Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar

A terrified young baby-sitter… an incessantly ringing phone… and whispered threats set the stage for one of the most suspenseful chillers ever filmed. Carol Kane stars as the baby-sitter who is tormented by a series of ominous phone calls until a compulsive cop (Charles Durning) is brought on the scene to apprehend the psychotic killer. Seven years later, however, the nightmare begins again when the madman return to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and mother. No longer a naïve girl - though still terrified, but prepared - she moves boldly to thwart the maniac's attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion.

Director: Fred Walton
Cast: Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano, Kirsten Larkin, William Boyett, Charles Durning, Ron O'Neal
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, Fullscreen 1.33:1; audio English Monaural, French Monaural; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 97 min.; $19.95; street date 10/9/01.
Supplements: Bonus Trailers.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/C+/D-

At the time of the theatrical release of When A Stranger Calls in 1979, I was 12 years old and apparently not permitted to see this flick. I’d gone to a few “R”-rated efforts, but my Dad picked which I could watch on a still-unfathomable basis; Alien was in, but The Blues Brothers was not. As I recall, I wanted to see Stranger, as it looked scary and fun, but I never did so.

22 years after the fact, I finally got my chance. Overall, the movie maintained a minor cult status among horror thrillers. It doesn’t compare to the fame of era-mates like 1978’s Halloween or 1980’s Friday the 13th, but it remained well known enough to inspire the opening sequence of 1996’s Scream and the concept of the menacing phone call stayed in the public psyche. Outside of that idea, I remembered little about Stranger, so I looked forward to my screening of it.

Unfortunately, the film itself didn’t live up to my expectations. It offered a periodically interesting piece that dragged on many occasions and also suffered from too many illogical moments, even for this sort of flick. (My discussion of Stranger will include some potential spoilers, so if you want to avoid them, skip ahead right now!)

As Stranger starts, we meet teenage babysitter Jill (Carol Kane). This night she works for the Mandrakis family, but the evening quickly goes amiss. She receives periodic phone calls that ask if she’s checked the children recently. Not surprisingly, these start to scare her, so she contacts the police. They trace the calls and learn they came from inside the house. After Jill flees, the cops discover the butchered corpses of the two kids and take captive the culprit, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley).

After that, the film flashes forward seven years. The murdered was placed in a mental hospital, but he escapes, and former cop John Clifford (Charles Durning) - who was on the case originally - is hired by the still-distraught Mandrakis family to find him and kill him. Essentially, the rest of the movie follows Clifford as he pursues Duncan, and we also see a little of Curt as he attempts to integrate into society. In particular, we watch his feeble interactions with barfly Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst).

Ultimately, the tale comes full circle. Married and the mother of her own children now, Jill reenters the story toward the end. As she and her husband go out to celebrate work-related success, Jill receives a haunting phone call from Curt that echoes his earlier work. The remainder of Stranger follows this storyline.

Normally I wouldn’t give away so much of the plot, but that’s why I issued the spoiler warning. I felt it was necessary to mention the entire story in this instance because otherwise I would feel unable to fully relate my feelings about the film. Easily the best parts of Stranger were the ones that involved Kane, but even those seemed flawed. The opening bits provided some good moments of paranoia and fear, but they also appeared excessively moronic. Jill seemed like a dope. In the face of these threatening calls, she mainly just sat there and did little. Why didn’t she contact parents or friends in addition to the police? Why didn’t she ever check the children? With all the menace afoot, she at least could have done her damned job!

I know the reason she never looked in on the kids; it would have ruined the plot. However, story convenience isn’t good enough when it means the movie comes across as illogical. I felt dissatisfied with the character and the events, as they seemed excessively contrived and artificial.

