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.