The notoriety of When a Stranger Calls lies within its much talked about opening segment. Based upon the urban legends and anxieties that still populated schoolyards into the 1990s, When A Stranger Calls’ opening reverberates strongly in films which are far more commented on today. The post-modern knowing winks of Scream (1996) and House of the Devil (2009) clearly riff on the material seen here. The film was drably reimagined in 2006 at a time where a glut of notable horror films were being remade with mixed results.
The remake stumbled into theatrical release to little fanfare, in a year which also gave us The Hills Have Eyes, The Omen, and The Wicker Man. Save for Alexander Aja’s superior remake of Hills, these revamps did little but remind people that they probably had the predecessors gathering dust in their homes somewhere. That said the remake of When A Stranger Calls is eye-raising in one area: extending the original’s seminal 20 minutes to a full feature. The reluctance to expand the film into anything other than a rather generic slasher is both a strange help and hindrance to the original film.
The 1979 film directed by Fred Walton is a play on the 1960’s urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs. Whilst looking after a neighbour’s children, a babysitter is harassed by a stalker whose constant phone calls insist that the sleeping children upstairs need to be checked upon. In the film, the intrepid babysitter is played by Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), whose broad but enjoyable performance in the early stages, along with Walton’s simple staging of the situation, keeps the tension at a suitable level, despite the fact it never betters similar set pieces from earlier slasher classics such as Black Christmas (1974) or Halloween (1978).
After the first act, the film then races ahead in time and expands into a rather limp police procedural of sorts, featuring Charles Durning, a formidable actor in his own right, wandering around the city searching for a notorious killer with a penchant for phone calls. Thematically, Walton tries to stray from the slightly more obvious conventions that pervade many psychological thrillers, doing what he can to provide a peculiar element of empathy for a devious butcherer of bodies. Walton’s aim feels somewhat ahead of its time when we consider how often audiences of the sub-genre can view these antagonists as troubled souls. However, the ingredients are not prepared well enough and the film lurches from scene to scene with none of the engagement of its opening sequence.
Annoyingly, the same goes for 1993’s made for TV feature When A Stranger Calls Back, in which Walton plays around with a few of the elements from the previous movie but mostly aims for the same thing that happened previously. When a Stranger Calls Back could be noted for the gender coding of its main character, who appears to be not merely a tomboy but verging towards androgynous. The film’s assailant this time, a kind of entertainer with an injection of school grade nihilism, again adds an element of edge to proceedings. Both antagonists are shown as damaged loners. But again, Walton never truly takes things out of the comfort zone or builds upon the early tensions which lie once more in the film’s opening, despite this second film’s far more assured direction of cast and story.
Looking back at these movies now is somewhat tougher than some of the other previously mentioned classics. Whether either feature’s main opening gambits would pass the more innovative creepypastas of today is really in the eye of the beholder. Both sequences will perhaps be worth die-hard fans revisiting once more for nostalgia’s sake. The main issue that lies within both movies is when the film decides to aim a little higher, targeting something that may appear more complex involving its characters. When a Stranger Calls makes commentary on the broken state of rehabilitation. When a Stranger Calls Back deals with its victim’s trauma with a clear sensitivity. But its handling of the morally dubious attackers often feels cumbersome and delivers ill-gotten sympathies.
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The more troubling aspect, however, is that both features are quite simply pretty tame in the grand scheme of horror. You’re really only going in for the film’s first moments. The Blu-ray includes Walton’s original short of When a Stranger Calls, entitled The Sitter. Despite some harsh lighting, framing limitations, and some green acting, the short is the urban legend distilled in its purest form. It’s little surprise that both versions of When a Stranger Calls borrow chunks of the short’s dialogue almost word for word. The Sitter, however, free from the need to tell a 90-minute story, is perhaps the best version of the tale despite its limitations.
Extras: The disc features a solid glut of interviews from the film’s key players. Fred Walton is an engaging interviewee whose pride in his film is far more important than anything this jaded critic comes up with. Carol Kane gives a warm conversation which includes the fact that she didn’t wish to imitate the same performance that occurred in The Sitter. Rutanya Alda’s spritely talk highlights her history as a refugee who fled the WW2 concentration camps before falling in love with American movies. The extras are rounded off with a slightly stiffer conversation with Dana Kaproff, who informs us of the amount of free reign he had in creating the score. When you combine the runtime of the extras as well as the fact the disc holds two feature-length movies, When A Stranger Calls delivers a strong amount of value for more diehard collectors of the genre.
When a Stranger Calls is out now on Blu-ray from Second Sight Films.