Weird when horror films I would consider contemporary because they were made in my lifetime are really now period pieces due to the accelerated rate of technology. Hell, you’re probably reading this blog about terrifying phone call movies on your phone, yet there were no smartphones, Internet, or blogs when the first When A Stranger Calls came out.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
Watching it again for the first time in years – and actually paying attention to everything that happens after the first amazing 20 minutes – I can say it’s both better and worse than I remember. But let’s get those pesky perfect 20 minutes out of the way first.
Director Fred Walton would go on to make April Fool’s Day in 1986 then come back for the call back with When A Stranger Calls Back. Meanwhile, Carol Kane’s big segment in this film is actually a shot-by-shot remake of a short film Walton made in 1977. Wish they would dig it up and include it on one of the reissue discs one of these days.
Apparently because Halloween was so popular in 1978, Walton decided to expand his babysitter movie into a full-length feature in 1979. Fact is, aside from the babysitter angle, the beginning of When A Stranger Calls is much more reminiscent of 1974’s Black Christmas—look, tone, camera perspectives, and general plot. Its quick pace has Carol Kane show up for a babysitting job and the parents (one of them being horror veteran Rutanya Alda) sticking around just long enough to tell her the kids are fast asleep and there’s a separate phone line in the husband’s office. Minutes later, Kane gets the dreaded “Have you checked the children?” phone call.
As the caller amps up the harassment, the film delivers chilling atmosphere and maximum suspense. Of course, all the details – a landline, no caller ID, having to stall the caller so the cops can trace the call – will be lost on young audiences today, but back then it was terrifying, as was the horrific twist stolen right from Black Christmas.
The rest of the film jolted (and disappointed) viewers back in the day because it becomes about Charles Durning, the detective who showed up to save poor Carol Kane, obsessively hunting down the psycho caller/killer after he escapes from a mental institution six years later.
Oddly enough, there is again a sense of déjà vu, with Durning’s purpose here echoing his role in De Palma’s Sisters from 1972! Problem is, Durning’s character is so underdeveloped that his angry determination to catch the caller six years later makes him seem psychotic and manic.
The meat of this movie is still a little boring, but I forgot there are some excellent suspense scenes as the caller—an English immigrant who had been in the country for only a week (if only Trump had been president in 79, this would never have happened) terrorizes a woman that rejects him in a bar. This random woman, played by burly, husky voiced Colleen Dewhurst (The Crucible, The Dead Zone, and the voice of Satan in The Exorcist III!) could take this little British weasel down in a second, but she doesn’t.
She also doesn’t die. Instead, she becomes a main character for a while. She finds the dude has followed her home and is skulking in the shadows of her apartment hallway, so she exchanges pleasantries…then leaves her apartment door open while she runs to answer her phone! No, life wasn’t different back then. It was still a stupid thing to do.
Yet that’s not even the dumbest plot point. Durning follows the trail to Dewhurst’s door and within seconds convinces her to be the bait so he can stalk the caller as the caller is stalking her. Seriously, this movie is kind of ridiculous. Worst of all, after a really botched effort to protect Dewhurst from the caller nearly gets her killed, Durning just dumps her ass and she’s written out of the movie!
What this script should have been is revealed in the final 20 minutes. Carol Kane is back, and the caller is after her. Um…why wasn’t this the plot from minute 21 on? Durning could have convinced her to be the bait. Might sound like she wouldn’t be that stupid, but guess what happens in the last 20 minutes? This stupid bitch hires a babysitter to watch her two kids while she goes out with her husband! SERIOUSLY? Come on. Laurie Strode changed her name, took a job as the dean of a private school, and became an alcoholic, for fuck’s sake!
Anyway, the final 20 minutes are almost as suspenseful as the first, there’s another zinger twist, and just like Donald Pleasence, Charles Durning seems to magically know exactly where the killer will be so that he can step in and save the day.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK (1993)
While the original is forever the classic, I have to say, Fred Walton nails it with this sequel, which was actually a Showtime original back in the day.
The opening scene this time has scream queen Jill Schoelen as the babysitter, and once again, she arrives just as the parents are running out the door! WTF? Don’t these babysitters know to arrive early? Anyway, I can practically guarantee that the setup this time was totally ripped off and recycled in The Strangers. Instead of the phone being the focus, a man comes knocking on the door asking Jill if he can use the phone to call a tow truck because his car broke down. Holy fuck this segment is heart-stopping, with his disembodied voice right outside the door, and Jill getting more and more anxious as she tries to convince him she called them for him…even though she really hasn’t because the phone is dead.
YES. The phone is dead. She can’t call for help because it’s 1993, we’re still using landlines, and the phone is dead. Younger generations will just never understand the horrors we faced back then.
The opening scene clocks in at 27 minutes long this time, but after that, things are just as interesting. Five years later, Jill has gone off to college and begins to lose her shit because every time she returns to her dorm room, her stuff has been moved. See, the guy that terrorized her was never caught, and he’s coming for the original victim to finish what he started. Walton clearly saw the error of his ways with the first film, and this is where things play out as the original should have. Carol Kane now works for an organization that helps women in distress. She calls in her old buddy Charles Durning to aide her in this eerily similar case to her own.
