February 18, 2016
No matter how you slice it, babysitters make great Final Girls in horror movies. The combination of being alone in a strange place and being forced to be responsible for someone else’s safety as well as their own makes a character a great victim…and a great heroine. The babysitter motif has been explored in many movies, both classic (Halloween) and not-so-classic (Babysitter Massacre), but perhaps never as effectively as it was in the 1979 shocker When a Stranger Calls.
When a Stranger Calls begins with a babysitter named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane from “Taxi”) settling in for a night of children watching. With the kids tucked away asleep upstairs, she gets a series of creepy phone calls that repeatedly ask “have you checked the children lately?” When she notifies the police, they trace the calls and find out that they are coming from inside the house. The stalker, an unhinged man named Curt Duncan (The Italian Job’s Tony Beckley), is arrested, but the damage is done; the children have been murdered. Seven years later, the first officer on the scene, John Clifford (Charles Durning from The Fury and Dark Night of the Scarecrow), now a private investigator, learns that Duncan has escaped from the mental asylum to which he was sent. Clifford tracks the dangerous psychopath as he sneaks his way around the city, soon discovering that the crazy man is looking to finish the job with the babysitter whom he terrorized seven years earlier.
When a Stranger Calls was directed by Fred Walton (April Fool’s Day) from a script that he wrote with Steve Feke (Poltergeist III). It’s a tale of two movies, but not in a sequential way; the middle half of the movie is more of a crime drama, with Clifford following Duncan around the city, while the bookends have decidedly more of a suspenseful horror vibe. While the police procedural section of the film is necessary for story and character development, the beginning and end areas of the film, where Duncan is interacting with Jill, are the more compelling parts of the movie.
The first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls is a brilliant movie in and of itself. In fact, the opening sequence is basically a beat-for-beat reshoot of a short film that Walton made in 1977 called The Sitter. It’s a retelling of an urban legend that has its roots in a real crime from the 1950s, but like all campfire stories, the details had become more and more exploitative by the time Walton found the tale and used it for his narrative. One thing is for sure; the beginning of When a Stranger Calls is enough to convince any able-bodied teenage girl to give up babysitting forever.
The year after Walton made The Sitter, the landscape of cinematic horror was changed forever by John Carpenter’s Halloween, so Walton decided to flesh his short film out into a feature. Following the trend of the time, When a Stranger Calls definitely has a Halloween-esque feel to it. Both movies revolve around a killer stalking a babysitter. Both movies feature an investigator who is trying to find the killer before he can catch his prey. Visually, the movies are similar as well, with the action alternating between the harsh light of day and the pitch black of night. Finally, the final scene of When a Stranger Calls plays out so much like the final scene in Halloween that one almost expects the same “It WAS the boogeyman…” – “As a matter of fact, it was” exchange to take place between Jill and Clifford. Although it’s never included within the same conversations as the big-name golden age slashers that would come a few years later, When a Stranger Calls owes a huge debt of gratitude to John Carpenter and Halloween.
The musical score for When a Stranger Calls alternates between being terrifyingly dramatic and fantastically corny. The music, composed by Dana Kaproff (Death Valley), is every bit as ominous and threatening as Duncan the stalker himself, full of staccato bass, plucked strings, and simple percussion. Menacing keyboards and violins, both piercing and soothing, create a tense and frenetic score. At least during the terrifyingly dramatic parts. The fantastically corny comes when the score emulates fifties sci-fi movies by mixing with the ringing phones and dial tones of the soundtrack, or when the music winds itself up into a crescendo that sounds not unlike what today’s audiences will recognize as the THX Audio sound (the “Deep Note”). Hmm, THX Ltd. was founded in 1983, When a Stranger Calls was made in 1979…maybe George Lucas owes Dana Kaproff some royalties?
When a Stranger Calls would go on to spawn a 1993 Showtime Network television movie sequel called, of course, When a Stranger Calls Back, that saw Fred Walton reunited with Carol Kane and Charles Durning. In 2006, it would be given the gold seal of 21st century horror movies: a hip young remake. Both of these movies have their moments, but neither is as legendary as the first When a Stranger Calls.