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When a Stranger Calls. 1979. Directed by Fred Walton. Screenplay by Steve Feke & Fred Walton.
Starring Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano, Kirsten Larkin, William Boyett, Charles Durning, Ron O’Neal, Rachel Roberts, Tony Beckley, Colleen Dewhurst, and Michael Champion. Columbia Pictures Corporation/Melvin Simon Productions. Rated R. 97 minutes.
There are many slasher horrors out there – this is not particularly a slasher, but certainly feels like one with the relentless Curt Duncan stalking women in the night, played to eerie perfection by Tony Beckley. So while When a Stranger Calls doesn’t have the big body count, or a bunch of knife murders (et cetera), it does have the familiar feel of a slasher horror movie.
What this Fred Walton-directed dramatic horror has going for it is a keen psychological edge. From the direction, the acting by both Beckley and Carol Kane as the archetypal urban legend babysitter forever immortalized on film, the entire movie is dripping with creepiness, as well as having a few things to say about the views of our society (at least at the time – folding into the 1980s). Regardless if you’re a horror fan or not, this is one classic piece of cinema. To use a tired cliche – it did for babysitting what Jaws did for the ocean. Anyone who’s ever taken care of kids growing up, like myself and lots of other people I know, the fear of being in someone else’s home, alone, with who knows what – or who – just outside the door, it’s all extremely real in When a Stranger Calls. Almost too close for comfort.
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) heads over to the house of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano/Rutanya Alda). She’s babysitting for the night while they head over for dinner, maybe even a movie afterwards. A little while after Jill starts the night, a mysterious man starts to call her. He continually asks: “Have you checked the children?” Phoning the police, they prove unable to do much for the time being. Soon, Jill finds the man on the phone getting more nasty, violent. When an officer advises her the calls are coming from inside the house, Jill manages to make it outside where Dt. John Clifford (Charles Durning) is already waiting. However, it’s all too late. The children are already dead, at the hands of a madman, a merchant seaman originally from Britain named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley).
Seven years pass, Jill moves on with her life – she’s married, two little kids of her very own. Except now Duncan has escaped from the asylum where he’d been confined. With Clifford on his trail, Duncan wanders the streets. Will he kill again? Question is, really: when was the last time Jill checked her children?
Tony Beckley isn’t the only one acting circles around the usual horror performances here. Both Carol Kane and Charles Durning are fascinating in their own right. But, I can never help boasting about the titular stranger – Curt Duncan.
Beckley is someone I’ve seen in a few other things, not much. Although out of the little I watched, good as the others were, his performance here has got to be the crowning achievement of his career. He takes a role many have played in other movies, from drama to horror. Instead of playing a typical psychopath, there’s something sad and pathetic about this Duncan. Even while you know what he’s done, the horrible things he did to those children, a tiny part of us can see the lonely, child-like thing inside him. I hate Curt Duncan. Yet still I can’t shake parts of him, there’s an essence in him I cannot deny is sympathetic, under all his monstrosity. What it is, I don’t know. Why it affects me, I absolutely understand: Tony Beckley. His mannerisms, his voice at times weird and creepy, others it’s shaky, even the way he walks – all of this has made the character of Duncan into one of the best villains of the 1970s. And I say that considering all genres, not only horror. He is one of those unnerving characters I’ll never be able to shake off.
Right from the first time Beckley utters his iconic, terrifying line, there’s an immediate sense of this film’s excellent score. It has power, quickly the tone of the film is solidified with a dark descent of notes, accompanied by a zoom in close on Kane’s babysitter character. The music is most certainly a big part of the suspense and tension. Like any proper horror, the score is just about iconic as anything else. Composer Dana Kaproff – other credits include 1982’s Death Valley and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One – has a fantastic ear. The music sort of simmers underneath, then at a few choices moments flares up; loud, brash. It’s an intricate score, moving from quiet to heavy and back again all in such a perfect rhythm with the plot’s movement.
Together with the film’s music, Donald Peterman’s cinematography makes this a gorgeous to look at classic of the late ’70s. Peterman has done a few movies I love, such as Splash, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Point Break, Mr. Saturday Night and Get Shorty. He has a nice visual style. Here in When A Stranger Calls, the movie has that classic look – that beautiful grain of film sorely missed in a good many pictures these days. But it isn’t just that. The whole opening sequence with babysitter Jill, the tight frames and the zoom in, all the dark shadows; the scenes with Curt Duncan where he spends his time both in the shadows and also lurching around like a shadow himself, the rich and deep look of the nighttime exterior shots. Every last inch of this movie is spectacular to look at. Recently I bought a double feature Blu ray with this and Happy Birthday to Me on it; they each look pristine. To watch this on Blu ray, such nice definition, it’s a true treat. Peterman’s work shows so well.
One major thing I’ve always found interesting about When a Stranger Calls is the aspect of Clifford investigating Duncan and then deciding to kill the man. It’s a timeless theme, the idea of the lawman having to/wanting to cross sides in order to defeat a criminal. There is no doubt this theme is resonant today, in such an age where boy the criminals and the cops are out of control at times (not all the police; definitely some, though). Moreover, isn’t this something we as citizens can relate to? I mean, much as I like to think the death penalty is pointless, much as I try to say stick the murderers and rapists in a cage and let them rot until death… a part of me would probably, in the moment, feel like blowing their heads off if I were in the position of some police officers. A part of me, right now, thinking about someone hurting/killing a loved one would easily kill that person. So, while I look at Clifford’s decisions to try and go after Duncan with the purpose of killing him, and I say to myself – Oh, he’s a dirty cop… – there’s a side of me wanting to say: go for it. There’s only a certain amount of justice in particular situations at a given moment in time. Some times there’s no justice at all. I can say killing another person is wrong, under any circumstance. But I can also admit there are circumstances under which I would kill another person – one of those very few situations being if a man killed my children, or if I was Clifford and confronted with the sickness and depravity of a man like Duncan. Either way, there’s a strong message at play in When a Stranger Calls and it speaks volumes about how the criminally insane are viewed. A big part of the message is that there are times when everyone can find themselves outside the law. There are times being outside the law can prove necessary, too.
A flawless 5 star classic from 1979. This is one of those horror movies-slash-dramatic thrillers I find most affecting, out of any of the movies I’ve seen. There’s something nasty about Tony Beckley, though, he plays the role of Curt Duncan so effortlessly, like watching a true crazy person before our eyes. Add to his performance Charles Durning and Carol Kane, a couple nice additional smaller ones to boot. Plus, the look and sounds and feel of each frame are downright masterful. Once again, When a Stranger Calls doesn’t have the blood or the slasher body count. On the contrary, it’s the character study of a man with deep psychological wounds, his obsessions, and the people caught up in the whirlwind of his psychosis from the victims to the bystanders to the ones chasing him down. It’s a mad, mad world, and this is one damn mad ride. Always on the top ten of my favourite horror films, especially the ones from the ’70s and ’80s. The Blu ray release I picked up has no special features, but I’m still satisfied simply because of how amazing it looks and how darkly majestic the score sounds in high definition.