AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DOWNLOAD AND ON-DEMAND: 17th December, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 97 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Jill Johnson is harassed by increasingly frequent telephone calls while babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis at their home. Though she survives her ordeal, the children are murdered just before Detective John Clifford arrives with the police. The killer is identified as as an English merchant seaman named Curt Duncan, and is subsequently sent to an asylum. However, seven years later, Duncan escapes and Dr. Mandrakis hired Clifford, now a private investigator, to find him as quickly as possible – though Clifford just wants to kill, rather than arrest him.…
One of the best things about this job is getting to see good movies we may previously have missed in the best presentation possible. When A Stranger Calls, which had passed me by up to now, is famous for its opening 20 minutes which frightened audiences so much in 1979 that people would shout at the screen, and the line: ”Have you checked the children”? And this beginning section, despite having been referenced to by several films since, most famously in Scream’s opening, really is a masterclass in how to build terror even when seen today. I would guess that many reviewers of this film would say that it loses its impact thereafter, though I honestly think that even Alfred Hitchcock would have struggled to maintain the impact of those beginning 20 minutes if he’d made it. The tension does proceed at lower pitch, the decision to follow the killer around being an interesting and brave one but meaning that there’s a bit less to frighten us, but don’t worry there are still some terrific moments left that you will certainly remember, a solid stab [sorry] at intelligence, excellent performances, and a gritty, almost documentary feel to some of the proceedings not unlike the same year’s Driller Killer. And it’s fascinating to watch a film with so many of the slasher movie tropes without a single on-screen murder. Despite Halloween, which came out not long before and did feature some killings though none really of a graphic nature, one wanders if the genre may have evolved in a different way if Sean H. Cunningham hadn’t decided to make that little film set in Camp Crystal Lake, its success convincing so many producers that teenagers being offed in a variety of gruesome ways was what people really wanted to see.
The inspiration for this was an urban legend that actually came from a real life event that took place in Columbia, Missouri in 1950. Fred Walton first adapted it, with probably some influence from a scene in Black Christmas too, into a short film called The Sitter running just 20 minutes. Despite playing in one cinema, it got little attention, but when Halloween became such a big hit leading to the slasher boom, it also inspired Walton to turn his short into a feature with the help of co-writer Steve Feke, The Sitter basically becoming the first part of the film, though he had some trouble getting studios to finance the project. It was shot in Los Angeles, Brentwood and Sacramento in California. Tony Beckley, who played Curt Duncan, was terminally ill throughout production. Because of this, he didn’t at all fit the description of the killer, but Walton refused to replace him. Beckley died six months after the premiere. The Classification and Rating Administration had originally voted unanimously for a ‘PG’ rating [this was five years before the ‘PG-13’ rating was available for use] However, CARA chair Richard Heffner then viewed the film and called the board for further discussion to consider voting for an ‘R’ rating, which is what it ended up getting during a re-vote. The film was commercially successful and was well reviewed, probably because of it’s lack of graphic violence. It was remade – or rather the first 20 minutes were – in 2006, and I’m now curious to see it – so you may be reading a review it from me sometime soon!
So the urban legend [SPOILERS if you want to know very little, though I’m not going to describe every single beat of the film’s first section] goes that a teenage girl is babysitting at night, watching TV while the children are asleep upstairs. The phone rings repeatedly and the man on the end of the line keeps telling her to check the children. The teenager dismisses the calls at first but eventually rings the police who tell her they will trace the next call. They do so, and inform her that the call is coming from inside the house – leading to a terrible discovery. The opening of When A Stranger Calls is an exact copy of the legend, and everything, from direction to camerawork to lighting to score to – well – everything- is done with meticulous precision to work up the viewer. The performance from Carol Kane, convincingly made up to look like a teenager, is absolutely note perfect and believable. The constantly ringing [and increasingly louder] telephone, precisely framed by the camera, becomes an object of terror, something achieved even better here than Mario Bava did in Black Sabbath [if you’ve been reading my reviews long enough than you’ll know that this is very high praise indeed considering how I virtually worship Bava]. I have the feeling that some younger viewers won’t be quite as frightened as us oldies because phones of the kind in the film aren’t used much any more, but I have no doubt that if I’d seen this back when they were, the phone suddenly ringing in my house would have been most the terrifying thing ever and I wouldn’t have answered it. The fright factor rises and rises as other innocuous things become objects of fear and more and more darkness seems to envelope the inside of the house, until poor Jill’s fears are horribly proven and the cops turn up just in time to save her from death too.
Though of course we did have the odd exception like Maniac [and come to think of it Nightmares In A Damaged Brain and even the much later Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer may have been influenced by this film], I reckon that if Walton had made his film just a little bit later, then Curt Duncan would have probably started killing again as soon as he’d escaped from the asylum holding him, and his screen time would have been limited to quick appearances. However, he made it just before slashers really took off, so the decision was made to spend some time with this seriously disturbed person and to even humanise him. I’m personally becoming increasingly fond of films where we’re allowed to pity – even dare I say it, sympathise – with individuals even if they’re highly likely to carve up the first person that they meet. It makes things more intriguing, gets you thinking a bit more, and is also in a way more disturbing. Duncan escapes into the city and wanders into a bar [the exterior of which is the same bar featured in that great scene from 48 Hours, trivia fans]. Desperate to interact with a fellow human being, he clumsily tries to ingratiate himself with Tracy, a woman who goes to drink alone in a bar. This character seems to lead a life off screen that we’re only given ambiguous hints to. Does she really have a boyfriend [that phone call could have come from somebody else], or was she just saying that to get Duncan to go away? She actually seems to be a very lonely individual who’s had a very hard life. Perhaps that’s why Duncan picks her to try to bond with. His attempts to befriend her seem intimidating, but he can’t help this, and we feel saddened when he’s beaten up by somebody. We get a really tense moment when we know that he’s in her apartment somewhere, but when he reveals himself all he tries to do is talk to her and prevent her from screaming. Tony Beckley is quite superb in these scenes, his eyes speaking rejection but his whole body language suggesting somebody trying to fight off violent impulses.
