When a Stranger Calls: “the scariest phone call in horror”
While up for debate, one of the most famous scenes in any of Wes Craven’s work is in Scream. Drew Barrymore deals with a man calling her again and again, ending with the question of “what is your favourite scary movie?” subsequently chased and offed by Ghost-face. Turns out that-that scene isn’t an original creation, in fact, it is a homage to the skin-crawling 25 minutes that open Fred Walton’s 1979 classic, When a Stranger Calls. That influential 1979 chiller has been clubbed together with its 1993 sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, and rare 1977 proof of concept short, the Sitter.
While that proof of concept short doesn’t have the same sweat inducing terror as either of the feature length iterations, its inclusion is a great boon for Second Sight. While the label isn’t anywhere near as prolific as they used to be, the few titles they do release are of massive quality with the company making sure every release is as good as it possibly could be. And for them to pull out the red carpet for a film like When a Stranger Calls, a film that is excellent but isn’t well known outside of specific circles, shows immense faith in their product.
In that infamous scene, Carol Kane is Jill Johnson, a teenager who is babysitting as a couple go out for the night. Told not to disturb the kids as they are ill and it took a good long while to finally get them to sleep; Kane does as she is told and stays downstairs, calls a friend on the phone and does her homework. That is until the phone starts ringing, sometimes there will be no-one there, other times there will be a softly spoken man asking why she hasn’t checked on the children. It doesn’t sound like much, and on paper it isn’t. As in the short, without the correct lighting, score and performance this scene doesn’t work. With the moody lighting, Carol Kane, Donald Peterman’s cinematography and one of the great impressionistic horror scores from Dana Kaproff, this scene becomes almost unbearable. These 25 minute are some of the most perfect, and scary, in the cannon of horror. And that twist? the icing on the cake – seeing this with an engaged crowd would be incredible. The same is true of the final, inverted 25 minutes, too.
The only issue with the film is that there’s an awkward disconnect between the beginning, middle and end. The bookends are of the same home invasion stock, while the middle is something entirely different. Typically, in making this statement I’d be using that inconsistency as a means to pick fault. While it is different, the middle run is a quietly disturbing character study that delves into the psyche of killers. Throughout this stretch, Charles Durning plays ex-cop-turned-PI John Clifford, who is trying to find Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley in his final role) who has escaped from his incarceration in a mental health institution. In the instances where Clifford isn’t hunting his charge down, we spend it with Duncan who is either confused and alone with his thoughts or stalking Colleen Dewhurst (Annie Hall, the Dead Zone). In any other film, Duncan would be the brand of inhuman murder bot that endured the slasher phase, in the hands of Fred Walton and a phenomenal late career turn from Tony Beckley, he becomes much scarier because of how human and broken he is. And therein lies the heart of what makes When a Stranger Calls, it’s scary because its so real and unconcerned with the reverie of genre.
Walton’s original was released just one year after John Carpenter’s epoch defining Halloween, surprising it is then that the film didn’t reinvent itself in line with the early slashers of the era in its follow ups. Credit where it’s due then that Walton ignored that phase of horror cinema and doubled down on the psychological and emotional narrative that made the 1979 original so good. Dropping in 1993, When a Stranger Calls Back opens the same way only instead of the mysterious stranger phoning, he knocks on the door and asks Julia (Jill Schoelen) to use the phone – not wanting to let a stranger in a home that isn’t hers, she attempts to phone on the unseen strangers behalf. The phone line has been disconnected, but she commits trying to keep up the ruse so that the man will leave her alone. The same sort of scenario unfolds playing on the same emotions and theme of sowing distrust in the middle class suburbs of America, even if it isn’t as heartbreakingly potent.
The 1979 original felt disconnected with Carol Kane disappearing for 45 minutes only to turn up again in the last half an hour. In 1993 that issue is diverted entirely and in that way, the sequel flows with a greater sense of cohesion even if it doesn’t hit the same highs. When a Stranger Calls Back is interesting as a film ahead of its time. You can call the two films horrors about home invasion or whatever else that lends itself to the lexicon of horror, however, I see them much more as a double bill of post-trauma horror – themes that are very relevant to today. This manifests in two ways, the first has Carol Kane look after Jill Schoelen, as someone who has been through an almost identical experience to herself and looks to provide support where she had none. Also, Kane conquered her trauma and has since become a strong individual who is perfectly capable defending herself. She has become one of life’s survivor’s, compare this to the way horror survivor’s typically return in future outings, it, again, is concerned with character growth and the reality of such situations and their coping mechanisms.
As a horror film, the 1993 film is mixed. The opening 20-plus-minute scene is almost a beat for beat repeat of the original only deviating in small ways. Yes, it is still powerful but when you capture lighting in a bottle once, repeating the trick over and over only becomes less impressive. More impressive are scenes buried deeper in the film. There’s a hospital room scene at night which only lasts a few minutes and it has that same sense of dread that you’d hope for in a sequel to a film containing one of the scariest scenes in horror history. The end scene has that same punch, too. Unfortunately, that climax is undermined slightly when you see the goofy way that the mysterious stalker has been hiding himself. As a concept it sure is scary when you consider what he could do and get away with. Then there’s his make-up, again, conceptually strong, but I couldn’t stop myself from laughing – it genuinely is silly, and for a horror film about stalking that is the last reaction you want to leave with.
There was a Z-list quality remake in 2006 by Simon West featuring Tessa Thompson, Clarke Gregg and Lance Henriksen and it utterly failed to reignite interest in the 1979 classic. Personally, I had heard its name in passing within the horror community – nothing big, just that it had inspired Scream. When I sat down and watched When A Stranger Calls I was knocked out. Carol Kane’s performance is excellent, Fred Walton staged some of the best set pieces in horror and in experimenting with nails on piano keys and other weird tricks and treats, Dana Kaproff has created one of the ultimate soundscapes. Horror music tends to prioritise themes, genuine, mood creating monsters are very few and far between and here we have one of the best.