I first learnt of the film When A Stranger Calls (1979) from watching the excellent horror compilation film Terror in the Aisles on VHS in the 80s. The clips featured in the film dwelt exclusively on the first 20 minutes of the movie and were the ultimate in tension and almost unmanageable levels of ‘edge of your seat’ suspense.
The first part of the movie is based on the popular and very well known urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’. In fact, the director of When A Stranger Calls Fred Walton had made a short film already of this tall tale which was called ‘The Sitter’.
In When A Stranger Calls, a young babysitter named Jill Johnson goes to babysit for a couple shes never babysat for before- Dr Mandrakis and his wife. On arriving she is told that the children are upstairs and just getting over colds and so if possible they are not to be disturbed. Shortly after the couple leave Jill starts to receive phone calls from a man asking her to ‘check the children’. She starts to feel disturbed by these calls and even calls the police who rather annoyingly tell her that the city is full of obscene callers and has she thought about using a dog whistle when the man next calls.
However, when he does next call, Jill tries to keep him on the phone to learn more about him so that the police can trace where he’s calling from and to find out what he actually wants. Unfortunately for Jill what he wants is her blood and ‘all over me!’ at that. The man on the other end of the phone hangs up.
When the phone rings again Jill answers with a mixture of rage and fear. ‘Look leave me alone!’ she barks into the receiver but it isn’t the man who had been calling her. It’s the policeman she had spoken to earlier. ‘We’ve traced the calls and they’re coming from inside the house. For God’s sake, you need to get out of that house!’ Jill tiptoes to the front door whilst watching the top of the stairs as a door up there starts to open. She tries to open the front door but shes locked it earlier by using the door chain. She swiftly unlocks the door and unslides the chain as a dark figure starts to come down the stairs. She opens the door to find a stranger’s rather scary looking face on the other side.
This actually turns out to be a cop. Jill has narrowly escaped with her life.
This is the first act of the movie and it’s expertly directed so that every iota of tension, terror and sweat can be milked from the situation. The fact that Jill is in an unfamiliar house is emphasised as is her isolation and ultimately her vulnerability.
Most of this opener was shown in Terror in the Aisles (and even in the film’s trailer and TV spots) and was so brilliantly taut and twisted that I had to see the whole film. A trip to my local video store was in order.
How would the film follow up such a strong and tense opening? And this is what most critics of the film focus on. In most reviews of the film hacks and casual viewers extol the opinion that the film never reaches the dizzying heights of the film’s first act. They voice the view that after the first 20 minutes the film is a turgid and rather boring excuse to pad out the rest of the running time. Whilst the closing act of the film is a reprise of the initial scenario which takes place with the same characters (more on the ending of the film later) most think that the middle scenes of the film are lacking in the impetus, urgency and sheer tension which the start of the film oozes copiously.
But dear reader, I disagree with this. And I’m here to show you why ALL of When A Stranger Calls is masterful.
It’s true that after I saw the film in its entirety I thought that the first and last 20 minutes were amazing with the rest of the film being a very different beast. I never thought that it was inferior to the rest of the film but just, well, different. But after seeing the film it was scenes from the middle act of the film which I found myself dwelling on as they lingered in my psyche so much.
The first thing that I love about the film’s core is the killer himself. Tony Beckley’s depiction is one of horror cinema’s finest.
We learn through John Clifford’s (the Private Investigator who worked on the original case and is now pursuing the killer after he has escaped from a mental facility 6 years after the events depicted in the first part of the movie) visit to the mental institution that the killer (here named for the first time as Curt Duncan) has escaped from is extremely unstable, to put it mildly, in fact dangerously so. When Clifford asks why the treatment he was administered in the hospital was so brutal (ECG was one example given) the hospital head plays him a tape of Duncan in which he appears to be completely psychotic and chillingly out of control. This tape recording is one of the eeriest things I’ve ever experienced when watching a horror film.
We are then introduced to Duncan as, of all things, he tries to pick up the character of Tracy in a bar (more about Tracy later). He doesn’t succeed because she’s clearly not interested but he pesters her to such a degree that other drinkers in the bar intervene and proceed to beat up Duncan. After this, he follows her home and enters her apartment even after she again says that she’s not interested in his advances. After she somehow manages to get him to leave there is another tense moment where Curt keeps knocking on the locked door and then tries the handle whilst Tracy watches defenselessly.
Tony Beckley’s Curt in these scenes is shown to be unhinged but somewhat pathetic also. In the first moments of the scene in which he approaches Tracy, he appears almost vulnerable and in need of protection.
Duncan is also seen begging for money and staying in a homeless hostel which only reinforces this depiction of his character being somewhat pathetic and down at heel.
But the viewer can see through this bluff. We know that Duncan had killed the children being babysat in cold blood. In a later scene, we learn that in fact, he ripped them apart with his bare hands and that they required 6 days of constant work by mortuary staff in preparation for their funeral. This fact is disclosed by Clifford when he goes to interview Tracy when he learns she was in the same bar as him.
Duncan visits Tracy again in her apartment but this time the mask of being vulnerable has slipped. He is hiding in her apartment when she arrives home and is threatened by Duncan who presses a hand over her mouth whilst ironically saying that he wants her to be his friend. How to win friends and influence people, Curt Duncan style. The beginning of this scene before Duncan shows himself to Tracy is extremely tense with the audience knowing that he is in Tracy’s space but with Tracy being blissfully unaware. She thinks she is home and hence safe. Little does she know that this isn’t the case.
