WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. (1979) DIRECTED BY FRED WALTON. STARRING CHARLES DURNING, CAROL KANE, COLLEEN DEWHURST, RUTANYA ALDA, CARMEN ARGENZIANO AND TONY BECKLEY.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘The calls are coming from inside the house…’
The first twenty minutes or so of this film make for pure, perfect cinematic horror. Pretty American babysitter Jill Johnson has no more on her mind when she goes to babysit for a doctor and his wife than whether or not her crush, some guy named Bobby, will give her a tinkle on the old dog and bone. That’s cockney rhyming slang for phone, me old china plate. That’s slang for mate, by the way. Oh, never mind. Let’s get to the film.
Jill does get a call while she’s babysitting, as it happens. In fact, she gets several, but none of them are from Bobby. They’re from a sick and twisted psychopathic killer who phones every few minutes to ask Jill:
‘Have you checked the children…?’
Jill is such a bad babysitter, however, that not once in the whole time she’s there has she so much as peeped in on the two little cherubs. They could’ve gone off clubbing for all she knows. I wouldn’t hire her to watch my precious rugrats, that’s for sure.
Any-hoo, while Jill has been creeping nervously around the darkened house- the best darned darkened house I’ve ever seen on film, by the way- the killer has been doing away with the doctor’s two little sproglets in a particularly gruesome way which we don’t need to go into here.
Jill is saved by a cop named John Clifford and the killer, Curt Duncan, who’s a dead ringer for Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, is incarcerated in a mental asylum. I wonder if Hugh Cornwell has seen this film and, if so, what he thinks about being a doppelganger for a murderer in a ‘Seventies horror film…! Anyway, that’s the end of that chapter. Or is it…?
Well, no, it’s not, because we’re only twenty minutes into the film at that point. It’s these opening twenty minutes that have garnered this superb film its cult following, by the way. Also, these same twenty minutes are considered by many horror fans to contain some of the scariest, most nerve-wracking scenes ever to be committed to celluloid. I absolutely agree. There’s no ghost, but then there doesn’t need to be.
What could be more frightening than the thought that there’s someone in your house, an alien being, someone who’s not supposed to be there? Even if you’re only the babysitter and it’s not your own house, that doesn’t make the idea any less chilling. If anything, maybe it’s even more scary to have this happen to you in a strange gaff.
Some years later, the evil Duncan escapes from the mental asylum in which he’d been incarcerated after his grisly deeds. The lovely cuddly John Clifford, now retired from the police force and working as a private detective, is hired to recapture him by the doctor whose kids were killed by Duncan.
John Clifford, by the way, is played by Charles Durning who a few short years later fell heavily for Dustin Hoffman dressed as a middle-aged feminist in the comedy movie TOOTSIE. Boy, was he red-faced when he found out what that feisty little ‘popsy’ was packing in her pantyhose…!
We get to follow Duncan around for a bit then as he kips in hostels for homeless men and tries to pick up embittered, lonely, middle-aged women in bars. Well, one middle-aged woman in particular, anyway.
I love the scenes in which he’s following the afore-mentioned lonely single woman home through deserted streets and tunnels and into her crappy apartment in the dead of night. They’re just so seedy. This part of the film is really quite sleazy and even sad. There are a lot of lonely, dysfunctional people out there, and that’s one of the saddest facts of life there are.
We catch up with Jill the babysitter then who, in the seven years since the murder of the children in her care, has gotten married and acquired two sproglets of her own and also quite a decent life for herself. Nice posh house, charity work and prospects of advancement in her hubby’s job. Huh. Well, let’s just hope she takes better care of her own kids than she did of the doctor’s. Snigger.
Anyway, all-grown-up Jill and her husband Steven go out to dinner in a fancy restaurant to celebrate Steven’s getting a raise at work. I got the most terrible feeling of déja vu when they headed off in their fancy duds leaving the teenaged babysitter in charge of their napping nippers…
You guessed it. Duncan’s tracked Jill down through a newspaper cutting and so poor hysterical Jill gets a call at the posh restaurant from a male caller who says: ‘Have you checked the children…?‘ Well, as you can imagine, the s**t really hits the fan then.
I won’t tell you the ending so as not to spoil it for you, but I will say that there are plenty of shocks and tension along the way and lots of lovely shots of the interior of Jill’s darkened house.
This director does bloody brilliant shots of darkened houses at night. I honestly think that they’re among the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen… well, a few, anyway. However, I did keep wanting to scream at the screen: ‘Why don’t you turn on some feckin’ lights, you brainless bimbo…?’
I enjoyed every second of this horror film, especially the legendary first twenty minutes. It was a great ninety-minute romp through some of the best horror movie tropes ever. The babysitter being scared half to death by the anonymous caller. The calls are coming from inside the house.
The retired cop who could never quite get that one horrible murder- and murderer- out of his mind and who won’t retire easily until he’s settled old scores and avenged the innocent. You should watch it. Alone. In the dark. While babysitting. Oh, hang on, listen, is that the phone…? Can you get that? I’ve just done my nails…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
The sequel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS LATER,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books: