Review: When a Stranger Calls (1979)


Directed by: Fred Walton | 97 minutes | horror, thriller | Actors: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Ron ONeal, Steven Anderson, Rachel Roberts, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano, Sara Damman, Richard Bail, William Boyett, Kirsten Larkin, Carol ONeal, Ed Wright, Louise Wright, Joseph Reale, Heetu, Michael Champion, Dennis McMullen, Wally Taylor, John Tobyansen, Lenora May, Randy Holland, Trent Dolan, Frank DiElsi, Arell Blanton, DeForest Covan, Charles Boswell

Babysitting is easy to make money. A bag of chips and a bottle of coke within reach, the television on and the children in bed. You would say it couldn’t be easier. Young Carol Kane is babysitting the kids and she’s not lucky. Her night of babysitting turns into a nightmare. “When a Stranger Calls” is a film with a good reputation in the horror circuit, but it turns out not to be a high trotter. The premise is good. A naive girl is terrorized by a dangerous madman during an evening babysitting. But the phone that the half-witted harasses her with rings so often and comes into focus so much in the first twenty minutes of the film that boredom sets in and the climax is obvious. The camerawork is hit and miss to say the least, and Kane doesn’t come across as a skilled actress. When she finally opens the front door, you startle yourself an accident.

After that, “Stranger” suddenly goes on for seven years and, as is often the case, the time jump is not necessary. Kane seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth and the story now focuses on the dangerous madman (Beckley) and Durning who is after him. Beckley’s latest role is nothing to write home about, especially since it is not very terrifying, as Jason Voorhees, for example, was later in “Friday the 13th”. Beckley died of cancer a year after “Stranger”. Fortunately, Durning (“Tootsie”) appears to save the day, literally and figuratively. The born actor with the belly delivers a great performance as a detective and private investigator. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. Director Walton tries to portray the broken life of Beckley, which partly succeeds. A scene in a bar, in which Beckley tries to pick up a beautiful, older lady and eventually receives blows from a café-goer, shows how stubborn and devastated Beckley is in social intercourse. But Beckley inspires little fear in the viewer and his demise in the sewers of a big city seems artificial.

The footage of “Stranger” is often dark and of poor quality. The film was made for little money. Director Walton (April Fool’s Day) alternates fine scenes with incomprehensible shots. The story twists and turns are flying around your ears. The film music makes up for it. Especially when the story is weak, such as in the first twenty minutes, cello and violin sounds create a slight tension. All in all, too little to justify the statement “One of the most exciting first fifteen minutes ever.” “Stranger” was remake in 2006. The original just isn’t such a good production. The story is messy, the camera work changeable and a number of actors are not convincing. Durning keeps things together and a few nice scenes ensure that the whole does not collapse completely. Mediocre horror.

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