1979's When A Stranger Calls starts off in a simple enough manner – a young woman named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) shows up at the home of a wealthy doctor and his wife to watch their kids for the evening as they go out for dinner and a movie. As they're on their way out the door the mother tells Jill that the kids are asleep and that they've just gotten over bad colds and were a bit problematic, but that they shouldn't be hard to deal with as long as they don't wake up. Jill gets comfortable, talks to her friend on the phone about a boy named Bobby that she's interested in, and everything seems to be going just fine until the phone starts ringing.
At first Jill doesn't pay the calls much mind, as they're just hang ups, but when someone asks her 'Did you check on the children?' and then calls back a few minutes later only to ask her the same thing, she starts to get concerned. She calls the cops and after some pleading they agree to trace the call for her, only to report back to her with the news that whoever is harassing her is doing so from inside the same house. She runs outside, the cops show up, and in addition to a terrified babysitter they find a madman covered in blood and the corpses of two dead children.
Seven years later, we find out that the man who killed the children, Kirk Duncan (Tony Beckley), wasn't imprisoned because he was found insane. Instead, he was locked away in a mental hospital where he was subjected to electroshock therapy and a strict regiment of pills. His brain more or less friend, Duncan manages to escape the hospital and heads back into the city he once called home where he finds a place among the transient population of the town and becomes obsessed with a woman he meets at a bar. A former policeman named John Clifford (Charles Durning) who was involved with the case originally is now working as a private investigator, and when the parents of the children that Duncan murdered find out he's free, they hire him to catch him. With the help of some of his old friends on the police department (one of whom is played by Ron Superfly O'Neal) he sets out to stop Duncan permanently, but Duncan isn't going to be an easy man to catch, and he hasn't completely forgotten about Jill Johnson either…
The first half hour of When A Stranger Calls is tense, edge of your seat suspense. Director Fred Walton, in his directorial debut, keeps us guessing and makes us care just enough about Jill's plight in the house that we can't help but want to know more. While the movie takes a very different turn once the police show up and the story flashes seven years into the future, Walton still manages to keep us interested in what's happening even if he can't really keep up with his own amazing beginning. The movie makes an about face and flips from a straight out horror movie to more of a police drama/detective story but rest assured, it all builds to a very nice and satisfactory conclusion and throws in a few nice twists along the way.
At the heart of the film's success are four strong performances. First and foremost is Carol Kane as the babysitter. She looks innocent and naïve and is the perfect counterpart to the maniac on the other end of the line. As she gets scared, so too does the audience grow scared with her. While a lot of people are familiar with her from her more popular comedic roles, she's fine in the serious tone of this film and her unusual speaking voice just adds to her character's naïve qualities. What would an innocent victim be without a malicious maniac to terrorize her? Tony Beckley, in his last performance (he would die from cancer less than a year after the film was made), is superb as Kurt Duncan. Not only do we fear him, but we even sympathize with him. Despite the fact that he's the lowest of the low – a child murderer – he is truly alone and a very literal castaway lost at sea in the big city. He's completely out of his element and because of this we're able to feel for him a little bit, which makes what he does all the more horrifying. Rounding out the strong cast are Charles Durning as the man on the case chasing down Duncan through the ghettos and back alleys, and Colleen Dewhurst as Tracy, the current object of Duncan's affection. There's some interesting interplay between the last two performers that adds some world weary authenticity to their performances.
High praise? Sure, but When A Stranger Calls deserves it. That being said, the movie is not without it's flaws. There are a couple of moments where you wonder why the characters are doing what they're doing, particularly when Tracy opens the door after Clifford pounds on it like a lunatic. Anyone with half a brain would be locking the deadbolt and calling the cops if someone came to their door and behaved that way. Likewise, in this day and age at least, it would seem odd that someone could escape from a mental hospital, especially if that someone is a double child murderer, and not cause more of a public outcry or make the evening news. When Duncan finds himself a free man somehow (we're never told really how he gets out, only that he has) no one seems to care aside from the parents of the dead children and stodgy old Clifford. Thankfully the movie gets more than enough right that we're able to overlook a couple of logic gaps and enjoy the bigger picture for what it is – a tense and well made thriller that relies not on cheap effects or jump scares but on purely psychological suspense and effectively build tension.The DVD
Columbia/Tri-Star has simply repackaged their first pressing of the film as evidenced by the fact that both the 1.33.1 fullframe transfer and the anamorphic 1.85.1transfer (the disc is a flipper – one transfer on each side) are the same as the last release. The image is clean and free of all but the most minute instances of print damage or dirt but it is fairly soft in some spots and the fine detail does tend to get a little bit lost in the darker, more shadowy scenes. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and edge enhancement and aliasing are kept to a minimum, and overall the movie look good, but the softness is definitely there and a few scenes are a little on the grainy side.Sound:
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack actually comes through sounding really good on this DVD. The phone rings are nice and clear, very distinct, and the killer's voice comes through in his conversations with the babysitter with disturbing clarity. The musical cues are just strong enough to give us a jolt now and then but not overpowering to the point where they bury the performers or the sound effects in the mix. The lower end of the mix is strong and deep and the higher end is distinct sounding. For an older mono mix, When A Stranger Calls sounds very good here.
Columbia has also included a Dolby Digital French Mono dubbed track, and subtitles are provided in English, French and Spanish. And English language closed captioning option for the hearing impaired has also been provided for the feature only.Extras:
Aside from chapter selection, Columbia has provided trailers for Tom Savini's remake of Night Of The Living Dead and for I Know What You Did Last Summer.Final Thoughts:
A solid thriller gets a rather pedestrian release from Columbia/Tri-Star, who have more or less repackaged their first DVD of When A Stranger Calls and slapped a new label on it, likely in hopes of cashing in on the upcoming remake. That being said, the film is worth seeing and this release comes recommended on the strength of the movie, rather than the overall package.