Running time: 97 min.
Release date: October 26, 1979
We all have smart phones now. Well, not all of us. There are still the grumps among us who still hold on to their landlines and keep a phone book on hand. Some of us are still too young to remember a time before there was caller ID. It was so much easier to crank call some random person out of the phone book, asking them if their refrigerator was running, chuckling the whole time as we were barely able to contain our laughter before blurting out the punchline and quickly hanging up, the adrenaline pumping after the call. Smart phones and caller ID have basically ruined our fun. However, here is When a Stranger Calls, a time capsule from a period where it was much easier to scare the bejeebus out of someone with a simple phone call. Especially if you were a Grade A-level psychotic.
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is babysitting the children of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis. She is told that the children are already asleep upon her arrival to their home, and it looks like it's an easy ten bucks for Jill, right? Soon after the adults leave, Jill starts to receive anonymous telephone calls, which she believes to be prank calls at first. Then the calls become more frequent and gradually more terrifying. The creepy voice on the other end asks the question that crank callers have been asking before caller ID ruined everything: "Have you checked the children?". Jill calls the police and they agree to trace the call if Jill is capable of getting him to stay on the line long enough. The conversation between Jill and the caller is very tense, as the musical score stops for a brief moment when Jill asks "What do you want?". As we get a moment of silence, the voice replies "Your blood....all over me.". The next call is from the police, telling Jill to get the hell out of the house because the calls ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOME!! Hey kids, you used to be able to ring your own line, did you know that? Jill naturally freaks out and runs out of the house, right into detective John Clifford (Charles Durning). A few moments later, we learn that the guy was caught, and that he killed the children hours ago. This portion of the plot is brilliantly staged and wrought with tension and suspense.
Director Fred Walton was inspired by his own short film, The Sitter, and attempts to expand on that idea and pad this out to a feature length film. Seven years later, the caller, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), has escaped from the asylum he was sent to, still a raving lunatic, of course. John Clifford is now a private detective and is hired by Dr. Mandrakis, the father of the dead children, to find Duncan. Then the film decides to give the story of Duncan as a homeless drifter, getting tossed out of a bar for harassing a woman he fancies (Colleen Dewhurst). We get some interaction between Duncan and the woman, Tracy, but she strongly rebuffs his advances. Clifford traces Duncan to the woman's apartment and, finding out the psycho's history, agrees to be used as bait to lure him into a trap. The plot does not delve very deeply into Duncan's madness and the Dewhurst's character doesn't really seem to be very necessary at all. The plot gains most of the momentum back, however, when Jill returns to the story, this time with a husband and children of her own in tow. The climax gains back some of the momentum lost during the middle section, building tension once again through suspense. The ending is a little too convenient but at the same time, it's a satisfactory conclusion.
Fred Walton's big screen debut is largely successful thanks to his knowledge of building a scene from an innocent beginning and using suspense and the fear of the unseen that we all have from time to time. He allows the audience time to empathize with the babysitter and her long, lonely night in dealing with her situation. The impact that the score has should also be mentioned, as it heightens the whole dreadful mood that the screenplay develops. Walton only made a handful of feature-length films, including another cult horror film, April Fools Day. Most of his work was relegated to television movie-of-the-week features, including the sequel When a Stranger Calls Back in 1993. Walton showed some promise here early in his career. The screenplay by Walton and Steve Feke creates suspense early on, then sort of meanders in the middle where there should have been character development. We don't really get any, as Duncan is left to wander the streets rather than allow the audience to find out who this character is (other than an escaped lunatic). The Tracy character doesn't really add anything to the story, other than give Duncan someone to stalk in-between the beginning and ending. Bringing the story back around to Jill and her family works to get our attention back and provide a definitive conclusion to the events that came prior. The suspense in the climax is not quite on par with all that came in the first twenty minutes, but it is still a strong set up for the ending.
Carol Kane provides a strong but vulnerable performance as Jill. She is terrified to answer the phone and listen to the creep on the other end, while at the same time stand up for herself when she cautiously makes her way through the house. Later on, when she has children of her own, she appears to be well-adjusted but that breaks down when her worst nightmare returns and threatens her own children. Charles Durning is probably miscast as the primary protagonist. He is overweight, and scenes with him chasing Duncan through the alleys of Los Angeles are not what you would think of as heroic-looking. He is normally a solid character actor, but he has one note here: bring the killer down at any cost. There is no expository moments for Durning here, nor much in terms of development. So if we're not getting character here, we should have gotten more physical heroism, which Durning can't really provide. Tony Beckley as Curt Duncan is nervous and twitchy but almost a letdown when he is revealed as the psycho caller. Beckley does what he can with the role, which amounts to muttering to himself and hiding in closets. He is a much better voice actor, as the scenes of him harassing Jill on the phone are much more effective than anything he does physically.
When a Stranger Calls gets a pass because of the near-perfect opening scene and build-up to the climax. It loses quite a bit of steam in the middle, as it comes off as padding that is quite unnecessary since there isn't any character development going on in that portion of the film. It's almost as if all suspense and tension from the first third of the film is enough to carry the audience through to the end. Of course, this is a dated film now. The way we use telephones now may have some people screaming "DITCH THE LANDLINE" at the screen.