When A Stranger Calls (1979)

DVD Cover (Sony Home Entertainment)
Genres / Traits: Psychological Thriller, Slasher Film, Thriller, Urban Legends
High school student Jill Johnson is traumatized over an evening of babysitting by a caller who repeatedly asks, "Have you checked the children lately?" After notifying the police, Jill is told that the calls are coming from inside the house... --IMDb
Fred Walton Fred Walton
Carol Kane Carol Kane
Rutanya Alda Rutanya Alda
Carmen Argenziano Carmen Argenziano
Kirsten Larkin Kirsten Larkin
William Boyett William Boyett
Movie Connections:
When A Stranger Calls
> The Sitter (1977)
> When A Stranger Calls (1979)
> When A Stranger Calls Back (1993)
> When A Stranger Calls (2006)
> When A Killer Calls (2006)

6.6 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by bluemeanie
Added: May 05, 2005
During the late 1970's and early 1980's, horror films and thrillers were the genre to beat. "Halloween" had made it big, the "Friday the 13th" series was chugging along, and serial killers and vulnerable teenagers seemed to be a match made in cinematic heaven. One of the most engaging films to emerge from this period was "When A Stranger Calls", a thriller in every sense of the word. On a shoestring budget of around $800,000, the film went on to gross $21 million at the box office, once again showing how low budget horror films and thrillers can easily earn box office gold. The core audience was teenagers looking for a good scare, and they were certainly not disappointed. The first 20 minutes of this film can easily be described as one of the most shocking and unexpected openings in film history, a sequence that would go on to repeat itself in films like "Scream" and "The Ring". Director Fred Walton was able to masterfully weave unyielding suspense and unflinching drama together in a way never before seen.

Carol Kane stars as Jill Johnson, a teenager who is babysitting some children one night while their parents are out on the town. Everything seems to be going fine until she starts to receive strange and terrifying phone calls from a voice that keeps asking her, "Have you checked the children?" She grows more nervous with each call, but never checks them. Finally, after going around in circles with the police, they trace the telephone call and tell her that the phone calls are coming from inside the house. But what about the children? While she has been downstairs, dealing with the caller, he has been upstairs, killing all of the children. Enter Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning), who is sent to the house. The remainder of the film deals with the same killer (Tony Beckley) stalking a woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), while Detective Clifford is still hot on his trail. While the first part of the film is suspenseful and continuous, the middle to end of the film is slower, more involving, and character building. However, the end of the film resumes the tension and we finish off with a motion picture that feels like a delicious suspense sandwich.

What made this film so intriguing when released was the first 20 minutes of the film. During the 1970's and 1980's, teenage girls often resorted to babysitting to earn extra money. This film presented that idea into something totally horrifying. Imagine how frightened young girls must have been while babysitting, after they saw this film -- especially whenever the phone rang. And the villain was not some outlandish creature or demon -- just a typical serial killer who could pray on anyone, anytime he wanted. This added to the authenticity of the film. Alongside Carol Kane's memorable and on-cue performance as Jill, this film was more than enough to give teenagers all the scares they could handle, while still managing a little story and plot development on the side. Once you take time to look at the cast and watch the performances, you realize this is really just a character driven story.

Over Halloween of last year, I had the opportunity to catch a midnight showing of this film at a local theatre, accompanied by two other films, "Halloween" and "Scream". I suppose they were trying to show the progression of the genre through the three films. Oddly enough, I would say that half of the filled theatre had never seen "When A Stranger Calls". They were all teenagers and young adults and were probably only born a year or so after the film was released -- not to mention that this film has yet to enjoy a premium DVD release or recent word of mouth. Occasionally, it will come on AMC or Turner Classic Movies, but that's about it. I had the pleasure of watching a majority of these people covering their faces and watching with shock during this film's opening scenes, all of them slowly realizing that this film had given them "Scream" so many years later. Afterwards, I overheard the girl behind be say, "Movies shouldn't be this scary". This was 2004. Imagine the effect in 1979.

"When A Stranger Calls" is one of those motion pictures that will stand the test of time for years and years to come. While many argue that the middle portion of this film is too slow and boring, I would disagree. It is rare when a thriller has the ability to turn off the suspense so quickly, just to hit you with it again at the end. That is talent. I think the filmmakers were crafting an actual story, which relied on a serial killer to serve its purpose. And I believe they succeeded. If you are one of the many people who have probably never even heard of this film, give it a shot. Try and catch in on Halloween at a midnight show. There was a sequel released in the 1990's, "When A Stranger Calls Back", that also turned out to be worth watching. It might not be as non-stop as "Halloween" or as comical as "Scream", but "When A Stranger Calls" will definitely give you goosebumps. 8.5/10.
Chad #1: Chad - added 02/22/2006, 03:23 AM
Excellent movie, and I totally agree with the above review. The opening twenty minutes is pure genius, and then the ending rolls around... holy nice. Also, I thought it was really neat seeing where the THX sound sample came from; I always thought it was a neat little clip and I actually used it numerous times to configure my home theater setup, but the way it was used in this movie will definitely keep that scene fresh in your mind each time you hear it.
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