Throwback Thursday: When a Stranger Calls (1979)

“First door on your left, at the top of the landing.”

As the daughter of a classic horror fan (and a former babysitter myself), I have strong childhood memories of the 1979 version of When a Stranger Calls – or of its heralded opening sequence, at least. The cult classic is based on the urban legend ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’, which originated in the 1960s.

The first twenty minutes of the film are a faithful and stylish retelling of the legend. In this version, the titular babysitter is played by a winsome, curly-haired Carol Kane. Throughout the evening, she is besieged by a series of phone calls from an anonymous man who repeatedly asks her if she has checked on the children before hanging up. Oddly enough, despite these numerous inquiries, she never actually checks the children throughout the entire 20 minute sequence. (She does, however, find the time to get into the household whisky between calls.) Eventually, after being treated like a hysterical fool by the police and arming herself with a fire poker, she is given a chance to speak at length with the caller. When she asks if he can see her, he assures her that he can. Kane is great here: despite her character’s palpable terror, you can see her visibly rally in the moment as she sits up straighter, gains control over her facial expression, and sardonically (almost coyly) apologises for shutting off the lights. The tension ramps up as she asks what he wants, and her feigned bravado dissipates completely as he delivers one of the most iconic lines of the movie (which I won’t spoil here. Just watch the scene – it’s a truly creepy line delivered with utmost perfection.) Immediately after the call ends, the twist is delivered; the police ring Jill with the news that the calls have been traced and are (surprise, surprise) coming from inside the house. Of course, the children have already been dead for hours.

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“Hellooo? Is it me you’re looking for?”

If you ignore your growing exasperation with her lack of children-checking, the opening sequence is actually a solid, brilliant short feature that stands on its own. The sequence is thoughtfully edited, with interesting cuts and close-ups meaningful for both emotional and temporal reasons; close-ups of door locks and potential weapons put us in Jill’s headspace, while lengthy shots of a clock’s swinging pendulum or Jill’s melted ice cream bar drive home the unbearable tension of waiting long minutes for the other shoe to drop. Honestly, even if you have no interest in watching the film in its entirety (although you really should, it’s great), you should at least see this classic opening sequence.

Although the first act of the film is slasher through and through, the majority is more accurately categorized as psychological horror. The film picks up again seven years later, following former police officer and now private investigator John Clifford in his quest to re-capture the crazed killer, Curt Duncan, who has recently escaped from a mental institution. During an entertaining showdown between Clifford and the head nurse of the institution, we learn that Duncan has received 38 rounds of electroshock treatment and is excessively paranoid and violent. This is potentially bad news for Tracy, a Kathleen-Turner-voiced, hard-luck, middle-aged woman whom Duncan approaches in Torchy’s, the local dive bar. The take-no-shit Tracy is ably fleshed out by Colleen Dewhurst, who straight-up steals every scene she is in. Who knew that Marilla Cuthbert was such a babe? Apart from a fourth act that marks the return of the slasher formula (and of babysitter Jill, now all grown up with two kids of her own), the film is a moderately-paced exploration of the humanity of Curt Duncan, now homeless, lonely, and doggedly pursued by John Clifford.

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Curt Duncan modelling the latest Vivienne Westwood collection.

The film is well-acted, and Tony Beckley brings a pathos to the character of Curt Duncan that makes him borderline sympathetic despite his horrible crimes. A creepy flashback sequence in the middle of the film is triggered by Duncan catching sight of himself in the mirror – memories of his crimes and rejections seem to hit him all at once and he collapses, naked and weeping. It’s a fantastic performance by Beckley of a man suddenly and deeply overcome. His isolation and despair is further underscored in a later scene when, as he laments his own tortured existence, the camera slowly pulls back until Duncan is only a small, pale, dimly lit figure surrounded by deep shadow. In fact, each of the characters is broken in their own way – the hopeless Duncan, the obsessed Clifford, the traumatized Jill, and the empty Tracy; what the film lacks in gore, it makes up for in the horror of weltschmerz.

The action takes place almost exclusively at night, and much of the film eschews musical soundtrack, allowing the sounds of the city to fill that function. Director Fred Walton takes his time, indulging in many languid, silent, lingering shots and focusing on small, unexpected details of the environment nearly as often as he does people. In one skillfully done sequence, Duncan stalks Tracy as, unable to hail a cab, she walks home. The sequence is moodily lit, with a minimal and mildly menacing soundtrack. Over the course of around three dialogue-free minutes, the camera slowly tracks her – sometimes moving slightly ahead of her, sometimes trailing behind – cutting between different aspects of the urban landscape as she crosses roads, walks past shop entrances, and climbs sets of stairs. When the sequence is repeatedly nearly shot-for-shot under different circumstances later in the film, the atmosphere is dramatically different. While the ending of When a Stranger Calls is genuinely terrifying, with a smart and unexpected jump scare, the climax feels far too abrupt, especially for a film that seems to pride itself on taking the long way. Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable, laidback ride when you’re not in the mood for gore or shaky-cam.

Score: 7 out of 10 checked children.

 

Bonus points:

  • The not-so-subtle contrast between Jill the bad babysitter, taking shots of whisky and refusing to check on the children, versus Jill the good mother, shown drinking a wholesome glass of milk and urging her own babysitter to be responsible.
  • Walton is very playful when it comes to the camera’s gaze, often misleading us with shots that appear to be from the POV of one character only to prove our assumptions wrong shortly thereafter, leaving us ever uncertain. So tricky!
  • Dana Kaproff’s score is absolutely fantastic. Listen to it here.
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