A rightfully iconic horror, especially for its opening 20 minutes of mounting terror, When a Stranger Calls is often just lumbered with that description. But the middle section is quite fascinating, even if it doesn’t match the opening or the final reel. It’s the atmosphere, creepy music and acting that truly makes When a Stranger Calls a very good exercise in terror. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s influence is hard to dispute.
Jill Johnson( Carol Kane) is a teenager who is babysitting the children of a local doctor, while he and his wife attend a swanky dinner. What seems to be a quiet evening soon turns into something terrifying when Jill begins receiving constant phone calls. Some are silent, but eventually the caller keeps asking her whether she has checked the children. The calls become more frequent and even though she thought they were a harmless prank at first, Jill becomes increasingly frightened. Eventually contacting the police, they trace the call to inside the house. Jill exits in terror and it’s here we learn that the caller and now killed had been in the house the whole time and had brutally murdered the children hours prior. We flash forward seven years and the detective who was on the case, the determined and upstanding John Clifford( Charles Durning), is summoned by the doctor after word gets to him that the killer, whose name is Curt Duncan( Tony Beckley) has escaped from his stay in a psychiatric hospital. Now a private investigator, Clifford is asked to find Duncan. It seems Duncan himself is struggling to adapt to life in the inner city, constantly at odds with his grim surroundings. He becomes enamoured with Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst) a lonely woman who drinks frequently, though she is skeptical of him at first due to his awkwardness. Once she shows him kindness, he becomes obsessed with her which alarms her deeply. Meanwhile, Clifford is on his track and his anger has boiled into thoughts of killing the murderer he is searching for as he feels justice wasn’t properly served. Later Duncan discovers a now older and more prepared Jill through a newspaper article. He decides to repeat what he started but can he be stopped before he kills again?
Fred Walton excellently ratchets up suspense and horror right from the get go, before settling into a strangely deep and reflective middle half. Though the first half is justifiably celebrated, the middle area is as well directed just in a different way. Walton had a hand in writing the script and he knows how to scare without being bloody. In fact, there’s nary a drop of blood shown, which makes events even more terrifying as your mind fills in the blanks. That opening 20 minutes is seriously some of the most tense and frightening as ever you’re likely to see, as the house that Jill is in becomes even more confined and the phone takes on a haunting life of its own. The whole lighting scheme is haunting too; as blue covers a lot of it, making the most out of illuminating the leading lady and highlighting her ordeal at hands of a mad man. I can’t praise this opening highly enough with its wide array of angles, spooky atmosphere and palpable feeling of unease. I could speak about the opening part for days, but sadly I have to concentrate on the rest of the film.
As aforementioned, When a Stranger Calls is regularly given the description of the opening and last parts are the best, while the middle section drags. While some of that is true( I mean the opening is simply stated a hair raising workout in mounting suspense that is still tense), I think the middle section has its moments, despite it not living up to the expectations set by that opening. It morphs from horror into a cat and mouse thriller with the private detective searching for the killer. While there are spots that feel too stretched and out of place, the middle of When a Stranger Calls provides an unusual insight into a killer and his situation. We almost feel pangs of sympathy for him as we glimpse his lonely existence, then we are reminded of his horrendous crimes and we snap back to reason. One part of When a Stranger Calls that is in need of deep appreciation is the sensationally spooky score from Dana Kaproff. He has supreme command over rising strings, sinister bass and odd percussion that just fits this movie like a glove. I can’t give it any more praise than just saying, it’s splendidly atmospheric and just adds so much to the creep factor in innumerable ways.
The acting is also pretty great in this film. Carol Kane, with her alert, large eyes and whispery, quivering voice, is an ideal bit of casting for the main lady in the horror of everything. She’s got the vulnerability down and terrified to a T, but when we later see her(after a break from the mid section), she’s definitely changed quite a bit in the long run and grown up. She’s still terrified by what happened but is more resilient and resourceful than before, almost as if her past experience has rightly made her more wary of danger and anything alarming . All in all, Carol Kane is pretty great as the central girl who bookends this chiller with quiet force and conviction. The always entertaining Charles Durning is on hand as the detective who takes up the bulk of middle section. He has a certain affable way about him but a grave and solemn loyalty to the law that’s in evidence. That’s why it is intriguing to watch him think of murdering for what he has done; you wouldn’t expect it from him but you can certainly grasp some of his reasoning. Durning got turns in quality work that stands up. And speaking of standing up and standing out, the late Tony Beckley is the glue that holds the mid section together with his portrayal of a killer. Considering he was very ill and died just months after the premiere, put a lot of hard work into the part that you’d never know he was tragically sick behind the scenes. his weary, almost pathetic character is at first glance someone you wouldn’t think capable of murder, but his intense eyes say so much of the brutal inside of him. Colleen Dewhurst rounds out the cast as the boozy woman who doesn’t quite realise the repercussions of befriending Duncan. She’s pretty excellent here I must say.
Well directed and acted, along with being pretty creepy in the long run, When a Stranger Calls may show its age but while overall not the best horror movie ever, it’s still very influential and very suspenseful. Don’t watch it alone!