DIRECTOR: Fred Walton
When high school student Jill Johnson is babysitting a couple of sleeping children. She begins to receive creepy phone calls from an unknown person who is asking her if she has 'checked on the children lately?' After she calls the police to complain about being harassed. She receives a terrifying call back telling her that the calls are coming from inside the house. Seven years after the traumatic event, Jill is again menaced by the killer who plans on finishing what he started.
When I first witnessed When A Stranger Calls as a teenager, I just wasn't impressed. I was a nineties kid who grew up loving the Scream franchise. A movie that I'm now well aware was somewhat inspired by this movie with its opening sequence. Over the course of my seventies and eighties slasher retrospective, I'm discovering lots of films about the terrorised babysitter or creepy unknown caller. This follows Fright and Black Christmas and again, was a pretty enjoyable experience on my second viewing.
The first twenty minutes of When A Stranger Calls are some of the creepiest minutes that have ever been committed to a horror movie. While it isn't flat out scary or has you jumping out of your seat. The film successfully builds tension until it reaches that breaking point when the police phone Jill back to inform her that the calls are coming from inside of the house. It has some of the most perfect tension building in a horror film. The reveal of the killer at the top of the stairs and the confirmation that he has murdered the sleeping children is pretty horrific.
The second act is where the movie has a few issues and loses a few points with me. We learn that the killer has escaped from a mental asylum after being committed for the murders of the children. Here we are introduced to our killer. The second act feels like a completely different movie because instead of following Jill as she recovers from the traumatic event. A good chunk of this film switches gears, and we now follow the killer as he stalks a woman. If I have anything positive to say about it all, it certainly throws out the formula of what I had come to expect.
We have a few scenes in the middle of the film that feel like they drag on. There is a scene in a bar and a few very long-winded moments where our private eye is trying to hunt down our killer. While they are not out of place nor feel like they don't offer anything to the story. Some of these scenes feel like they kill the vibe of what starts out as an extremely intense horror film. The scenes that are most uncomfortable in the second act is our killer just entering a woman's home and not leaving. This scene makes for a pretty intense sequence. I was on the edge of my seat.
When A Stranger Calls also has a pretty fun chase scene towards the third act of the film. When our killer ends up attacking the woman after she is used as bait to try and capture him. We get a pretty awesome chase scene. What I think I enjoyed so much about When A Stranger Calls is that it never feels like it follows a formula that I have come to expect from watching a lot of seventies slashers. Compared to movies like Fright and Black Christmas, this feels like it sets itself apart just enough to be fresh when it comes to the stalking babysitter and creepy unknown caller tales.
Now the third act of the movie is where things pick back. We return to a now adult Jill. She is a happily married woman and has two beautiful children. When she and her husband go out for the night to celebrate a promotion, she receives a call that sends her into a panic. The caller asks her if she has checked on the children? Once again, we are right back into the intense stuff that made the opening so promising. The final few minutes are utterly creepy. I have to also hand it to the director and writer for giving us such a dark ending. This isn't a happy one, and I think it would have alienated some audience members back in the late seventies.
When it comes to the acting, I think the movie has some solid performances. Carol Kane as Jill Johnson is fantastic. When the second act and entire middle part of this movie does away with her character. I actually missed her performance. She opens and closes the film and delivers a great performance. Tony Beckley as our killer also delivers a solid performance. He plays a psychopath very well. I felt uncomfortable several times throughout the film. Charles Durning who plays our detective also gives a great performance but I think is overshadowed here by both Carol Kane and Tony Beckley who have much more to do here.
Lastly, we have the suspense and scares. While the film isn't exactly scary. It's pretty intense. The opening sequence is one of the creepiest I've seen in a slasher film. The film sort of loses its way during the second act of the film. The tension sort of fades out and comes back when we are again introduced to Jill as an adult. The film gets a much-needed boost of tension in the final few minutes. The scene in the restaurant with the call and the closet door and the killer talking to Jill are both really creepy moments. For the most part, it delivers the chills.
DEATH TOLL: 4
BLOOD AND GORE:
- A man is beaten up in a bar fight.
- Two children are murdered in their sleep.
- A man is seen dead on the floor.
- A man is shot and killed.
When A Stranger Calls is an incredibly enjoyable seventies slasher. While the movie has a few problems that fall back on the second act of the film. I have to admit that the way that this film plays out, it doesn't follow the normal formula and feels fresh even if the creepy caller and babysitter alone in the house movies had already been done several times before. Bookended by incredibly creepy moments and some solid performances from our three leading characters. When A Stranger Calls is one of the better horror films to come out of that decade.