And that was the good part of Stranger! The early Kane sequences made up the most famous aspects of the film, but they finished after about 20 minutes. Admittedly, this surprised me; I thought the entire movie would follow her experiences in the house. The exploits of Clifford and Duncan felt very uninteresting to me, mainly because Curt was such a dull villain. Granted, it was nice to see such a believable baddie; a neurotic, Duncan lacked the superhuman abilities given to most movie murderers. However, this became a fault because I couldn’t buy him as such a threat. He was little more than a twitchy goof. When he threatened Dewhurst, it seemed laughable; she’s such a tough broad that I felt she easily could have handled him.

Stranger resuscitated toward the end, as the return of Kane created a more compelling and interesting plot. However, it also seemed forced and artificial. I never understood why Duncan would bother Jill again; were we supposed to see her as his nemesis because she led to his capture? I’d think the fact he sat there bathed in blood after he dismembered two little kids caused more problems; if he wanted to elude authorities at that time, he should have left the house instead of sitting there for hours.

While the Kane sequences at the end added some much-needed tension to the piece and were generally interesting, they again pointed out the main flaws of the movie. Too much of the story occurred simply to make the film more interesting. Logic and reason went out the window as the flick worked off of odd assumptions. Overall, When A Stranger Calls had a few good moments of tension, but the flick as a whole seemed dissatisfying and hokey.

The DVD:

When a Stranger Calls appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. As an inexpensive thriller from the late Seventies, I anticipated little from the image of Stranger, and the result matched my expectations, as the movie looked watchable but problematic.

Sharpness tended to be acceptable but somewhat soft at times. The picture never seemed badly fuzzy, and most of the time it came across as reasonably accurate and well defined. However, a definite softness pervaded the presentation; while it remained minor, it still was noticeable. No problems with moiré effects or jagged edges arose, but I detected some modest edge enhancement at times.

Print flaws provided the major concerns. Quite a few defects cropped up throughout the film, such as nicks, grit and vertical lines. The two gravest issues related to grain - which seemed to be nearly omnipresent - and speckles. During the early parts of the movie, little white speckles appeared on a very frequent basis. They cleared up to a degree as the film progressed, but they continued to mar the presentation at times. Ultimately, this was a fairly dirty image, though I believe most of the grain likely emanated from the original film elements. I was surprised to see how much grain accompanied daytime shots. Low-light interiors often look grainy due to the lack of illumination, but daylight exteriors have no such excuse, which made their graininess confusing.

Stranger maintained a very subdued palette, which meant that few interesting colors appeared. Most of the hues seemed to be fairly flat and drab, but they felt reasonably accurate. Some skin tones looked mildly pinkish, but a few other colors were more acceptable; for example, Kane’s red shirt showed nice vividness. Black levels appeared generally drab and bland, and shadow detail came across as fairly murky. The movie used many dimly lit sequences, and these were rather muddy and flat, with moderately weak definition. In the end, When A Stranger Calls looked like a relic of its era, but not one that aged well.

Somewhat better was the monaural soundtrack of When A Stranger Calls. Audio quality seemed reasonably good for its age. Dialogue consistently sounded acceptably natural and distinct; I detected no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects seemed to be modestly thin and flat, but they showed acceptable clarity and definition for their era. Music also demonstrated somewhat bland tones that lacked much clarity, but the dynamics were pretty decent, especially through some surprisingly strong low-end. Bass response appeared a bit boomy and indistinct, but it came across well for an older mix. Overall, the audio of When A Stranger Calls lacked terrific presence, but it seemed like a decent track.

When A Stranger Calls includes very few supplements. When a Columbia-Tristar DVD announces Bonus Trailers, that usually means it tosses in ads for similar flicks but not for the main attraction itself. That circumstance occurs here. We get ads for I Know What You Did Last Summer as well as the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, but there’s no sign of a trailer for Stranger.

Though it’s earned a minor cult status within the horror thriller genre, I thought When A Stranger Calls offered a serious disappointment. The film lacked focus and suffered from too many illogical and nonsensical moments for me to take it seriously. The DVD featured generally weak picture with average sound and almost no supplements. As a whole, I thought Stranger wasn’t worth the time.

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