“Have you checked the children?” the stranger on the phone asks the terrified babysitter, who is unaware that the children are already dead and that the call is …. COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!
That’s the premise behind both an oft-repeated urban legend and the opening of the 1979 film, When A Stranger Calls. I’ve often seen the original When A Stranger Calls described as being one of the scariest films ever made. That’s not quite true, of course. The first 20 minutes or so are effective. The final scene has a few intense moments. The majority of what lies in-between feels like filler, albeit well-acted filler.
When A Stranger Calls opens with Carol Kane as Jill, a teenage babysitter who is terrified one night by a caller who keeps asking her if she’s checked on the children. This sequence — really, a mini-movie all of its own — is so well-executed and suspenseful that many people assume that the entire film is just Jill dealing with the mystery caller. Actually, that’s just the first few minutes and, once the location of the killer has been revealed, Kane disappears from the film for an extended period. That’s a shame since Kane’s empathetic performance is perhaps the best thing that When A Stranger Calls has going for it. She’s so convincing as the emotionally shattered babysitter that it doesn’t matter that, at the start of the film, she’s obviously not a teenager.
Instead, the middle part of the film focuses on John Clifford (Charles Durning). Clifford is a former policeman-turned-private investigator. He is obsessed with Duncan (Tony Beckley), the man who called Jill at the start of the film. Duncan has just escaped from a mental institution and Clifford has been hired to track him down. Clifford is convinced that Duncan will try to find Jill. Duncan, meanwhile, wanders through the sleaziest sections of downtown Los Angeles, briefly living with a pathetic alcoholic named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst). Clifford, of course, is right about Duncan wanting to find Jill. And Clifford is so determined to kill Duncan that he might even be willing to use Jill as bait….
After the brilliantly horrific opening sequence, it’s impossible not to be disappointed with the drawn-out middle section of When A Stranger Calls. Durning, Dewhurst, and especially Beckley all give good performances and downtown Los Angeles is so repellent that you’ll want to take a shower afterwards but, narratively, there’s really not much happening. Clifford finds Duncan. Duncan runs away. Duncan acts like a jerk and gets in a fight. Tracy drinks. The old school cop Clifford scowls at the sleaziness of the world while Duncan continues to lose what little sanity he has left. Give the film some credit for not portraying Duncan as being some sort of charming, loquacious master criminal. He’s a total loser, as all serial killers are despite the later popularity of fictional characters like Hannibal Lecter. Duncan hates both himself and the world with equal fury. But, that said, the narrative stalls during the middle part of the film. There’s only so many time you can watch two men chase each other down a trash-strewn street before it gets dull.
Fortunately, Jill does eventually show up again and, after an hour of relentless sleaziness, you’re happy to see Carol Kane, again. Jill is now married and has children of her own. And soon, she’s again getting a phone call asking if she’s checked on the children….
And, again, the closing sequence is scary, even if it’s not quite as intense as the opening. (The opening was scary because we didn’t know what the killer looked like. By the time Duncan finds Jill a second time, we now know that Duncan is a sickly-looking alcoholic who can’t handle himself in a fair fight.) The film does have one great jump scare left in its arsenal of tricks. And yet, it’s impossible to watch When A Stranger Calls without wishing that the whole thing had just focused on Jill instead of getting sidetracked with Clifford searching Los Angeles.
When A Stranger Calls will always have a place in horror history. “Have you checked the children?” will always produce chills. It’s just unfortunate that the film spends a good deal of its running time ignoring what makes it scary in the first place.