On Duncan’s trail is John Clifford, and he’s very determined to catch his man and then kill him. It’s hardly a stretch of a part for Charles Durning, and there’s a chase sequence where the rather tubby Durning has to look like he’s keeping up with the much thinner Beckley – though of course Beckley’s character has barely eaten and barely slept for several days, and Beckley himself is virtually dying on screen which adds its own morbid fascination. But the middle section of the film is anything but boring despite what you may have read, and frequent moments of suspense keep us on edge. Of course you know where Duncan is eventually going to be headed after his attempts to trying to be a bit more “normal”, and much of the genuine fear of the early scenes certainly comes back even if the climax is a little short by modern standards. There’s an absolute killer of a shock moment which even jolted me and made me say the f word to myself. But two of the most frightening bits in this film just consist of descriptions of things where the mind fills in the blanks. Quite early, we’re informed that the two murdered children were “so cut up, they couldn’t be reconstructed for the burial”, and later that Duncan just used his hands to do all this. What a horrible image that conjures up. On another occasion, a tape recorder lets us hear Duncan’s rage and him attacking the nurses and doctors around him. Made a bit later or in other hands, this film may have been extremely graphic and got the censors all huffing and puffing. That approach is just as valid, but Walton is good enough a director to allow a far more subtle approach to work very well.
Walton is also good enough a director to make one wonder how he mainly made undistinguished TV movies after this. While Aprils Fool’s Day is quite an exciting slasher that also goes easy on the bloodshed, and The Rosary Murders a fun mystery, on the evidence of When A Stranger Calls Walton could have gone on to become a major horror director – yet that failed to happen. Also playing a big part in this film is Dana Kaproff’s extremely tense score, arranged mainly for strings a la Psycho, but with some odd percussion here and there. He likes to employ Bernard Herrmann chords, but also adds a slight melancholy to the mood building. Superfly himself Ron O’ Neal gives a slightly distracted performance as another cop and Rachel Roberts cameos as a doctor. In the end, maybe When A Stranger Calls does suffer a bit from having such a terrific opener, but having a beginning more frightening than many horror films are in their entirely is surely enough to give it minor classic status. And, while we’re never really let into Duncan’s mind despite spending much time with him, I reckon that the majority of killers don’t have a clue as to why they kill anyway. There’s something oddly authentic-seeming about much of this film, something enhanced by the use of seedy Los Angeles locations, which gives it some resonance in addition to it being pretty darn scary.
When A Stranger Calls has already been out on Blu-ray twice on Region ‘A’, but both were vanilla releases and basically upscales. Second Sight’s Blu-ray, which is released on both sides of the Atlantic, sets things right. The film was shot with a muted colour pallet so don’t expect much in the way of bright hues popping out at you, while some dark and light [such as some of the sky] shots were perhaps too grainy even for me, and many shots are quite soft. Overall though this is still a pleasing restoration of a low budget feature that can’t have looked too good in the first place anyway.
Included with the film is the sequel When a Stranger Calls Back. I decided to do a full review of that too, and it will be posted separately very soon. First up among the special features is The Sitter itself. It looks rather faded, but contains no major blemishes. It’s interesting how they changed very little when they re-shot this for the film, with many shots repeated exactly, though Walton certainly took the opportunity to increase the impact in places by things like sharper cutting, and of course the acting and the music aren’t as good in the short. A very worthwhile inclusion though. Four interviews follow of varying length. Walton talks about the film’s genesis and impact and goes into a lot of detail about working with the cast, such as Kane’s inability to act upset unless she actually was upset. Funny how cinematographer Donald Peterson wanted to quit thinking his work wasn’t good enough, considering the career he went on to have. Kane also talks about working with some of the other cast members and praises the film for its restraint. Rutanya Alda [Mrs. Mandrakis] chats in brief about her early life in a refugee camp in Germany and some of her best known roles. And finally Dana Kaproff talks about how his family’s friendships with three heavyweights of the film scoring world enabled him to get his start, and the score itself. The musician in me could have done with a bit more detail on the creation of the music, but nice to hear from a busy and seemingly talented movie composer I’d never even heard of.
The first 20 minutes may be killer, but the rest really is pretty good too unless you absolutely demand lots of stalking and slashing. Horror fans should really check this out, while lovers of the film have finally been rewarded with this release. Highly Recommended.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:
*Brand new scan and restoration
*The sequel When a Stranger Calls Back in HD
*New scan and restoration of the original short film The Sitter [16:35]
*Reversible sleeve with new artwork by Obviously Creative and original poster artwork
*English subtitles for the hearing impaired for both films
*Directing A Stranger : An Interview with director Fred Walton [17:25]
*Carol Kane on When a Stranger Calls [5.25]
*Rutanya Alda on When a Stranger Calls [7:47]
*Scoring A Stranger : An interview with composer Dana Kaproff
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS:
*Original soundtrack CD
*40-page perfect bound booklet with new essay by Kevin Lyons
*Reversible poster with new and original artwork
*Rigid slip case packaging