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When a Stranger Calls

When a Stranger Calls film poster
Directed by Fred Walton
Produced by Doug Chapin
Steve Feke
Larry Kostroff
Barry Krost
Melvin Simon
Written by Steve Feke
Fred Walton
Starring Charles Durning
Carol Kane
Colleen Dewhurst
Tony Beckley
Ron O'Neal
Carmen Argenziano
Music by Dana Kaproff
Cinematography Donald Peterman
Editing by Sam Vitale
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) 26 October 1979
Running time 97 min.
Language English
Budget $740,000 (USD) (estimated)
Followed by When a Stranger Calls Back

When a Stranger Calls is a 1979 horror/thriller film starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning, directed by Fred Walton. The film derives its story from the classic folk legend of "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs". The original music score is composed by Dana Kaproff.

The film was voted no. 28 in Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments", while the theme of a murderer telephoning his prey from inside their own homes has also been used by many other horror films, including Scream. While this particular story was entirely fictitous, there was a real-life incident, dramatized on TLC, whereby a man broke into somebody's home and repeatedly telephoning their babysitter, before tying a sock to the mouth of her young charge, a little boy. Unlike the film, police reacted immediately and the intruder was caught.

It is followed by the 1993 made-for-television sequel When a Stranger Calls Back and was remade in 2006.

Contents

Plot Summary

The plot of the story begins to develop when Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), goes to babysit the children of a doctor at their home. When the children are asleep, Jill receives a telephone call from a man who asks her questions that are uncannily relevant to her actions. At first, Jill dismisses the telephone calls as a practical joke; however, as the calls become more frequent and threatening, Jill becomes frightened and telephones the police, who promise that they would trace the call if Jill would keep him on the telephone line long enough.

Jill, frightened to extreme measures, arms herself as she receives one final telephone call from the nefarious caller. Soon after her conversation with him, Jill receives a conversation from the police, only to find out that the stalker is calling from inside the house. The suspense of this part of the movie climaxes when a light turns on at the top of the staircase, which allows Jill to see the shadow of the stalker. Jill immediately runs to the front door to scream for help.

Officer John Clifford (Charles Durning) is then shown at the police investigation. At this point, the viewer learns that the children had been murdered by the perp several hours earlier. Also, the murderer is identified; he is an English merchant seaman named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), and is subsequently sent to an asylum. Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the asylum, still psychopathic. Dr. Mandrakis hires ex-cop Clifford, now a private investigator, to find Duncan.

Still not knowing Clifford is after him, Duncan is now a homeless, vagrant loner. He gets into a fight and is beaten after disturbing a middle-aged lonely woman, Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), in a tavern, and later follows her to her apartment; feeling sorry for his disastrous appearance and for the fact that his attempts at a conversation with her started the fight in the first place, she doesn't tell him to leave her place right away nor explicitly rebuffs his awkward proposal to visit her for coffee the next night, assuming or hoping it will be the last of him she will see.

Meanwhile an increasingly obsessed and vindictive Clifford, having confided to a former partner (Ron O'Neal) that his intention is to kill Duncan rather than arrest him, follows Duncan's trail right to the tavern where the fight took place, and from there to Tracy's residence—- precisely the same night in which Duncan is likely to arrive for his visit. Clifford goes there and tells her just how dangerous her situation has become. He also tells her that Duncan literally tore and hacked up Mandrakis' children with his bare hands, rendering them virtually unrecognizable, which explains why he was found smeared with blood by the police; this, along with some eerie flashbacks experienced by Duncan later in the movie, is one of the few moments where the carnage at the Mandrakis household is described. Upon hearing this, Tracy reluctantly accepts to be Clifford's bait at the tavern that evening, although Duncan doesn't arrive and she finally decides to return home. Clifford then leaves Tracy's place; Duncan, who was hiding in Tracy's closet, pushes her to the wall and briefly muffles her cries for help. When he frees her, her horrified shrieks alert Clifford, force the intruder to flee the scene and mark the start of a cat-and-mouse chase through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, during which Clifford is outrun during at least two occasions and finally loses Duncan's track.

Jill Johnson is now an adult, married with two young children. One night, Jill and her husband Stephen go out to dinner in celebration of a promotion. A friend named Sharon babysits her children. She references that she saw Jill in the newspaper. Curt Duncan happens to find the same newspaper in the city, and begins to look for Jill once again. While the couple is out, Jill gets a telephone call at the restaurant. She answers, and gets another "Have you checked the children...?" Jill panics and calls Sharon. She says nothing is wrong. The police arrive and escort Jill back home. John Clifford tries to telephone Jill, but gets no signal. Jill and Stephen sleep. Later, Jill goes down for a glass of milk, when the lights go out. She goes back upstairs and gets in bed once again. The closet door opens a little, and she hears the voice of Curt Duncan. She tries to awaken Stephen, who turns around, revealing that Curt is actually in the bed. He rips Jill's nightgown and chases her around the room. Clifford arrives, and kills Curt, shooting him twice. Stephen is revealed to be in the closet, alive but seemingly unconscious. As Clifford comforts Jill, the last view is of the house, in view of the frightening eyes of Curt Duncan.

Cast

Reception

In spite of its $800,000+ budget, the movie grossed only $21 million; although there seems to be a consensus on the genuinely disturbing quality of the film's bookend scenes (very especially the first 22–23 minutes), most, if not all, of the negative criticism concerned the rest of the movie's purported failure to live up to its memorable beginning[1][2][3]. Said failure is commonly attributed to one or more of the following:

  • the sudden change in pace and plot development starting from the babysitter's rescue by the police, and the revelation of the children's fate (roughly around minute 22:30) onward; this change, in the movie, corresponds to a leap forward of seven years, and according to some critics brought the audience into an ordinary chase thriller retaining next to nothing of the film's previous bravado.
  • the perceived impression of physical and psychological frailty of the movie's villain once he finally appears on screen, especially when Tracy comes into the plot, and the lengths of suspension of disbelief needed to assume him able to hack two human bodies to pieces with his bare hands (this is especially evident in the tavern brawl scene). In fact, actor Tony Beckley was terminally ill with cancer at the time, dying shortly after filming principal photography.

Nevertheless, the movie's first 22 minutes are largely responsible for the film's current cult following and have been consistently included as one of the most frightening moments of contemporary horror filmmaking.

See Also

The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs

References

External links

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