“What do you want?”
“Your blood … all over me …”
When a Stranger Calls.
It’s rare when a movie title gives the audience so much so quickly. In the case of When a Stranger Calls, it gives you the entire premise for the film. From the title alone, you can discern that crap is going to go down when the phone rings. You can then sense, from the moment actress Carol Kane (playing Jill Johnson here) walks on screen that the phone is going to start ringing. And it does start ringing. It starts ringing and doesn’t stop. Well, not literally. It rings like every 15 minutes, but still, that’s pretty intense.
The basic premise of the movie, if anything about this film can be called “basic”, is that a young woman is babysitting one night when she begins receiving phone calls from an anonymous caller (later identified as Tony Beckley‘s character, Curt Duncan). The caller keeps asking her about the children. When was the last time she checked on them. Why hasn’t she checked on them. The calls keep coming, and while they are somewhat innocuous in nature, Jill becomes so unnerved she places a call to the police department.
Wouldn’t you? Damn right you would. In fact, I would have called over a girlfriend, anyone, rather than be alone in that house with those phone calls coming. But, I digress. Where’s the fun in that?
When it is finally revealed that the phone calls are coming from inside the house, from a phone line unused but never disconnected by the family currently living there, the police officer she’s been on the phone with all night, John Clifford (Charles Durning), rushes to her aid. It’s too late, however, for the two children upstairs. Duncan, the man inside the house placing the menacing calls to Jill, has beaten them to death with his bare hands.
Flash forward seven years. Curt Duncan has escaped from a mental institution and is back on the streets, well, technically he’s in a bar, trying to pick up a very dishy Colleen Dewhurst (playing Tracy). Spurned for his advances by Tracy, Curt follows her back to her apartment where he weasels his way in. The creep factor is intense during these scenes. Had the audience not known who Curt was, they would still feel the very real sense of “ew, this dude is gross” during these intimate and disarming scenes.
Desperate to get Duncan off the streets, Dr. Mandrakis (the father of the murdered children, played by Carmen Argenziano) hires retired cop turned private eye, John Clifford to track him down. And he does, by canvassing the city, the slums, and finally, the bars. Namely “Torchys” where Duncan had been trying to pick up on Tracy. Good thing a local beat Duncan to a pulp for not leaving Tracy alone because the bartender remembers him and points Clifford in the right direction. Together, Tracy and Clifford agree to wait for Duncan’s inevitable return to her apartment. Only, Duncan outsmarts them and is already waiting in her house … in the closet.
When Duncan confronts Tracy, he asks only to be her friend. Knowing now her intuitions to be correct, Tracy begins to scream and Duncan flees the apartment before Clifford can collar him.
Finally, Clifford finds Duncan staying in a Mission halfway house, but once again, Duncan eludes him.
Flash forward again. This time, a few weeks. Jill (the babysitter from the beginning of the film) is now married with two children, living in a beautiful neighborhood. Her husband calls to tell her to get dressed for a night on the town. He’s got big news. She should get a sitter for the night.
While the couple is at dinner, they receive a phone call.
A voice on the other line whispers into the phone: “Have you checked the children?”
It’s Duncan and he’s inside in their house …
One of the most effective aspects of the film is the three part structure utilized to build the story’s intensity through the final climactic showdown. The opening sequence is how most people will remember When a Stranger Calls, and I know it’s the main reason why my mother (after all these years) still screens every incoming phone call to her house. It’s the stuff of horror film legends.
When a Stranger Calls is also a bit of a contradictory film-going experience. On the one hand, the filmmaker’s are showing you how sinister this Curt Duncan character is. After all, he beats two children to death in their sleep for no apparent reason. But, on the other hand, the filmmaker’s try to present a man who has come unraveled, who cannot look himself in the mirror, that desperately needs help. The technique can be a bit emotionally/morally confusing and ultimately controversial.
Either way you slice it, When a Stranger Calls set the tone for future horror films such as Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and made an entire generation of babysitters have nightmares.
1980 Re-Release TV Spot: When a Stranger Calls
There’s a sequel!: When a Stranger Calls Back
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