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.
Miskatonic University students Howard Damon and Randolph Carter investigate the disappearance of a missing friend last seen making good a dare to stay the night in a century-old, dilapidated house, right in the middle of a cemetery and with the caveat of a ghastly, creature legend. In the same instance, two colligate hunks try to fraternize with two freshman women within the dark and gloomy walls that seem to reposition themselves into an unescapable maze. Lurking through the inky corridors, an ancient and horrifying beast, thirsty for blood and hungry for flesh, continues to roam freely in the house, unleashed from it’s confined room a century ago, and hunting the students down one-by-one. Their only hope to get out alive is Howard’s haphazard bravery and Carter’s unrivaled intelligence that aim to rescue survivors and decipher the house’s resident Necronomicon to defeat an evil monster’s night of carnage.
Campy, brazen, and inspired, Jean-Paul Ouellette’s 1988 “The Unnamable” is every bit of an 80’s teen comedy rolled up into a bona fide ball of barbed madness shrouded with heaps of highly anticipated mystery. Unravels like a truly classic H.P Lovecraft story, Ouellette, who also penned the script, shows great patient to give the monster a grand finale revealing that leaves the characters left standing face-to-face with the fear that’s been stalking them. While “The Unnamable” strays away from more of Lovecraft’s prolific Cthulhu literary works, the story is drive by the theme of the unknown that partially, if not all, gives Ouellette motivation to not put the monster on full display. The fact that “The Unnamable” is also gory retells the tales of how horror used to be pure gold back in the Golden Age of the genre despite budget restraints and executive naivety in the audience ratings game.
“The Unnamable” finds their unlikely star for the unassertive character in Howard Damon. Soulcalibur series voice actor, Charles Klausmeyer, lands the role as his sophomore film about 8 years after Vanna White’s “Gypsy Angels.” Klausmeyer’s surefooted unsureness and comical desperation of Howard Damon makes him a likable character, likable enough to be opposite whatever has been locked away from over a century. Damn finds an arrogant cohort in Randolph Carter, a conceited fellow freshman whose a bit of a know-it-all, well versed by Mark Kinsey Stephenson. Stephenson, or rather his character, reminds me of a babyface John Glover (“Gremlins 2” and “Scrooged”). A pair of love switcheroo love interests in Alexandra Durrell, in her sole credited performance, and Laura Albert, who went from nude supporting roles to being one of the top stunt women in Hollywood, fair well as the standoffish and damsel-in-distress opposite the vibrant and lively Damon and Carter. Rounding out the remainder of the cast is Blane Wheatley, Eben Ham, Colin Cox, and Katrin Alexandre who did an impeccable gesticulation performance of the creature.
Ouellette story isn’t all that complex; a group of young students are trapped inside the black heart of a folklore notorious cemetery house. However, the breakneck narrative certainly needed something more extensive to the creature’s confinement and unholy backdrop, warranted to fulfill just what the hell these kids were getting into. The house has been doused with shielding dark magic, a fact barely mentioned until the final moments of the monster’s exposition, unveiled through the pages of the Necronomicon which becomes weaponized by quick study Carter. Spells and passages envelope the monster within the house’s old bones, like a prison cell constructed of two-by-fours, wood panelling, and asphalt shingles. While the story could have opened up more in that regard, the lack of dark mysticism doesn’t uproot an entertaining creature feature strongly braced with gory, character demising allegories, and peppered with misogynistic innuendos and campy skirmishes with the damned.
Unearthed Films and MVDVisual proudly present “The Unnamed” as part of their sub-label entitled Unearthed Classics and lands onto 1080p Blu-ray home video. Horror fans will thoroughly enjoy the newly restored 4k transfer presented in widescreen, 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the image quality is remarkably detailed with absent compression artifacts and edging enhancements. Skin tones look natural during outside shots while a blue tint, overlaying a dark backdrop, inside the rickety house isn’t overexposed and makes for quite the grim atmosphere. The English 5.1 Surround Sound DTS-HD, 2.0 PCM, audio track was resonating with a range of ambient sounds; however, an unfortunate mishap of ambient duplication followings about half a second from the initial sound. The dialogue track and soundtrack are no affected by this issue and the dialogue is clear in the forefront, not terrible interfered by the technical boo-boo. The extras are packed with audio commentary with Charles Klausmeyer, Mark Stephenson, Laura Albert, Eben Ham, Camille Calvet, and R. Christopher Biggs. There’s also a video interviews with actors Charles Klausmeyer, Mark Stephenson, Laura Albert, Mark Parra, R. Christopher Biggs, Camille Calvet, and Eben Ham, a vintage audio track, photo gallery, and trailers. The Blu-ray comes in a limited edition slip cover with the beautifully illustrated gothic-esque poster from Tongdee Panumas courtesy of the M. Wright Collection. “The Unnamable” was endangered; a potentially lost classic that quickly went to being out of print as soon as it was released onto DVD in Europe and never actually saw the digital upgrade light of day Stateside from it’s VHS predecessor. Luckily for us fans, Unearthed Films, living up to label moniker, unearths “The Unnamable” from the depths of obsolete format hell, revamping for a new generation of horror fans and re-transfixing fans who once thought Jean-Paul Ouellette’s film would never, ever see a glorious rebirth.