Throwback Thursday Review: “When a Stranger Calls” (1979)



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Posted May 25, 2017 by

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Back in 2014, I had the pleasure of meeting, and chatting with, Fred Walton. I knew him as the director of a couple of all time horror classics, but what I didn’t know was that he lived a quiet, coffee-centered existence in SW Portland. Through a good friend, I was introduced to Mr. Walton, and got to talk to him about everything from movies, (of course) to baseball, to growing up in the great Northwest. Shortly after, Heather Wixson (Daily Dead) got in touch with me, and asked me if I could arrange an interview with Mr. Walton for a retrospective piece on “April Fool’s Day” she was working on. I was more than happy to. Here is a link to that interview . Now, roughly a year later, Michael P. has gone back and watched Walton’s breakthrough horror hit “When a Stranger Calls”. Check out his review below!

The story is essentially written in three parts, and opens with high school student Jill Johnson (Kane) showing up to babysit the young children of a wealthy physician and his wife. The kids are already asleep, and it does not take long for her to comfortably adapt to her new surroundings. Before long, however, she is subjected to a series of unusual phone calls from a mysterious stranger. The calls, which initially seem like annoying pranks, quickly take on a more sinister tone, and Jill becomes duly unsettled. Eventually the police get involved, and after one of the calls is traced, a horrifying truth is revealed; (spoiler alert) The calls are coming from inside of the house! In a time long before the existence of caller ID and mobile phone technology, this was an extremely stunning and novel twist on the typical home invasion/horror movie themes, and it still sends shivers down my spine to this day. These first chilling 20 minutes of the film are nothing short of masterful, and probably did about as much to encourage babysitting, as the movie ‘Jaws’ did to promote swimming in the ocean. Jill managed to survive the ordeal, but not everyone was so lucky.

 The second act takes place seven years later, and plays like a straightforward crime drama. Some viewers may find it difficult to adjust to this sudden change in tone, but it is here that the characters are truly developed, and the stage is set for the climactic final confrontation. In this segment, Curt Duncan (Beckley), the deranged psychopath who terrorized Jill on the telephone, has just escaped from a mental hospital. He is being pursued by private investigator John Clifford (Durning), who was one of the original officers at the crime scene seven years prior. It is also here that we get our first look at the killer, whos voice was the only thing we had previously experienced. As the story unfolds. we are shown brief glimpses of Duncan’s humanity, only to be abruptly reminded of his true nature. This portion of the film, which accounts for about an hour of screen-time, moves a bit slowly, and loses much of the momentum established in that adrenaline-filled opening scene.

Enter the film’s finale’ where the home invasion theme is revisited, and we are treated to a number of the standard horror movie conventions one would naturally expect from a movie of this kind. The ending was largely predicable and a little abrupt for my taste, but it also made perfect sense and tied everything together nicely. If it felt a little anticlimactic, it is not because it was poorly written; it’s just that the beginning of the film was so brilliantly conceived, there was simply no way of outshining it later on.

The movie was fairly successful at the box office, especially considering its extremely modest budget. The cinematography and musical score in particular, went a long way toward making it look and feel like a far more expensive picture. I also found the film to be reasonably well-acted. Carol Kane showed decent range as she moved from irritation, to concern, to fear, to full-blown panic, and the late Charles Durning was as dependable as ever. Not surprising I suppose, given that his resume’ boasts of a whopping 214 acting credits! Lastly, special mention must be made of Tony Beckley’s portrayal of the story’s conflicted antagonist. He was terminally ill during the filming, but nevertheless managed to give a gritty and energetic performance throughout. Tragically, he passed away just prior to the film’s release.

Over time, “When A Stranger Calls” has gained an almost cult-like following, and is now considered to be somewhat of a horror movie classic, largely based on the strength of its opening sequence. It inspired a sequel that was released in 1993, and which featured the same writers, same director, and several of the original cast members. In 2006 a modern remake was attempted, but it has very little redeeming value, and simply cannot be recommended. Sometimes you only get one chance to get it right, and the 1979 version did a pretty darn good job!




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