What’s great about this film is that it does a much better job of developing the two main characters, and it’s especially cool that because of their different backgrounds (a survivor vs. a detective), they clash on how to handle matters. This conflict makes the investigation segment of the film much more interesting. What is also a smart move on Walton’s part is that he refrained from putting ANY flashbacks to the original film. The excellent performances of Kane and Durning perfectly convey their post-traumatic existence without them having to make dramatic faces following flashing clips of the original film in their heads. Not to mention, this is possibly one of Jill Schoelen’s best performances as she unravels and takes her character beyond the usual scream queen constraints.
The structure is the same as the original, so we once again get a wickedly suspenseful final 20 minutes. However, Schoelen’s character is pushed to the side, and the killer targets Carol Kane.
Durning uncovers a unique talent the killer has that makes for one hell of a final confrontation. It’s a bone-chilling scene, although I must admit I laughed when Kane, whose character has clearly gone for self-defense lessons, drops the baddie with a leaping spin kick. And naturally, Durning somehow manages to show up just in time to save the day.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (2006)
The “remake” takes the concept of the first 20 minutes that made When A Stranger Calls a classic and reimagines it as a full 90-minute slow burn that definitely has a 2000s “tween” horror vibe. Contemporary (for 2006) phone issues are addressed somewhat, and even serve as the launching point for the setup.
The opening scene is completely unnecessary beyond the fact that in the wake of the Scream franchise, horror had to open with a “kill” to keep the audience interested…if you consider silhouettes in a window and screams interesting. Next morning, a Charles Durning type detective arrives at the scene of the crime, learns there is no murder weapon (a nod to a detail about the killer’s mode of operation in the original), and then looks into a room and covers his mouth in horror. He’s no Charles Durning, so we never see him again. We also don’t get to see the aftermath of the massacre.
Instead, we meet our main girl. Instead of joining all her friends at a bonfire party, she has to babysit that night. It’s her punishment for…brace yourself…using too many minutes on her family’s cellphone plan. Back in 2006, tweens totally got it and felt her pain.
Once the main girl gets to the massive house in which she’s babysitting, for a change the parents stay long enough for the mother to give her a bit of a tour, and to let her know that the kids are asleep in bed with the flu. This franchise should have been called When A Stranger Babysits Sleeping Kids. I mean, seriously? Who has a stranger come over after putting the kids to bed, so that if they wake up, they will find their parents gone and a stranger sitting in their living room? If I ever scored that kind of sitting job, I would stand over their bed in a creepy clown mask all night just waiting for that moment. Anyway, we also learn that the live-in maid resides on the third floor and the oldest son is away at college but is known to randomly come home and stay in the guesthouse out back. Nice. Some original details.
Next, we meet the real star of the film…the house. The main girl interacts with all the high tech features and tours the unique layout to let us know exactly how all these details will factor into her fight for her life later on—alarm system, motion detecting lights in every room, a cat (yes, there’s a cheap pussy scare), a freaky as fuck statue of a man that looks like a demon, and in the center of the house, a glass-walled room that is merely a giant bird cage complete with a pond, bridge, a forest, and an occasional rainstorm. You know these privileged bitches voted Trump.
It isn’t long before the main girl psyches her nerves out thanks to a bunch of faux scares, like the pussy, her asshole friends pranking her from the bonfire, and…the maid feeding the birds in their sanctuary! Which begs the question, why couldn’t this live-in maid babysit the kids, considering they know her and they were sleeping so she wouldn’t have to do a thing beyond sitting in the lap of luxury while her employers were away? Oh, right. It’s the 2000s, and we need a body count.
Speaking of, one of the main girl’s friends is able to sneak in to deliver another cheap scare—mysteriously, the garage door was open. Dunh dunh dunh! The friend is played by familiar horror face, David’s daughter Katie Cassidy (Harper’s Island, Elm Street remake, Black Christmas remake). This scene involving a boy they both like actually expands upon a very brief conversation Carol Kane has with a friend on the phone in the original. It adds nothing to the movie beyond Katie Cassidy scoring the first genuine suspense scene. Moments after she heads for her car, she becomes terrified that she is being pursued, but instead of just running right back to the house, she tries to escape the property. Dumb bitch deserves to die. Sadly, we apparently don’t deserve to see it happen.
It isn’t until 49 minutes into this tension-building film that the dreaded “Have you checked the children?” call comes in. The pace picks up quickly as the general phone scenario from the original film unfolds. From there, the movie taps into everything the house has to offer to create a suspenseful cat and mouse scenario. It’s thrilling enough, but definitely geared toward the PG-13 crowd. Hell, the kids even get in on the game this time around! In fact, watching this one again, it’s hard not to notice how similar it is to one of my favorite Halloween home invasion films; it’s as if the director of Berkshire County saw this film and said, “I can do that shit so much scarier.”
Because his other scenes were left on the cutting room floor (and in the deleted scenes on the DVD), cutie David Denman (Pam’s first man on The Office) appears out of nowhere as a cop at the end like he’s someone important, even though he was merely a voice on the phone when the main girl called the police a few times during the movie.
Just as in the original, this remake never explains the killer’s motivation beyond being a psycho—and a repeat offender this time, which explains the pointless opening scene. We also get a typical 2000s tween horror cheap dream scare ending, but there’s a bigger flaw in this film. There’s a scene in which the major alarm system accidentally goes off and the alarm company calls asking for the password. Plus, the main girl is smart and resourceful. So when the shit hits the fan and she knows the psycho is in the house, why doesn’t she just open the door and let the alarm go off, not only to possibly scare off the intruder, but so the alarm company is forced to send the police to the house as fast as possible?