Halloween Horror Diary: When a Stranger Calls (1979)

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With John Carpenter’s Halloween turning 30 this year, the film geek world is paying a lot of attention to that classic horror film and the slasher genre it spawned. There’s a new sequel out, and an excellent deep-dive podcast from critic Amy Nicholson and The Ringer. Though it may have spawned many questionable sequels and cynical imitators like the Friday the 13th series, the first Halloween is actually really good. Even Siskel & Ebert liked it. This October I decided to watch one of its most immediate imitations, and one with a solid cult following – 1979’s When a Stranger Calls.

When a Stranger Calls is worth watching for its opening 22 minutes alone. A masterful retelling of a well-known urban legend, the sequence stars Carol Kane as a babysitter who gets strange phone calls asking, “Have you checked the children?” From the opening shot of the babysitter walking down a suburban street at dusk, it’s clear director Fred Walton understands how the suburbs can be paradoxically threatening – the way the shadows of a manicured back yard or a banal living room can seem to hold malevolent potential. Considered a cornerstone of horror films (and famously parodied in Scream) the opening sequence really cranks the tension, thanks to effective cinematography and a prototypical horror score by Dana Kaproff that’s imitated to this day.

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As the story goes, Walton first made this opening section as a short film, and after the success of Halloween decided to expand it into a feature. This is where the plot, and the movie’s worthiness, get more complicated. The seams aren’t exactly smooth – following the opening, the movie takes a literal turn into the imposing freeze-framed figure of Charles Durning as Detective Clifford. We learn that the children were in fact murdered. Jumping seven years into the future, Clifford can’t get over the case, so he jumps at the chance to track down the killer, who’s just escaped the asylum. So what initially seemed like a tense, albeit bloodless slasher movie is suddenly a gritty crime procedural, more interested in exploring the back alleys of Los Angeles, and the killer’s behavior, than in manufacturing slasher scares.

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But much of the movie is scary, in a different sort of way. I was reminded of better films by Paul Schrader and David Fincher, in terms of tone if not the level of execution – this is the same Los Angeles of Hardcore, a dark blur of dive bars, forgotten storage rooms and alleyways. And like Zodiac, the picture it paints of the killer Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) creates a permeating sense of unease. Contrasting with Halloween’s Michael Myers, Curt Duncan is not some inexplicably competent killing machine. Upon escaping the asylum, he’s homeless and begging on the street, sleeping in a Salvation Army shelter. In a scene that plays especially queasy in the era of Me Too, we see Duncan pester a middle-aged barfly (Colleen Dewhurst) and later show up at her apartment; knowing what he’s capable of, his lack of social boundaries provides a disturbing sense of verisimilitude.

I valued the middle 70 minutes of When a Stranger Calls as a slow-burning 1970s procedural that’s effectively laced with menace. But what I found to be immersive in a way that got under my skin, others might find meandering and dull, especially those hoping for another Halloween. It’s more impressionistic than plot-driven, and certain lines of dialogue would make an English teacher cry out in pain, so thoroughly do they violate the maxim “Show, don’t tell.” Even so, on a scene-by-scene basis the movie is competently directed, the performances are solid and I was never bored. There’s a decent cat-and-mouse chase sequence, and the film ultimately reprises the home invasion scenario of the beginning to good effect.

As an accumulation of well-rendered eerie tones, When a Stranger Calls cast a spell and left me thoroughly spooked. Even the final image, which might otherwise seem dated and cheesy, left me with a chill. The film as a whole may suffer from an identity crisis, and there are surely better heirs to the Halloween throne. But I’d be lying if I said my apartment didn’t feel extra shadowy and creepy as I turned off the television.

