AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 17TH DECEMBER, with WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Julia Jenz, babysitting the two children of Dr. Schifrin, is repeatedly pestered by a man who wants to use the phone, and eventually she discovers that the children have been abducted. Five years later, Julia is an introverted college student, still traumatised by the incident. Strange things happen from time to time in her apartment, and Julia believes that the man is once again stalking her. Jill Johnson, now a counselor at the college Julia attends, offers to help with the trauma of the experience in the past and the current events taking place, and contacts John Clifford to come to her aid and help figure out who this stalking is…..
While I totally disagree that sequels are rarely as good as originals, I can’t say that I really expected much from this belated made-for-TV sequel to When A Stranger Calls, despite it featuring the return of writer/director Fred Walton and stars Carol Kane and Charles Durning. After all, this was a film which on the special features Walton admits that he made purely because he was short of money and therefore needed something that would be a hit – which makes one wonder why it wasn’t released to cinemas. But I really liked When A Stranger Calls, so felt obliged to give When A Stranger Calls Back not just a watch but a review of its own. And surprise surprise, it’s really pretty good, if still falling short of the original movie. The structure is very similar. It opens with a lengthy sequence very much paralleling the one in the first film, then lowers the pitch somewhat until the climax, though throwing in a few more scary moments throughout. It’s also more conventional. This time around we don’t properly meet our killer until an hour into the film, meaning that there’s hardly attempt to empathise with somebody we don’t want to empathise which makes things less interesting – but on the other hand maybe this makes the proceedings more frightening as you really don’t know when this killer’s going to show up. A quick perusal of the IMDB user comments indicated that many think this sequel to be a better film. I can’t say I agree, but it’s still very worthwhile and contains some strong moments and creative ideas.
As before, we open with a babysitter arriving at a house, and even before we’ve gone inside the contrast between this film and the other is immense because this one is so much brighter, something that’s perhaps not surprising as this is a TV movie, though it largely avoids the ugly look and endless close-ups that you might expect. What follows is a variation on Jill’s ordeal in 1979, beginning with a clear tease when the phone rings but nobody’s on the end of the line. We think that phone calls are going to be terrorising Julia, but no, it’s actually a man continually knocking at the door claiming that his car’s broken down. After watching this, you’ll probably be fine answering the phone, but might think twice about answering the door even if you think it may be your partner or housemate or whatever. Julia checks the kids twice without even being prompted to do so, which is a nice touch. It soon seems that the person is moving in and out of the house – or maybe there are two people? For me, this episode doesn’t quite reach the high pitch of its equivalent in the first film, and Jill Schoelen is oddly weak comparable to Carol Kane though she’s great the rest of the film [I wonder why that is?]. I would imagine though that anyone who saw this film before the first would have been more than satisfied with it. This time, the kids are kidnapped rather than murdered, but the police still only arrive in the nick of time to stop Julia being physically attacked.
Instead of not meeting her again until the final act which is what When A Stranger Calls did, the sequel continues her story right away. Three years later, she’s still a mess, and, while a book being moved, an unset alarm clock going off and a child’s shirt appearing in her closet are undoubtedly strange, it could be her just imagining it or doing it herself without knowing. After all, her apartment is triple locked and three stories up from the ground. I kind of wished that the film had played a bit more with these ideas, though maybe I’m saying that mainly because I love that kind of ambiguity myself. It’s rather a stretch that Jill is working at the same college where Julia’s at, but it’s good what Walton’s done with her character. She now works as a counsellor, plus a self defence instructor for brutalised women. Without actually stating this, it seems to be hinted that Jill’s final encounter with Curt Duncan 14 years ago sent her over the edge for at least a while, and she’s had to drastically toughen up. She’s certainly not married to that really nice guy any more. Carol Kane is quite brilliant in the part, suggesting deep trauma camouflaged by a superficially strong exterior, making it rather strange that this potentially superb dramatic actress made more of a name for herself in comedic parts. One bit where Jill does her shopping, just knocking things into her trolley, then staring at a shelf full of bottles of vodka though choosing not to buy a bottle, says quite a lot. But then after her iffy start [did they shoot the beginning of this one first too?], Schoelen is impressive too, just as much so as she was in The Stepfather, and more than holds her own in her scenes with Kane.
Of course Jill believes Julia right away and soon good old John Clifford does too. While they try to solve this mystery, some tremendously eerie happenings occur including a scene which actually made the Doc really rather nervous, where the killer seems to materialise out of darkness on the left hand side of the screen to stare at Julia asleep in her bed, then hit her in the chest to seemingly wake her up, then fade into the blackness again. It’s the silence that makes it so effective. There are two other moments in this film which may stick in the memory for quite some time. One is a peculiar, not to mention freaky, show by a black-faced ventriloquist with a faceless dummy [that’s two of the things that unsettle the Doc put together, thanks Fred, cheers mate!] where the dummy gives a pseudo-philosophical monologue on the facelessness of the humanity of the people in the audience, then goes on to tell them how what they want to look like is not what they really are. And then there’s an encounter between two characters immediately afterwards, which has a tremendous noir feel about it, with rain silhouetting the features of one character and the camera slowly zooming in the other character lurking in the darkness showing his eyes open before they close making the shot entirely black. The whole texture of this scene is quite extraordinary and certainly doesn’t look like it comes from a TV movie where time and money would have probably been short. And let’s not forget the climactic revelation of the killer in somebody’s room. Splendidly shivery stuff! This psychopath is quite an original creation, but I would have liked to have learnt a bit more about him.
Economy is basically the key to Walton’s style, which he’s clearly refined over 14 years, and which a lot of today’s filmmakers obsessed with quick cuts and whirling camerawork could do with studying. Quite often Walton just lets the camera sit there, quite far away from the character we’re watching, and often looking down a hallway. This creates a tremendous sense of foreboding to otherwise ordinary moments, though unfortunately it also suggests to the viewer that, far more than the first movie, things are going to soon reach breaking point and utter terror is going to result – which doesn’t really happen. The final act is rather rushed and one can’t help but feel a bit let down when the movie’s over – but that’s Walton’s fault for being so good at creating uneasy tension from so little before and suggesting that it’s really going to kick off. At least cinematographer David Geddes’s work in this film is just as impressive as the work of his fore bearer. I missed the gritty feel we had before, and at times that somewhat synthetic ‘90s horror look is in evidence, but Geddes gives us a lot of precisely designed shots, and at his best helps to give When A Stranger Calls Back an almost Stanley Kubrick-like feel. Dana Kaproff’s music is also worthy of note. He commendably goes for a totally different sound to the one he used before – more fully orchestral with some synthesiser – and more subtle scoring, only occasionally bursting loose. I’d have liked to have heard a couple of the original motifs, but never mind.
When A Stranger Calls Back is no disgrace whatsoever to its really quite illustrious predecessor, and there are a few moments when it’s actually even more impressive, but there are also times when important scenes seem to have been left on the cutting room floor, with the actions [for a start would Clifford really suddenly care about this case the way he does?], and even relationships of some characters left making little sense. The film doesn’t feel quite complete. However, it was still a pleasant surprise to the Doc who really expected the worst, and despite this film being even tamer gore-wise [I don’t think there’s a single drop of blood in it] than the first, it’s not something that was at all detrimental to his enjoyment. Kudos to Second Sight for including it in their release of When A Stranger Calls. The HD restoration is very impressive.