Everyone knows the urban legend; a baby sitter is taking care of a well to do parents kids when late at night she gets a phone call and all the voice says is “have you checked the children?” Many may know what comes next but few including myself have seen Fred Walton’s cinematic retelling from 1979 When a Stranger Calls.
Starring the exceptional Carol Kane from Scrooged, The Princess Bride and more recently Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as teenage sitter Jill Johnson the first 20 minutes where the terrifying telephonic encounter plays out are pure perfection and absolutely petrifying. Using the audience’s fear of the unknown and the unnerving isolation Jill faces placed in charge of the youngsters the atmosphere is immensely tense and does not let up.
Jill jumps at every noise, shies away from every shadow and whenever the phone rings we know something very bad is coming, that is until the wicked twist that plunges her into even more peril.
You many think a tall tale which takes less than 10 minutes to tell round a camp fire couldn’t be turned into a feature film but unlike the 2006 remake When a Stranger Calls goes far beyond the original urban legend taking us seven years into the future after the fateful events to find out what happened next.
With the psycho Curt Duncan (The Italian Job’s Tony Beckley) having escaped the hospital he was sent to ex-cop turned private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning from Dog Day Afternoon) is hired to track him down before he kills again. We follow both men on their very different missions and interestingly the film almost attempts to humanize Curt that is before we witness him start to stalk another innocent victim.
Hugely inspirational throughout horror history most recently for example in 2016 with the well-made and enjoyable Don’t Hang Up the most famous imitation comes from Wes Craven’s Scream which takes its amazing opening scene straight from When a Stranger Calls. In fact the 1979 movies main failing is that the start is almost so strong and so good that the middle of the movie simply can’t compare.
Luckily this seminal slasher saves one last call for its final act and we return full circle to the beginning for a chilling climax that brings it back what made the film so brutal and brilliant in the first place.
A stone cold classic for sure and something every horror hound should see When a Stranger Calls proves that simple stories work the best especially when they tap into our true fears. My only advice is make sure you switch your phone off before watching it.