a letdown after the suspense-filled opening sequence. There are some tense moments, but many scenes seem drawn out to the point of being tiresome. Tracy’s walks home, for example, are certainly meant to build suspense, but they go on just a few smidgens too long, leaving us restless instead of apprehensive. The same could be said of Clifford’s detective work. We just get too much of the story. Some good editing here could have helped immensely.
On the plus side, Carol Kane’s character reemerges for the final segments of the movie. Jill is now married with two children of her own. A blurb about Jill in the paper leads Curt Duncan right to her. Of course now the roles are slightly askew. Jill, and her rather dorky husband, Stephen (Steven Anderson) are the parents out on the town, while a babysitter watches over their two children at home. Jill receives a phone call at the restaurant and hears Duncan’s familiar whisper, “Have you checked the children?”
The suspense of this final portion almost equals that of the opening sequence. It’s definitely a welcome relief after the tedious run-around of the previous act. The movie’s conclusion is a little predictable, but that’s not to say that it’s not scary, because it certainly is.
Overall, this is a wonderful little thriller. It would have received higher marks from me with a little more editing, and some insight into Curt Duncan’s character would have been helpful, too.
Directed by Fred Walton.
Scene to watch for: Like all good teenage babysitters, Jill Johnson helps herself to a stiff drink while on duty.
Line to listen for: “Jill, this is Sergeant Sacker. Listen to me. We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house. Now a squad car’s coming over there right now, just get out of that house!”
Trivia: This was Tony Beckley’s last movie. He died of cancer the year after its release.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.