Directed by Fred Walton
Release Date: 1979
Release Date: 1979
Written by Steve Feke & Fred Walton
Starring: Charles Durning
***** (5 out of 5 stars)
This film redefines the term 'creep'. A lot of people talk about how Black Christmas was the first to do the 'killer calling from inside the house' bit, but honestly (even though that's one of my favourite horrors) I love When A Stranger Calls and how it executes it's story. Carol Kane plays Jill Johnson, a young babysitter taking care of a doctor's children while he and his wife go out on the town. While hanging out in the living room and studying presumably, she gets a creepy call a few times in a row asking if she's checked the children. She soon calls police and long story short, it turns out the man is calling from inside the house on the other line. The man, Curt Duncan (played amazingly by Tony Beckley), has killed the two children and later we find out that he did it only with his bare hands. Seven years later, we find John Clifford (played by Charles Durning, who I'm a big fan of from Denis Leary's show Rescue Me) trying to track Duncan down after he has escaped the mental hospital in which he was a patient. Now we watch Clifford's search as well as Duncan trying to fit back into the world, which doesn't turn out so well. He stalks another woman and then when the heat is on and Clifford is right behind him, he finds Jill again and terrorizes her new family. For the time it was made, this film was very progressive mainly due to the fact that it was brave of Fred Walton to have the children killed; most films, even nowadays, either spare us the details or have children saved at the last minute but When A Stranger Calls pulls no punches in the gruesomeness of the murders. The film pairs the script with an atmosphere drenched in creepy suspense, something that works well because even the good guys aren't without their flaws- we find out halfway through that John Clifford is planning to kill Duncan, not bring him back to the hospital. It's a very dark film and it works well both literally and visually on that level.
The acting was fairly solid for a film of this genre, especially in the 70s. Carol Kane sometimes bordered on being a little too loud but other than that her performance was wonderful; conveying a sense of dread the way she did throughout the film isn't always easy, and the breakdown when she receives a call at the restaurant is very real and gritty, truly believable. Charles Durning and Tony Beckley make a great pair nemesis'- John Clifford, the hard-nosed, waddling private detective and Curt Duncan, the absolutely bat shit crazy criminal. There's even a chase scene which fits the two very well; Clifford isn't the supercop or all-star athlete we see in most crime movies, and Duncan isn't your typical villain more so just a really creepy psychopath. There is a lot of believability when it comes to these three roles and it's what makes this a top notch movie. There are many chances to stray into cheesy, hokey acting when it comes to this genre but these players manage to make this into a very dark, realistic portrayal of their characters. The highlight is Tony Beckley- he plays Curt Duncan in such a subtle manner that when we do see him in flashbacks of the murder, it's almost hard to imagine that this man is a killer. Very impressive.
The colours of the movie and the lighting make this the gritty film that it is. We see Clifford roaming the streets, searching for Duncan. The city is dark but alive with faded neon lights, an eerie glow cast out all over the streets. One scene in particular after Clifford and Duncan's chase, when Duncan has eluded him he sits in the dark and talks to himself ("I don't exist. I was never born.."), the camera slowly fades into black so we see less and less of his face as he disappears into the darkness. This creates a figurative image in our mind, that Curt Duncan as a person is slowly disappearing and the only thing left is what he has done and what he is- he's a murderer. The lighting in the city during the film is something that really adds to the aura of the film itself, and a few particular scenes in the houses (both beginning and end) are what gives it that spectacularly creepy sensation.
This movie is a five star rating for me. I was generally unnerved by some of the scenes with Tony Beckley, and the all around feeling of the film is very dark and creepy. It's not often I find a movie that disrupts my thinking and makes me wonder what is in the shadows when I go to sleep, but this is one of them.