Torchlight’s Chillers #3 When A Stranger Calls 40th Anniversary Review
Director: Fred Walton
Writers: Steve Feke, Fred Walton
Stars: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley
‘When A Stranger Calls’ is quite rightly considered today as an important movie in terms of its influence over countless other Horror movies. How many Horrors have you watched where a phone rings and a scary voice on the other end says something sinister? I’m almost certain this had happened in earlier Horror movies that 1979s ‘When A Stranger Calls’, but none had made such a dent in the psyche of movie goers minds before. The film was originally conceived as a short film entitled ‘The Sitter’, a 20 minute film saw a baby sitter being scared by an unknown caller, uttering the frightening words “Why haven’t you checked on the children”?
At this point, ‘The Sitter’ (Featuring actress Carol Kane) was destined to be a short movie that had a punch to it but when Columbia Pictures (for whom ‘The Sitter’ was made for to view) decided that with the success of John Carpenters ‘Halloween’, that maybe if they gave Director / Writer Fred Walton a budget they felt they could make money back on, it’d be worth turning the short film into a fully-fledged movie, and thus, ‘When A Stranger Calls’ was born. Director Fred Walton was up against it time wise, and enlisted the help of Steve Feke to complete the screenplay in time for production to begin.
Since the 20 minute short film ‘The Sitter’ was so well put together, Columbia decided to insert those 20 minutes into ‘When A Stranger Calls’ as the films chilling introduction to the rest of the story. Some excellent casting was completed rather quickly, Carol Kane remained in the co-lead role given she’s the star of the first twenty minutes. What was now needed was the hero which would turn out to be Veteran actor Charles Durning, whose bombastic no nonsense approach to his character pursuing the evil killer suited the movie perfectly. Another veteran was hired to play the psychotic killer, Tony Beckley who had made a name for himself on stage as well as in 1960s UK gangster movies and other assorted oddities. He had just finished worked on 1978s ‘Revenge of the Pink Panther’. For reasons not clear to me, Beckley wasn’t actually given a co-lead credit even though he is the evil heart beating at the center of ‘When A Stranger Calls’.
Tony Beckley, who was looking quite thin and haggard in appearance, played the role of one Curt Duncan, the character responsible for making the phone calls to baby sitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) in those frightening opening moments of the movie. Without giving away what actually took place, nevertheless it was horrible enough to bring in Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) to investigate.
They apprehend Curt Duncan at a grizzly crime scene that I’ll let you discover for yourself, if you haven’t seen the movie. Duncan’s then sentenced to spend time in an insane asylum. The movie then skips forwards seven years and we find that John Clifford has become a Private Investigator. He visits the financially well off Dr Mandrakis, the owner of the home that Duncan had broken into seven years prior. The P.I and Dr Mandrakis are both appalled at Curt Duncan’s escape and Dr Mandrakis puts P.I Clifford on his payroll in order to apprehend the escaped lunatic.
In the scene that follows P.I Clifford interviews a lady psychologist at the institution that Curt Duncan has escaped from, and meets an aloof unhelpful interviewee. When probing for information verbally he keeps being referred to the patients files, he tries to reason with the psychologist telling her just how dangerous the escapee actually is. After being reluctantly told that Curt Duncan was given strong courses of anti-psychotic drugs as well as electric shock therapy, P.I Clifford enquirers just how dangerous a condition Duncan may be in, to which he receives the most unhelpful answer yet;
“Do you when to know how much we really understand of the human mind’’?
Realizing he’s getting no help from the Asylum the P.I hits the streets of New York hunting down Curt Duncan before can commit any more heinous crimes.
We’re then transported into a dive bar, where Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst) is trying to enjoy a drink alone, when up saddles Curt Duncan, at first offering her a light, which she refuses, and then a drink, which she has to loudly refuse after Duncan seems to be not getting the message. The bars local tough guy beats Curt Duncan up and throws him out the bar, and Tracy, not having wanted things to get that far, decides that’s her Que to exit. What you notice is his how pathetic the character of the deranged Curt Duncan really is.He offers no resistance whilst he’s being beaten up and falls in a heap on the floor when the bars bully has thrown him to the curb.
P.I Clifford goes to visit an old Police friend Lieutenant Garber at a party Garber is hosting. They manage to have a private chat and Clifford admits to Garber that when he finds Duncan he intends on killing him, citing how evil his crimes several years earlier were. Lieutenant Garber is understandably sympathetic but doesn’t want his former boss to get into any trouble, but P.I Clifford maintains he’ll make it look accidental. The scene is now set for the final showdown all P.I Clifford has to do is actually find Duncan. What follows is a cat and mouse game around the streets of NYC but much to the P.Is anger he does manage to track Duncan down, only for him to escape his clutches.
We then arrive at the final scenes of ‘When a Stranger Calls’, which see Carol King return, this time as a grown woman with a family of her own. She’s out one evening having a meal with her husband, but they’re interrupted when a waiter tells her she has a call waiting. Wondering if it’s her baby sitter she rushes to the phone and answers with a polite hello … “Have you checked the children’’ comes the eerie response from the mentally disturbed Curt Duncan. What follows are a string of scenes ending the movie that are every bit as unnerving as those now famed first 20 minutes of ‘When A Stranger Calls’.
Critics of the movie, and there were many, simply didn’t think the movie knitted together very well and that not enough thought had gone into the writing of Curt Duncan played by Tony Beckley. The Cinema takings didn’t agree with this assessment. The movies budget in 1979 was $1,500,000 grossing a more than respectable $21,500,000. (The gross today given inflation would have been roughly $75,855,000 against what would have been a budget today of $5,300,000).
In a tragic set of circumstances actor Tony Beckley sadly passed away just six months after the films release. It would seem the actor had been suffering brain tumor which hadn’t been diagnosed (perhaps accounting for the deterioration in his appearance since appearing in ‘Revenge of The Pink Panther’ in 1978, barley a year earlier pictured below).
I’d never watched the original ‘When A Stranger Calls’ before, and in preparing for this review watched it over a handful of times. It’s a movie that’s left a lasting impression on me, and the fact that it was made some 40 years ago, it really has aged well since it’s 1979 inception. It’s spawned two sequels both of differing quality, but of the original, I’d say that ‘When A Stranger Calls’ is an excellent watch, and highly recommend it.
Torchlights Chillers rating: 8/10
Reviewed by Andrew James Barclay
Categories: Film Reviews
Bob Clark’s ‘Black Christmas’ had a similar feel. Olivia Hussey was the terrified heroine.