When a Stranger Calls (1979)

“What do you want?”  “Your blood… all over me…” – When a Stranger Calls

The 1970s gave us a decade of classic horror films including The Exorcist, Jaws, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and When a Stranger Calls.  What made these films so iconic and scary were the settings and themes. A generation of people refused to go in the ocean after Jaws. Catholics and non-Catholics alike had nightmares the Devil had taken hold of them after seeing The Exorcist. And every girl in America jumped out of her seat and screamed bloody murder every time a phone rang when she babysat the kids down the block.

Such was the strong grip When a Stranger Calls had on the movie going audience. The iconic twenty minute opening of the film is still listed as once of the scariest horror film sequences of all time. And with good reason. This is a film I try to watch every year during Halloween to get my scare on. It still causes my heart to race some 30+ years after it was made. It has such staying power. I did watch the remake when it came out, something I almost never do as I feel the remakes don’t live up to the original, and while that is true in this case it’s not the worst remake I’ve seen. Still, it doesn’t hold a candle to the performances turned in by Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, and Tony Beckley (the killer), who passed away from a terminal illness not long after principal shooting on the film had concluded.

220px-Whenastrangercallsoriginal

The plot holds up well, and actually shares a lot of similarities with the aforementioned Halloween, which came out a year earlier and obviously had an influence on this film. Both films begin with a murder; the killer winds up in an insane asylum; the killer escapes said insane asylum; the killer is pursued by an authority figure who knows just how dangerous said killer is. Both films feature a babysitter being attacked.  There are other similarities, but to reveal those would also reveal key plot points that could ruin your enjoyment of the film.

To me the acting is top notch. Carol Kane turns in a marvelous performance and has always been a favorite of mine (Taxi’s Simpka anyone?). Colleen Dewhurst is an iconic actress and her character portrayal is completely believable, funny, and inspiring at the same time. You would not want to mess with her in a bar (or dark alley)!  I’ve always appreciated Charles Durning, and I enjoy him as much in this film as the detective who arrests the killer as I did in his portrayal as a killer himself in another horror classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  And Tony Beckley gives a menacing yet somehow sympathetic performance as the killer. I did not know he was sick when he was filming. You can’t tell by his performance (his last, unfortunately).  Truly amazing.

Some other fun trivia:

  • Carol Kane and Colleen Dewhurst also appeared in Annie Hall. They didn’t have any scenes together in either film.
  • The phone call between the killer and the babysitter (that is traced by the police) is 1 minute and 52 seconds.
  • Pay close attention to the phone rings. To ratchet up the tension the director had each subsequent phone call ring increase in volume.
  • Wes Craven paid homage to the film’s opening sequence in his movie Scream.
  • The film was originally a short called “The Sitter” and was basically the first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls. After the success of Halloween the director decided to expand the movie to a full length, focusing more on the killer.

stranger durning

I highly recommend you put this film on your “must-see” Halloween list. If you must see the remake, okay, it won’t kill you (HA!), but this is the definitive movie, and the one that should be enjoyed for years to come.

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