Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

3/4

Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Tony Beckley, Colleen Dewhurst

Rated R (probably PG-13 for Some Language, and Terror/Violence and Gore)

"When A Stranger Calls" began its life as a short called, of all things, "The Sitter" (a name that would be used decades later for a Jonah Hill comedy).  But after the massive and entirely unexpected success of "Halloween," co-writer/director Fred Walton thought that it could be expanded into a feature film.  He was partly right.  The opening twenty minutes are splendidly creepy with the climax coming in close second.  But the middle portion is rubbish.

Jill Johnson (Kane) is babysitting for the Mandrakis family.  Soon she begins to receive strange phone calls.  At first they annoy her, but then they start to scare her.  With the Mandrakis couple at a movie and the police rendered impotent by red tape, Jill is scared out of her wits.  Then she finds the truth about the caller...

Cut to seven years later.  Curt Duncan (Beckley), the caller, has escaped from the insane asylum and is loose in Los Angeles.  A detective turned private eye, John Clifford (Durning), is on his trail.  He was there for the aftermath of Duncan's run-in with Jill, and he intends to exact retribution in blood.

Comparisons to "Halloween" are entirely appropriate.  Both films rely on suspense, not gore, and have similar settings, characters and atmosphere.  It would be wrong to say that this film was influenced by John Carpenter's classic (the opening scene is a shot-by-shot remake of the short, which was made in 1977, a year before "Halloween"), but they both have similar feels.

Sadly, it's the middle section that prevents "When A Stranger Calls" from achieving "Halloween's" status as a horror classic.  Clifford's pursuit of Duncan, which involves a barfly played by legendary Off-Broadway actress Colleen Dewhurst, isn't very interesting.  It's weakly written, sluggishly paced, and occasionally quite dumb.  There's nothing wrong with the performances; Durning, Beckley (who had terminal cancer at the time...this was his final performance) and Dewhurst are fine.

The mistake, I think, is showing Duncan.  Generally speaking, the more you know about a horror movie villain, the less frightening they are.  That's why Michael Meyers is so terrifying; he doesn't speak and his movements are so robotic.  He's unreadable.  "When A Stranger Calls" is at its best when Duncan is off screen and an anonymous presence.

Lovers of suspense and horror (a dubious genre to put the film into...there's very little overt violence and almost no gore) should check it out.  But my advice is that once the opening act is over, skip ahead until Carol Kane shows up again.  You're not missing much.  Trust me.

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