When A Stranger Calls Back (1993)

MAY 2, 2023


I didn’t think much of it in 1993 when I first/last saw When A Stranger Calls Back, but it was way ahead of the curve when it comes to “legacyquels.” It came along 14 years after the first film (an eternity in horror) and didn’t include any of the characters from the first film until the half hour mark, not unlike what Scream 5 did. And that’s a franchise that owes some debt to the OG When A Stranger Calls (besides the phone call stuff, it only dawned on me watching this film that Sid opening the door to Dewey holding up the mask is a spoof of Charles Durning's first appearance in the first film, a moment that's kind of recreated here). But unfortunately, it also suffers from all of the same problems as the first movie, which I guess is fine if you thought that one was perfect, but while it has its strong points, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it conjures up bad déjà vu.

For starters, Fred Walton and Steve Feke once again bizarrely lose track of key characters only to reintroduce them later, as if they finished a cut of the movie and realized they were like a half hour short of a proper feature runtime but didn’t have the same cast members available to pad it out. In the original 1979 film, Carol Kane’s babysitter character Jill seems to be done with the story, only to be randomly shoehorned into an extended climax after they wrap things up with the other woman the film’s killer was after for the majority of the movie. Here, we start with Jill Schoelen as Julia (couldn’t they come up with a more different name?), who gets a knock on the door from a guy asking to come use the phone to call AAA for his broken down car. She agrees, but when she discovers the phone is dead (heh) she inexplicably decides to pretend she called, rather than just tell him (presumably she feels he wouldn’t believe her, but in the scenario where he’s telling the truth and NOT a psycho, it’s not going to take much for him to figure out they’re not coming and get angry with her anyway).

That aside, this 20-odd minute opening is a terrific way to kick things up, with some solid suspense and an all timer jump scare when she realizes he’s actually in the house and not safely outside. Then, as with the original, we flash forward a few years to catch up with her, and she’s now battling some serious PTSD. In the original, the guy was caught and the kids were found dead, but this time around the killer AND the kids all vanish into thin air, leaving her with serious doubts about her safety and her sanity along with the guilt of being a terrible babysitter. It’s at this point that Jill re-enters the story, now working as a counselor and self-defense coach (her family isn’t mentioned, not sure what happened there), and she is obviously sympathetic to Julia’s plight. So you might be thinking that it’s gonna be a nice two hander where Jill helps Julia and they work together to get the guy or something, right?

Nope! Instead, in a completely off screen and awkwardly explained moment, Julia is shot in the head (seemingly a suicide attempt, though it’s never made clear) and is in a coma, at which point she doesn’t really have any function in the rest of the movie. At one point the killer goes to her hospital room and punches her comatose body for a while (it’s a truly unnerving and weird scene), and then she wakes up in the film’s epilogue, but that’s it for her. It’s a sort of Psycho type move, I guess, and I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but Walton and Feke never quite figure out where to go from there, so we get extended scenes of Jill feeling paranoid herself (why the guy starts going after her is never made clear – but it’s also unclear what he did for five years and in turn why he started going after Julia again. This guy’s whole MO is very confusing), and then even more extended scenes of John Clifford (Durning’s character, who also returns) trying to figure out who the killer is, remarkably zeroing in on the idea that the guy is a ventriloquist and then finding him just as quickly at an open mic night. With no other suspects (this isn’t a whodunit) it’s not particularly engaging to see him do the detective work, but whatever – I guess it’s nice that someone of Durning’s stature would even return to this in the first place, so I’ll allow it.

But the filmmakers also randomly start trying to earn some sympathy for the killer at around an hour into the movie, showing him try to perform his ventriloquist act to an unappreciative crowd, prompting the manager to toss him out. The first film had a lot of this sort of stuff, and while it didn’t work for me I could at least see the point behind it – a “slasher” type movie where we see what the killer does on his day to day when he’s not murdering people. One assumes they decided to try it again here, but it comes so late into the movie that it just feels like more padding, adding to the film’s already sluggish and unfocused narrative. Things finally get good again for the climax, where the killer decides to go after Jill in her own apartment, with a hilarious but still kind of creepy reveal for how he’s hiding in plain sight. But while it’s a solid sequence, it’s hard to forget that it’s also been an hour since the movie had any real juice to it (save for the aforementioned hospital scene), so it’s a “too little too late” scenario.

Walton, Kane, and Schoelen all contribute interviews, and while the actresses’ are fine, I almost wish I didn’t watch Walton’s, since (spoiler of sorts? Not sure how to qualify this) he reveals that Julia was indeed supposed to die in the hospital as a result of the killer’s attack on her comatose body, but the studio refused to allow it and made him rewrite to keep her alive. While this might have made more sense in the narrative (they didn’t really change much about their script it seems, apart from the silly epilogue, which Walton doesn’t like either), it also means one of the movie’s best WTF moments would have just been a generic “finish her off” kind of scene of little interest. So I’d rather keep thinking that! Oh well. The original short film “The Sitter”, which prompted the feature length original film, is also included, though if you’ve seen both movies (not to mention the remake, which stretches out the opening for the entire runtime) there’s little use for it at this point, though I had to laugh that the ice maker gag – which was something I lambasted about the remake having forgotten it was taken from the film – actually originated here! So basically, Calls Back is the *only* one of these four films that doesn’t try to scare us with the sound of ice falling into a dish. Here we get ventriloquism instead. What a weird series.

What say you?


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