High schooler Jill takes a babysitting job, overseeing two sleeping children while the parents have date night. The phone rings and an assumed prankster tries to scare Jill, either asking why she hasn’t checked the children or doesn’t say a word, but as Jill fields calls throughout the night with the same terrorizing voice, the terrified sitter phones the police whom trace the call from inside the house. Jill barely escapes the deadly encounter that left two children victims to a psychopath; yet the now happily married, mother of two small children is faced with the same killer seven years later after he escapes from a mental institution. Hot on his trail is detective turned private eye John Clifford who will stop at nothing from stopping a maniac who will kill again. Years later, Jill and Clifford team up once more to investigate a similar case of a co-ed being specifically terrorized by an obsessive stalker through the span of five years to the point where his next move could be her last.
Perhaps one of the best, if not the best, openings to a horror movie ever, Fred Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls” puts a freeze on the heart, forces to choke down the breath, and tightens the already painfully clenched fists with sheer, thick tension bred from an urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs. Walton, and co-writer Steve Feke (“Mac and Me”), develop two successful thriller from script to screen, spanning over the course of 14-years. Walton’s uncanny ability to invoke fear through a conduit of simple objects, such as a telephone ring or in the thicket of dead silence, and leading a direction of motivational hesitation or slowness to the story and through it’s characters is dread absolute. There’s similarities between Fred Walton and “The Driller Killer” director Abel Ferrara with a scent of realism and grittiest blanketed with a knack for the abstract in certain facets. Though slightly fluffier to Ferrara’s shock value, Walton builds anticipation in not just his hit first film in 1979, but also in his made for TV movie in 1993.
Starring as the lead in both films is Carol Kane. The “Scrooged” actress shells out a white knuckling performance in Jill, the terrorized babysitter phoned inside the house by man upstairs. The harrowing night that will scar for Jill for life will continue through into the sequel, “When A stranger Calls Back.” As Jill grows through both films, so does Kane who builds the character a tougher exterior to match wits with second psychopath stalking a hapless co-ed. She’s teamed with legendary actor Charles Durning. Essentially in Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls,” Kane and Durning never have any scenes together, performing in almost two separate stories until the climatic that intertwined that collaboration. During’s a fine actor and can be the bull of any detective and/or private dick lead, but, to be honest, Durning always carried a hefty, front-heavy load that didn’t quite fit his character, John Clifford, chasing on foot a much leaner foe. “When A Stranger Calls” cast also includes Ron O’Neal (“The Final Countdown”), Tony Beckley (“In the Devil’s Garden”), and Colleen Dewhurst (“The Dead Zone”) while “When A Stranger Calls Back” also includes Jill Schoelen (“The Stepfather”) and Gene Lythgow.
A fleeting glimpse of brilliancy can go relatively unnoticed in Fred Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls.” Much of what makes the film so effective is essentially obsolete; for example, rotary phones are dinosaurs or even landlines for that matter. Also, the way Walton breaks up the film into a definitive three separate acts perfectly stretches the urban legend much more than warranted and the director also completes the story and character arcs. Dana Kaproff’s sophomore score can be characterized as menacing, suspenseful, and aesthetically unfit to the point of inspiring dreadful sensations that heighten the story’s already engrossing nature. In “When A Stranger Calls Back,” the opening is basically a mirror image of the original film with a slight (of hand) change and the narrative itself is captivating enough to get engrossed with, but there’s something about the made for TV movie that doesn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, the killer’s underdeveloped motives doesn’t make things crystal clear or just maybe the killer’s use of a ventriloquist and body art into his perverted and obsessive arsenal is too zany. Despite being a made for television movie, Walton’s followup film was premiere on Showtime back in 1993, giving the movie a not-so-diluted and PG-13 appeal; instead, bits of grittiness and some strip club nudity rivals the tone of it’s predecessor.
Second Sight presents “When A Stranger Calls” and “When A Stranger Calls Back” double feature on Blu-ray home video in the United Kingdom. Despite the upgrade, a DVD-R was provided for the review so technical aspects will not be reviewed. The disc did include bonus features such as Fred Walton’s inspirational short film “The Sitter” and interviews with director Fred Walton, Rutanya Alda, and Dana Kaproff, and Carol Kane. Carol Kane has more recently been the quirky and city-salty landlady that’s quick to whip sarcasms and clobber any hipster with a gentrifying agenda with a baseball bat in “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” but Fred Walton saw Kane for how the actress could truly perform under a realistically terrifying moment, a moment that savors being on tenterhooks and frozen in time for almost the last 40 years as a classic and iconic scene in horror movie history. “When A Stranger Calls” and “When A Stranger Calls Back” is simple, yet deploys effective thrills with pure impending loom and dread in massive, lucrative quantities that may have been antiquated by time, but is epitomized as vintage and elegantly construed horror.