The Quiet Earth (1985)

The Quiet Earth (1985)

Ahhh, to be the last person on Earth – in a certain light, doesn’t it sound kind of enticing? You could drive a Lamborghini through a fruit cart, just for the hell of it. See the Mona Lisa without waiting in line, touch it, even deface it. Sure, crushing loneliness and existential despair would eventually set in, but for a time (unless someone else showed up) you’d experience a perverse thrill of absolute freedom.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

If you want to see Spaceman David Oyelowo bark through gritted teeth, “This dimension is eating us alive!” then Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie for you. If you ironically enjoy B movies that shamelessly leverage dead children for unearned pathos, then this is a movie for you. If you're eager to consume the latest acquisition absorbed by Netflix's slowly advancing Media Blob, ejected in front of an unexpecting Super Bowl audience like a tray of stale Grandma wafers, then this is a film for you.

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Eleven-year-old me would have loved The Gate. But eleven-year-old me didn't watch horror movies.

The closest I got was the occasional illicit viewing of Tales from the Crypt on HBO, which certainly qualifies as horror and could be pretty great at times. But actual horror movies – the ones whose VHS boxes lined the shelves of the Horror section at Mr. Movies, the local video store – were not a part of my life.

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Verónica had its Midwest premiere at the Cinepocalypse genre film festival, held at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film's director, Paco Plaza, is mostly known for the solid [REC] series. Unlike those films, Verónica does not use the found-footage conceit, though it’s apparently (and dubiously) based on a real-world case documented by police in 1990s Madrid, Spain.

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Not even the remote forests of the Austrian Alps could escape the Black Death. 

A young goatherd, Albrun, attempts to care for her plague-stricken mother during a harsh mountain winter, as superstitious local clans accuse them of heathenry. Two female goat farmers, living alone in a cabin in the Alps? In the Middle Ages, maybe this alone was enough to arouse suspicion of witchcraft.

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

I watched Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher by mistake. I saw something on TV when I was about 11 years old – a motorist spots a hitchhiker at the side of a rural highway at night. The hitchhiker, mostly hidden by shadow and rain, wears a trench coat and a hat, waving a briefcase over his head as if desperate for a ride. Not that you can really see his face, but as depicted, his features are sort of…absent.

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

1960 is an important year for horror. Four particular movies – Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday – pushed boundaries into the modern age while also showing the legitimate artistic potential of horror. The other films tell contemporary stories, but Black Sunday enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest of all gothic vampire movies.

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

As anthology horror films go, Cat’s Eye is one of the more decent entries I’ve seen. None of the segments are fantastic, but unlike most anthologies, all offer something memorable and none can be called a dud. The stories (all penned by Stephen King) are connected by a wandering cat, which seems to have a strange, unexplained connection to a young girl played by Drew Barrymore – he sees her image in a department store mannequin, then in a TV commercial, beckoning him to find and help her. Barrymore is a sort of connecting thread herself, playing different roles in the first and last acts.

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

As the story goes, famed director and producer Roger Corman was tired of making disposable films on a laughable budget. During the 1950s he’d typically produced two black and white films at a time, to be shown as a double feature at grindhouse theatres. But when approached by American International Pictures to make a horror film, Corman had a proposal: maybe this time, he’d make one film, not two, on a decent budget, and it would be shot in color. It would be a real film, he promised, respectable enough to show in mainstream theatres.

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

The Funhouse, a little-remembered follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stars Elizabeth Berridge (the future Constanze Mozart of Amadeus) as Amy Harper. Amy attends a local carnival with her boorish blind date and a few friends, and after seeing plenty of unseemly sights and smoking a few joints, the group decide to spend the night inside the titular funhouse. After they accidentally witness something terrible, a masked freak begins stalking and picking them off one by one.

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Six Favorites

What's this, you say – no Top 10 list? That may be the standard way to take stock of the previous year's movies, for professional and amateur film writers alike, but I had trouble with that approach. I'm yet uncomfortable with making a declaration of the best movies of the year, but I can certainly single out favorites and others I strongly appreciate for various reasons, so I'm sticking with a unique formulation of six clear favorites + ten more great ones.