When a Stranger Calls (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Babysitter receives harassing calls.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) gets asked by the Mandrakis (Rutayna Alda, Carmen Argenziano) to babysit their two children, who are already asleep, while they go out for the evening. While Jill is there she starts receiving harassing calls from an anonymous man asking about the children. Jill eventually calls the police who find out that the call is coming from inside the house, but fortunately the police arrive in time before the killer (Tony Beckley) can get to her. She recovers from the incident and moves on with her life by getting married and having two kids of her own only to find that the man has escaped from the mental hospital and coming after her again.

This is an extension to director Fred Walton’s 1977 short film The Sitter with the first 22-minutes almost the same as that one, but not quite. The opening bit is much better handled here with close-ups of a pendulum on a clock swinging back and forth and Jill hearing noises in the house only to find that it’s the ice dispenser in the refrigerator, which are all the scenes that were not in the first film. Kane is also a better actress and her ability to convey fear elicits more tension from the viewer, but I still found it annoying that she reiterates the same line that the babysitter in the first film did where she states to the police that she’s ‘all alone in the house’ when technically there’s supposedly two sleeping kids upstairs.

The second act is where this thing goes off on a wild tangent by focusing almost exclusively on the killer, whose name is Curt Duncan, as he attempts to survive on the streets in the most seedy part of the city while a police investigator named John Clifford (Charles Durning), who worked on the earlier case and is now a private investigator, is determined to kill Duncan for what he did to the two children. To some degree this is a refreshing change of pace as most horror films like to demonize the killer making him seem like a soulless monster who kills people robotically while here the psychopath is portrayed as a vulnerable and confused human tormented by inner demons that he cannot control.

Watching him try to form a bond with a woman (Colleen Dewhurst) that he meets at a bar simply for human contact is interesting because most psychos don’t just murder everyone they meet even though in a conventional horror flicks you’d get the impression that they do. In reality many of them can be married, hold down regular jobs and have what appears to be a normal life only to do their killings on the side and the film scores definite points by examining this aspect that we’re not used to seeing, but it also makes him less scary, which ultimately hurts the tension.

The biggest problem is that Jill the main character completely disappears for a whole hour only to reappear again at the very end, which is too long. If this is a person that the viewer is supposed to care about then she needs to be in the film a lot more possibly cutting back and forth between her recovering from the incident and meeting someone that she will marry while also going back to Duncan and what he’s doing instead of just exclusively concentrating on Duncan as it does.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending in which Duncan tracks Jill down and tries to kill her makes no sense at all. How did the killer, who has no money and is basically homeless, find out where she lived? She has gotten married and most likely a new last name, so just saying he found her address listed in a phone book doesn’t work. How did he know the phone number to the place where she was attending a dinner party and for that matter how was he able to break into her house undetected while squad cars were patrolling it? Better yet how was Charles Durning, who ends up shooting the guy, able to get into the house as just a few minutes earlier he was shown inside a hotel room? Why was the killer so obsessed with tormenting Jill anyways, which are all good questions that never get answered and leaves open too many plot holes to be fully effective.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Fred Walton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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