Fred Walton’s 1979 chiller When a Stranger Calls explores the oft-heard urban legend of the lonely babysitter terrified by phone calls coming from somewhere … within the house!  The film’s opening 20 minutes is considered one of the most terrifying scenes in horror history thanks to a riveting orchestral score by then 25-year-old Dana Kaproff (The Big Red One) and brooding, austere cinematography by Donald Peterman (Flashdance, Cocoon), and the sequence was rated at #28 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.  Unfortunately, many horror fans don’t care for the remaining hour or so of When a Stranger Calls, as the film moves from its creepy, claustrophobic setting to the outside city of Chicago and becomes a “slow burner” type of action/suspence yarn.  This abrupt change of style and pacing caused When a Stranger Calls to receive mostly neutral to negative critical reviews when first released, which is unfair IMO considering how much more entertaining the film is to me as a whole compared to its 2006 remake of the same name, which localizes all the action to one location but fails to maintain interest.


When a Stranger Calls begins with pretty college student Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Graduation Day’s Carmen Argenziano and Mommie Dearest’s Rutanya Alda) to babysit their two young children for the evening while they go out for dinner and to the movies.  The kids are already asleep upstairs when Jill arrives, and soon after she settles into the living room couch for some studying, she begins receiving odd phone calls about every ten minutes from an unknown creep with a British accent, who always asks her the same immortal question:  “Have you checked the children?”  Jill starts becoming unglued and has the police trace the source of the creepy calls, which of course turns out to be the very same house.  She barely escapes with her life from the demented pervert hiding upstairs, who has brutally murdered the sleeping children and is covered in their young blood.


The film then flash forwards seven years later, when Duncan has escaped from the nuthouse after being committed for his heinous crime and is on the loose in the city.  Private detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) is hired by Dr. Mandrakis to track down Duncan and return him to the crazy farm, but Clifford is deeply disturbed by the possibility of Duncan escaping again from his minimum security prison and decides to kill the psychopath when he gets the chance.  He teams up with Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), an older woman that Duncan has taken an unmutual liking to after trying unsuccessfully to pick her up in local dive Torchy’s, to try to trap Duncan.  Their plan works at first, but Duncan escapes from Clifford’s clutches once again and hunts down and begins to terrorize Jill, who is now married and has a couple of adorable kids of her own.


When a Stranger Calls was a big financial success for Columbia Pictures upon its theatrical release in 1979, grossing over $ 21,000,000 from a budget of well under a million.  Quivering-voiced Carol Kane (who is also amazing in a totally different type of role in the same year’s The Mafu Cage as well as Hester Street, Scrooged and Office Killer) is always a welcome sight in any film and contributes a terrific performance as the increasingly neurotic Jill, who finds herself the target of homicidal maniac Curt Duncan.  Charles Durning (Sisters, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, To Be or Not To Be) has peppered countless little gems throughout the years with his unique presence and gives a passionate performance as John Clifford, who will not rest until he himself brings justice to the world by violently removing Duncan from it.  Husky-voiced Colleen Dewhurst steals her scenes effortlessly as world-weary, chain-smoking Tracy, who reluctantly agrees to help Clifford trap Duncan after she learns about his past.  The talented late English character actor Tony Beckley (who was also terrific in a similarly villainous role in 1971’s Assault) was terminally ill with cancer during the making of the film and died the year after its release; it’s a true shame, because he’s simultaneously terrifying and pathotic as unbalanced Curt Duncan.  Rachel Roberts (This Sporting Life), who coincidentally also died in 1980 of cancer, has a brief but memorable role as Dr. Monk, Duncan’s psychiatrist at the institute he escapes from who tries to provide Clifford with a glimpse into the mind of Duncan. 

When a Stranger Calls remains a tense, gripping psycho thriller nearly 32 years after its original release and is ten times scarier than its watered-down 2006 remake of the same name, which was targeted exclusively at teenybopper audiences and lack’s the original’s malevolent edge.  I rate When a Stranger Calls an 8.5 of 10 and recommend that anyone watching it keep the lights on and the phone unplugged!

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