Retro Review: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

The original When A Stranger Calls has been on my radar for quite some time now, because I always saw it as a 70’s horror classic that you need to see if you’re a horror fan. This past weekend, I went to a sale at a local DVD shop and picked up the 2006 remake, so I figured it was time to do a double-feature of this and the remake. It was fifteen minutes into this film that I realized that I had always assumed it was a horror classic, but had anybody actually said those words to me?……..But “The call’s coming from inside the house!” is such a memorable horror quote, so it has to be a classic……right?

On a night just like any other, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is hired to babysit a local couple’s children while they go out for a date night. As the night goes on, Jill begins to receive the creepy phone calls where a man–Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley)– asks her if she’s “checked the children”. After the police become involved, they show up to find the children dead and Duncan in their room. Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the psychiatric institute that he was kept at. John Clifford (Charles Durning), the cop that was first on the scene of the crime seven years earlier, sets out to hunt down Duncan and kill him before he can kill again.

Although I have issues with some characters, the cast of this film is great. In fact, I think that all of the actors, minor or leading, deliver on what they’re given. We of course have the great character actor Charles Durning as the detective out for vengeful justice, kind of the Sam Loomis of this film, and he gives the character the much-needed life that isn’t present on the page. It’s no surprise that he delivers, but someone who surprised me was Carol Kane. I’m a big fan of her role on the Netflix Original show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but I wasn’t a big fan of her performance in the film’s first act. She just seemed flat, but when she shows up in the third act, I thought she was fantastic. When we see her with her kids and husband, I totally bought all of it and it felt so natural, giving some layers to a character that was otherwise flat.

There are also some technical aspects of this film that are fantastic, shockingly the biggest winner being the lighting. There are some gorgeous, awesome uses of shadows throughout, creating some very ominous moments. One of the coolest tricks in this film are certain exterior night shots, where everything that’s unlit is totally black, like an abyss, with the only light being from actual lamps and light posts and such. It’s hard to describe, but it’s such a cool sight to behold. It gives you this sense of isolation, even when you’re outside in the suburbs. It’s easily the most creative, inventive aspect of this film. I also need to give HUGE praise to the film’s score by Dana Kaproff. It’s a score that feels like quintessential 70’s slasher music, but it doesn’t feel contrived. There are so many elements of this film that feel ripped off and generic, but the music is what gives the film it’s own identity. It adds a presence and atmosphere that the script doesn’t, pairing with the gorgeous camera work and cinematography by Don Peterman.

Now it’s time to get into this movie’s issues, of which there are many. First off, let’s dive into the characters. As I said above, the actors do perfectly fine jobs, but the characters themselves are so fucking bland. Charles Durning is great, and I like his character in theory, but he’s given zero dimension. He wants to hunt down this killer for what he did and that’s fine, but I just didn’t feel enough conviction from him, nor did I really see him as anything else than a Sam Loomis rip off. Because of this, his whole journey (which is the entire second act of the film) is just lame to me. I don’t care about him or his motivations, and I should. The killer in this film, played by Tony Beckley in his final performance, is far from being as scary as he should’ve been. There’s a scene in the beginning where he says that he wants to be covered in Jill’s blood, and it’s genuinely really chilling, but the next time we see him he’s just a little fucking weirdo. He’s just not scary, WHICH THE FUCKING CHILD MURDERER SHOULD BE. THAT’S LIKE THE ONE THING HE NEEDS TO BE. When we take that seven year jump, the next time we see him he gets his ass kicked in a bar then becomes a hobo…and that’s really it. Every now and then he does slightly weird stuff, but he never feels like a threat. We’ve seen him murder children, yet still he just feels completely unthreatening.

The lame characters don’t help a plot that’s not only contrived, but it’s completely bland. The first twenty minutes are basically just Black Christmas, but not as scary. Then it jumps to the “Seven Years Later” just to become a ripoff of Halloween, without Laurie Strode and instead of having a silent killing machine, you have a sniveling hobo as your killer and a Sam Loomis who isn’t as fun. But hey, I can get past that if it’s entertaining enough. The idea of taking a slasher and making him vulnerable and kind of broken, I like that in theory, but they don’t make it work here. That’s a big issue, I like a lot of stuff in theory, but the execution is poor. I like the idea of taking a slasher film and instead making it a manhunt film in theory, but they make it boring. It’s a manhunt film where I don’t give a shit about the man or the hunt.

That leads into the biggest issue of the film , which is that it is fucking BOOOOOOORING. Wow, this film is just completely dull. I love the poster that I used above, it’s such a cool, ominous teaser to what could be a potentially cool, ominous horror film. But instead we get a film that again and again keeps failing to find it’s own footing. It keeps following in the steps of Black Christmas and Halloween so much so that you can’t connect to the story, which made me constantly check out and damn-near nod off. Then when it tries to do something different, it feels so half-assed and passionless. The entire runtime of this film was me trying to find a place to jump in and connect to, but I never could. Films are about escapism, so if I can’t connect to a film, then I’m just playing the waiting game. Not only waiting for it to get good, but honestly waiting for it to end. When we get to the re-introduction of Jill in the third act, it seems like we could potentially be getting some interesting, but that goes nowhere and leads up to a climax that feels like it was slapped together that afternoon.

Is there anybody that likes this film? I just don’t get it, why it’s remembered as much as it is today. I love a lot of the technical stuff, some well-framed shots, creative lighting, and a brilliant musical score. There are even some great performances from a cast who keep trying to fight past those flat characters. At the end of the day, this movie is bland and forgettable. The story is contrived, and when it tries to be different it just becomes boring. The characters are flat, the pacing is horrible, there’s just nothing of interest to be found in this script. It’s not Prom Night level of “Why in the fuck do people like this bullshit?” , it’s not horrible, it’s just painfully dull and completely forgettable. By this time next week, I’ll barely even remember this movie. I can’t even recommend it to horror or slasher fans, or even to fans of crime thrillers. Like I said, it’s not awful, but there’s no reason for you to watch this.


Rating: 4/10



About Mike Annerino 28 Articles
Horror has always kind of loomed over me without becoming a big influence on my life until a few years ago. I sort of always accidentally fell into a horror film-viewing experience, at parties or friends houses and such, but I always had this secret love with fear, found something fun and fascinating about it. These past few years I’ve been playing catch up and discovering everything I’ve missed in horror, a genre that is constantly being inventive and fun to watch. The embodiment of nightmares, which gives way for infinite possibilities. It’s easily become my favorite genre