Saturday, January 29, 2011
#100: When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979)
I've reached my 100th review! I still have one more movie to write about until this project is over, but the blog will carry on indefinitely while I accumulate more horror movie lists, guides, cheap DVD sets, etc. Announcements about the next phase in the blog will show up in the next post.
When a Stranger Calls is an odd choice for an overlooked horror film list and joins the company of a handful of other movies from this list that most horror fans have already seen (Day of the Dead, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, From Beyond, Black Christmas). The movie was a minor theatrical hit in 1979 and a popular rental for years, but I'm sure the kids of today with their iPads and video games and horse-drawn carriages have maybe only seen the 2006 remake, so I can justify its inclusion on those grounds. Additionally, I've overlooked it. It was one of those movies I'd been meaning to rent since I was a pre-teen but never did.
Though When a Stranger Calls is a long way from being a great movie, it compensates for its lapses into cliche and lack of distinctive visual style with a solid, unusual cast, excellent use of location, great atmosphere, and mixture of reliable genre tropes and unexpected detours from conventional genre narrative. Perhaps the most interesting of these detours is the film's structure. Most mainstream films have a three-act structure, but the three acts in When a Stranger Calls have three distinctive beginnings, middles, and ends. The film's first third is the most famous and most prominent in all the promotional materials. Inspired by the urban legend of the terrorized babysitter who discovers that the disturbing phone calls she's receiving "are coming from inside the house!!!!," this section is a showcase for Carol Kane as Jill Johnson, the babysitter for a rich couple going out to dinner and a movie. The kids are asleep upstairs when she arrives, and she's soon bombarded with creepy crank calls that have become horror movie catchphrase dynamite: "Have you checked on the children?" The pre-caller ID/cell phone/star 69 days were a golden age for creepy phone calls. Like Gang of Four says, two steps forward, six steps back. If creepy phone calls are your metier, creeps, you're SOL in this sexting age in which we live in, to paraphrase Paul McCartney. After this section, the film's strongest, ends, the movie loses a little momentum, but there's still plenty of solid entertainment ahead. The second act fits more comfortably in the police thriller genre and takes place seven years later. In this section, the madman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), has escaped from a mental hospital. We get to know him, a woman he becomes obsessed with (Colleen Dewhurst), and the private detective tracking him down (Charles Durning). The last act returns to the horror vibe of the beginning, as Duncan resumes his terrorizing of Carol Kane, now married with two small children, after seeing a newspaper article about her charitable work.
When a Stranger Calls was director and co-writer Fred Walton's first film, and it's clear he's no visual stylist. The film's camera setups, shot compositions, and editing are closer to the flat style of the era's network television programs, and Walton spent most of his career making made-for-TV films, including a sequel to this film starring a returning Kane and Durning and The Stepfather's Jill Schoelen. Inactive for several years after his successful debut, Walton returned in the mid-1980s with an episode of the revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents and April Fool's Day, a teenage slasher film with a twist ending that critiqued and parodied the teenage slasher film genre. He made two more features, thriller The Rosary Murders and boarding school drama Hadley's Rebellion, before switching to TV movies for the rest of his career, which has apparently ended. (He hasn't made a TV movie since 1996.)
Despite Walton's visual limitations, he compensates by choosing atmospheric New York City locations, including wealthy suburbs, seedy bars, and city streets, and staying out of the way of his talented cast and compelling story. Carol Kane is great, as usual (though I doubt a woman as interesting as her would marry the "new regional sales manager" dweeb of a husband she's saddled with), and so is Colleen Dewhurst, Charles Durning, and Tony Beckley. Beckley brings depth and even a bit of sympathy to his crazed madman, and it's surprising to learn he had terminal cancer and knew it while he performed what would become his last role. (He died in 1980.) Humphrey Bogart knew he was dying of cancer while filming one of his last roles as a home-invading murderous criminal in William Wyler's The Desperate Hours. He said the part helped him deal with his anger about his terminal illness. I wonder if it was similar for Beckley.
When a Stranger Calls is a satisfying genre film with an iconic opening scene, an above-average cast and an unusual structure that gives you three conventional short films in one. I'm sure it's better than the 2006 remake. I admit I've never seen the remake, but I was bored looking at stills from it online, so I can't even imagine the boredom of sitting through it. I know I'm being a little judgmental, but the remake appears to be a generic slasher movie with one of those modern casts of corporate-sexy, sexually asexual, robotic J. Crew twentysomethings, devoid of personalities and interesting faces. When a Stranger Calls may not be a classic, but it sure has more than that.