Possibly the most disturbing scene involving Duncan takes place in the homeless shelter bathroom. We see Duncan naked and looking at his reflection in a scratched mirror as recollections go through his mind that we are shown- Duncan in the Mandrakis’ children’s room and covered in blood whilst phoning Jill downstairs, Curt attacking Tracy in her apartment, Curt in a straitjacket in a padded cell within the hospital he’s been committed to.
Clifford tracks Curt down to the homeless hostel he has been staying in and goes through the dormitory with a torch checking inhabitant’s faces looking for Duncan. This leads to a tense chase scene. Duncan is seen manically running down the hostel’s main corridor knocking on random doors to wake people up. Duncan is shown to be completely manic, insanely so.
Clifford loses Duncan outside but not before we hear Curt talking to himself whilst hidden in the dark. Mantra like he repeats ‘No one can see me. No one touches me. I don’t exist…’ This is chillingly unnerving and played with maniacal brilliance by Beckley.
Beckley’s depiction of Curt Duncan is extraordinary- a see-sawing performance between vulnerability tinged with sadness that tips into full-on crazydom on an almost Grand Guignol scale. This is a major factor why the middle act of the film can’t be written off or seen as mediocre.
Another remarkable and striking aspect about the main part of the movie is the way the city backdrop of Los Angeles is shot. This is a movie that not only loves L.A. but knows how to use some of its locations to startling effect.
This is exemplified to its fullest in the sequences in which Tracy walks home from the bar she frequents. Her first walk home is tense for the viewer but not for Tracy as she doesn’t know that Curt Duncan is following her home but we do. Tracy’s second walk home is nerve-wracking for both character and audience: Tracy has been told by John Clifford what he has done in the past and that he actually escaped from a psychiatric hospital. There’s a very real possibility that Duncan could follow her but Clifford is also following unbeknownst to Duncan. Tracy is being used as human bait.
The locations that Tracy passes on this walk are eerie, to say the least. She first leaves Torchy’s Bar
There is also the gorgeously photographed neon-lit skyline at the top of these stairs which is awe-inspiring.
Add to this the daytime shot of Tracy’s apartment building
and the nocturnal creepiness of the homeless shelter that Duncan stays in and it’s clear the film has a very specific vision in mind- the city as the perfect sphere for these thoroughly disturbing events to take place in.
There is also the sense that the film has perfectly captured the late 70s/early 80s era of the city. All things change as do cityscapes. The film captures this- on Tracy’s second walk home she passes another similar tunnel to the first one. But this one is actually in the process of being demolished. And somehow the film also captures this as strangely disturbing. Just as the wrecking ball destroys the tunnel, Duncan aims to destroy the lives of the women he comes into contact with.
A major factor in the brilliance of the film’s middle section is the character of Tracy played in all her raspy glory by Colleen Dewhurst. She appears to be a barfly whos a regular at Torchy’s Bar even though she doesn’t appear to enjoy being there. It’s not established if she has a job although the fact that she can spend a lot of her free time drinking suggests she must be financially buoyant. Her appearance and apartment also display that she is comfortable if not well off.
The fact that a barfly such as Tracy has been written as a character in a movie was both brave and interesting. She’s not your average supporting character in a 1970s horror movie.
She also appears to be very independent and self-sufficient. When Duncan hits on her in the bar she first silently moves away and then verbally rebuffs him when he perseveres.
Tracy’s character is also shown to be extremely strong. She is later told of Duncan’s crimes and their vicious nature by Clifford and is used as human bait as she walks home from the bar a second time. This is one gutsy lady.
Dewhurst was considered an actress of prestige before and after this film and so her role adds a certain gravitas to proceedings.
In fact, all of the film’s performances are stellar. The overall tone of the film is one of seriousness because of the crimes undertaken by Duncan and how important it is to apprehend him. This lends an air of real tension to the movie that you can cut with a knife (pun not intended). There is not one sequence that is jokey or less than utterly deadpan. No cinematic winks to the camera with this film.
The seriousness of the situation that the characters find themselves in is emphasised by the scene in which Clifford goes to see his old police friend and tells him that he intends to kill Duncan rather than merely capture him. Clifford substantiates that the magnitude of Duncan’s crimes calls for nothing less.
After the middle act of the film comes the ending that seeks to replicate the kind of edge of your seat tension and terror that was generated so brilliantly during the opening sequence. Jill is now married and has children of her own. Duncan tracks her down after reading about her successful husband in a newspaper and rings the restaurant where they are eating to ask if she has ‘checked the children’. Jill and her hubby rush home after ringing their babysitter to literally check the children. When she gets home to find everyone safe she then prepares for bed but the person beside her is actually Duncan and not her husband. Just as he attacks her he is shot dead by Clifford.
Again Beckley’s unhinged performance comes to the fore in this scene as he unnervingly hisses whilst revealing that it is him in bed with Jill rather than her husband.
Please ignore the naysayers who say that it’s only the first 20 mins of When A Stranger Calls that are worthy of your attention. ALL of the film is brilliant. Just prepare yourself for the change of pace after the film’s first act. To deny the brilliance of this film is to miss out on an amazing cinematic experience.