3rd October 2018 | 31 Days of “Alternative” Horror: When a Stranger Calls
When a Stranger Calls is a trend-setter in horror conventions. It delivers as a simple detective thriller with the slant of horror mixed in for good measure. The film is reminiscent of Experiment in Terror — which takes the idea of the psychopath on the other end of the phone to a chilling level.
There have been many movies since, for better or for worse — most notably the horror franchise Scream, Ring and Grudge — where the terrifying possibilities of killers getting to people through a phone line reaches an impasse. These original “voice at the other end of the line” chillers paved the way and held together the fear-gate that made movies like Rollercoaster in the late seventies, and Phone Booth in the early two thousands, miles apart in their approach to malicious, stylistic phone call activity.
The tension builds in When a Stranger Calls from the first twenty minutes where we follow babysitter Carol Kane around the massive family home. The suspense is astounding, as the creep calls more time than is comfortable to give the ultimate threat on her life, we in turn are completely in the dark as to where this movie would end up. The middle of the movie lets loose its grip on the Hitchcock rope, only to pull it back, taught and rigid in the final twenty minutes.
After the babysitter sequence, we follow the creep himself — who is exposed to us early on — and we watch as he descends further into a nightmare state — a state he is familiar with for he has been there once before. Maybe more than once. What stands out in this movie is that even though the first twenty minutes of the movie, the stranger who calls is a mystery. Naturally, we would assume that mystery would remain solid for the rest of the picture. The psychopath, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) however appears present throughout the film and even when he turns up at the final showdown, his capabilities remain a mystery to the characters, and as viewers, we know he’s there. Dramatic irony plays the part and screaming at your TV set isn’t going to work out well. It never does. We never meet the ones Curt kills — the children from which Carol Kane was meant to be sitting, and others before that. Much like Halloween several years after, the lead babysitter is left alive.
The protagonist is the veteran detective turned private investigator Charles Durning, whom in his fifties appeals as a rivalry to Columbo in his role as the detective who always works alone. This certainly wasn’t the era where lead roles were given to the hottest man in Hollywood. Charles is seen here much more like a beer belly neighbour who likes to get his hands dirty or poke his nose where it doesn’t belong.
The babysitter Carole Kane reappears later on, and at first we assume she is the babysitter of two adorable little children in a home with enough rooms to keep her out of earshot whenever possible. Time has however already moved forward from that first fateful sequence, and she is the mother leaving instructions to an unsuspecting teenage babysitter who probably should have been given the inside scoop into the history of the family in she was bound to protect.
It is only when Carol Kane is out with her husband, enjoying dinner that she receives a phone call from the same stranger with the same voice, who utters the words “Have you checked the children?” Echoing the phrase later used:
“do you like scary movies?”
Written by: Stephen Radford
Next: 4th October: The Babadook