When A Stranger Calls (1979)

APRIL 7, 2012

GENRE: SERIAL KILLER, THRILLER
SOURCE: DVD (BORROWED)

Well, I guess I owe Simon West an apology. For over six years now I have been mocking his remake of When A Stranger Calls for its silly ice machine scare, only to discover that the moment was actually just copied from the original. It's funny, the 2006 version was overloaded with nonsensical false scares, and somehow I zeroed in on one of the few moments in the movie (other than the basic premise) that was actually taken from its predecessor. They were just giving a shoutout!

I actually saw this one as a kid (I think the sequel was out then so this would be around 1993), but it's quite possible that I never made it to the end. I remembered that it was only the first 20 minutes that had the babysitter (Carol Kane) before turning into more of a detective thriller, but none of it felt really familiar at all, and I didn't remember that Kane's character eventually DID re-enter the story (for its last reel). So I suspect I fell asleep watching and just asked my mom to sum up the rest so I could use that time to play Sega Genesis.

And that just make the fact that I stayed awake now sort of impressive, I think. As someone who is prone to falling asleep at everything, it would be understandable to doze off during the repetitive, not particularly exciting "second act" of the movie, which takes up more than half of its runtime. In theory, this section would play better to an adult than a kid expecting a typical slasher movie, but it's not the idea that's wonky, it's the execution.

After the opening sequence in which our killer knocks off two kids and is captured, we flash forward seven years, after he escapes. Right off the bat there's something "off" about this movie in that there's a lot of "tell" but not a lot of "show". I don't need to see him kill the two children (though that he did so without a weapon is kind of intriguing; he's not a particularly imposing looking guy. And how did he manage to get them BOTH? Wouldn't the sounds of killing one wake the other?), but we don't see the capture and then we don't see the escape. Apart from a brief bit where lead detective Charles Durning listens to some of his therapy sessions and goes through the psychiatrist's file, there's no real benefit to the plot for this stuff. It would have made a hell of a lot more sense (not to mention have been less unrewarding to the audience) to just say that they never found him at all, and that Durning has been obsessed with finding him ever since.

It also would have been nice to check in with Kane's character a few times during the movie, instead of just springing her on us with 15 minutes left. Now she has two kids of her own and is married to a real life Artie Ziff, who just got a big promotion. They are out celebrating when she gets a phone call from the killer at the restaurant, and then it's a slasher movie again. Some scenes between her and Durning throughout the film would have kept this structure from being so awkward, not to mention made Durning look like a more effective hero. Our psycho escapes from an institution and yet it takes what seems like weeks for him to consider maybe checking in on the woman who led to the guy's capture?

To be fair, the killer DOESN'T seem particularly interested in Kane until near the end, for whatever reason. Instead he focuses on a lady he sees at the bar, and follows her around for a while in between scenes of panhandling or just sort of walking around, or crying naked in a public bathroom. Again, in theory it's a fine enough idea - I've always wanted to see what Michael Myers was up to when it wasn't October 31st - but it doesn't quite work, because writer/director Fred Walton attempts to make the guy sympathetic, which is asking way too much of an audience after he butchers two children.

And for a guy that escaped from an institution, there doesn't seem to be much effort into finding him; the doctor almost seems angry that Durning intends to find him, and the police captain (Ron O'Neal!) gives Durning some resistance as well. He's a child murderer for Christ's sake! The whole force should be out there! A few chase scenes would have given the film some empty thrills, but until near the very end of the "Durning section" of the film, it just cuts back and forth between the killer wandering around or Durning asking if anyone's seen him, often reminding them that "he killed two kids!", as if we might have forgotten the only thing that has happened in the movie so far.

As for the Kane sequences, well they are obviously much better, but they're so short that it's hard to really work up much of a connection to her. Especially Kane, an actress who has usually played weirdos - it's an unusual choice for an underwritten role. You need someone we instantly love and sympathize with (perhaps a young Sandra Bullock type) that can make up for the fact that we're not really given much of a reason to like her. All we know is that she's a damned shitty babysitter, as we learn that the children had been dead for hours when the police arrive after learning the origin of the phone calls (only a few minutes after the realization). Ditto for the closing sequence; we know she has a family now, but does she still think about that night? Does she feel guilty? She obviously didn't take too long after to put her life back together - it's seven years later but her son looks to be around six. For a quote unquote heroine, she's one of the least compelling I can recall.

But that opener is still a knockout (even if the freeze-frame shot of Durning at the door is more terrifying than anything involving phone calls or checking children), and well-made considering its low budget. And Tony Beckley (who died shortly after completing production) is an effectively unnerving presence; he doesn't need a mask or a costume to scare you on sight. Plus I am 99% positive that this movie's "oh no!" musical cue inspired the THX logo "theme", so that was amusing. The boredom even paid off in a way, as I also got to thinking that the movie was before its time, which isn't something you can say about a lot of films that are lumped in the slasher cycle of the period. 1979 was before the slasher boom, so if it came along in like 1982 or so, when typical slashers had started getting stale, the diversion would have been appreciated. For years I thought the remake had the right idea (terrible execution) of simply stretching the opening sequence into an entire movie, but now I know that they should have kept the unusual structure and simply tried making it better.

What say you?

5 comments:

  1. I find the sequel When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) superior than original. First 25 minutes are mind blowing, check it out. The ending is also good, really creepy and original.

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  2. ^I was just about to say that, so seconded. If I recall though, it does keep the same structure as the first with the middle being rather boring. But yeah, the beginning and ending make it worth checking out.

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  3. Indeed. Watch the sequel, Collins. It has a "killer gimmick" that's ridiculous and creepy at the same time.

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  4. Agreed on all points!

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  5. Hieronymous StoneApril 14, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    I remember reading somewhere a couple years ago that the opening scene with Carol Kane was actually a standalone short film the producers purchased separately and filmed extra material for to make it feature length. Supposedly everything after the Durning freeze-frame is the newly shot stuff. If you pay close attention Durning never interacts with Kane in the opening scene and she disappears (till the finale) once the police arrive.

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