When A Stranger Calls
Please don't call me, maybe
Certain movies are forever defined by one great scene. Even if you've never seen certain movies, specific scenes are easily recognizable. Whether it's clip shows or spoofs or references, you know exactly what movie it comes from. Some good examples are when Sissy Spacek is covered in blood at the prom in Carrie, the eye-torture scene in A Clockwork Orange, and Jack Nicholson chopping down the door in The Shining. Of course, these movies have a lot more going for them than just their iconic scenes. How would another movie fair when the iconic scene in the movie is the most exciting part?
When A Stranger Calls is a 1979 psychological horror movie starring Charles Durning (O, Brother Where Art Thou?, To Be Or Not To Be) as Officer John Clifford. Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, Seinfeld, Annie Hall) is babysitting two young children for Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis when she starts to receive disturbing phone calls from an anonymous man. The voice repeatedly asks her if she has checked on the children. Frightened, she calls the police who offer to trace the phone calls in hopes of finding the culprit. It is revealed that the calls are coming from inside the house and Jill flees. The caller, a mentally disturbed British man named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley, Doctor Who, The Italian Job), brutally murdered the two children with his bare hands and is placed in an asylum. Seven years later, Duncan escapes the asylum and Dr. Mandrakis hires John Clifford, the former police officer who investigated the case, to find and kill Duncan. Duncan is a vagrant in the city and is constantly pursuing a woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?, Caligula) who constantly rebuffs his advances. Clifford becomes increasingly aggressive and obsessed with finding Duncan before he kills again. He manages to find Duncan and a chase ensues, but Duncan escapes. Duncan eventually sees a newspaper with a now-adult Jill Johnson's picture in it. Will Clifford be able to stop him before he returns to murder Jill?
Yes kids, that's what a phone used to look like
The first twenty minutes of When A Stranger Calls may be the most suspenseful opening of any horror movie. The scene is has reached an iconic status, landing the movie on many Top scary movie lists. The scene is laid out perfectly with the proper amount of timing and pacing. Carol Kane does a great job as the audience is essentially living through her, sharing her fear and terror. It's is quite impressive considering that Kane is essentially acting by herself with just voices on a telephone working with her. The music is fantastic in the scene, creating an eerie atmosphere and swelling at just the right moments. It's just such a shame that a majority of the movie is nothing like those first twenty minutes.
Most of the movie follows John Clifford, who was on the scene the night of the murders. I'm a little confused as to why he took the case so personally. I mean, I understand the horrible trauma of the murders, but it's not like Clifford had been chasing Duncan before or after the incident. He just kind of waltzed into the crime scene with a bunch of other police officers. All the suspense and fear in the first 20 minutes completely disappear as the movie focuses on Duncan and Tracy for some reason. Why bother focusing on Tracy at all? The movie would have been better served following Jill as she was the one who actually endured the horror of that fateful night. It's a huge missed opportunity that could have led to more scenes of suspense and horror. Why not show how she has managed to make a life, but is still traumatized? We eventually get to that in the last twenty minutes, but what is the point when most of the movie essentially forgot about her? This shift in the story slows to a crawl, making for a boring watch. The acting is fine, though I question the choice of Tony Beckley as the killer from a physical standpoint. His voice is great, but he is a rather slight man and it's hard to believe he could brutally eviscerate people, albeit children, with his bare hands.
Cake or pie? Why not both?
When A Stranger Calls is a boring police story book-ended by two great scenes of horror and suspense. The beginning is iconic for a reason and should be shown to all aspiring film-makers. The end similarly has good suspense thanks to proper timing and music. Unfortunately, a majority of the movie plays out slowly and devoid of all suspense. It's really a shame because the movie's missed opportunities seem like common sense ideas. It's like they worked so hard on the beginning and end that they were just too tired to come up with anything in the middle. If you've never seen When a Stranger Calls, my advice is to watch the first twenty minutes and the last twenty minutes. Everything else is just filler.