Every day in October I will be reviewing a different horror film.
Some of the criteria I’ve used for the choice of films are
– a film from each decade from the 1920s onwards
– films from a number of different countries
– a Friday the 13th film as within October this year the 13th falls on a Friday!!! (mind blown)
The rest of my choices were films that I had wanted to see for ages but hadn’t gotten around to or were films that I have seen before but was dying to revisit (three of the films have ratings already by myself. These are some of the films that will be revisited and be reviewed again to see if my opinion has changed).
When I had my list of films they were then fed into an online randomiser so that they could be mixed up. With my randomised list I made one change- I made sure that the film watched on the 13th of October was the Friday the 13th movie. But thats the only change.
Here are the films-
Day 1- The Nanny (1965)
Day 2- Battle Royale (2000)
Day 3- The Exorcist (1973)
Day 4- Piranha (1978)
Day 5- Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) and Tales From The Unexpected episode ‘Flypaper’ (1980)
Day 6- The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Day 7- The Fog (1980)
Day 8- Eyes Without A Face (1960)
Day 9- Phantasm (1979)
Day 10- Nosferatu (1922)
Day 11- Blood Beach (1980)
Day 12- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Day 13- Friday the 13th Part 4- The Final Chapter (1984)
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 are 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 hes 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. Its 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 doorchain. 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 its 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.
Its 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 films 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 shes 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 shes 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 hes been committed to.
Clifford tracks Curt down to the homeless hostel he has been staying in and going through the dormatory with a torch checking inhabitants 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 extrordinary- 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 it’s 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 nervewracking 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. Theres a very real possibility that Duncan could follow her but Clifford is also following unbeknowst 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
and walks past this tunnel
before climbing these stairs at the top of which she is scared by a hobo hidden in the shadows
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 its 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. Its not established if she has a job although the fact that she can spend a lot of her freetime drinking suggests she must be financially bouyant. 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. Shes 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 the vicious nature of them 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 the 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 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 its 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.
I love the fact that a movie can be so original and iconic that it can inspire other films to be made. Think of Halloween (1978) and the tidal wave of slasher films that were unleashed in its wake.
This can also happen with movie posters and a film’s iconography. The Breakfast Club is a perfect example.
Take a pose that encapsulated the zeitgeist and not only is it ripe for analysis…
…but it is also open to being imitated and parodied by other movies. I love that films can nudge and wink knowingly at an audience from a movie poster or from a film magazine and know that they are in on the joke. The audience may not get the reference straightaway but eventually they will. And when they do they will marvel at the filmmaker’s ingenuity.
It took many years before I got the in-joke that these two films were making.
Below is the pose used by the cast on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) poster- a movie that was released the year after The Breakfast Club.
Similarly, here is a publicity shot from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987).
In this case the teens who went to see The Breakfast Club could very well have also constituted the demographic who went to see the two films shown above.
I also love the fact that a teen movie has been homaged by two movies as deranged and demented as TCM2 and Nightmare 3. These references to The Breakfast Club feel like, on one hand, a playful co-opting of the original movie and its iconography but also a loving homage to it at the same time. These movies were as far away from John Hughes as possible and yet they still tipped the hat to the filmmaker of all things teen whilst showing that Hughes didn’t speak for all teens with his films. Some teens wanted more twisted thrills for their money. And thats exactly what they got.
A film I know word for word as my brother and I were obsessed with it when we were growing up.
A classic but a problematic one. The cop who flaunts the law and the rules to catch his prey. Hes proud of hating everyone and all groups (the character in this film and in so many Clint Eastwood movies seems to be politically incorrect decades before political correctness became an actual concept). Hes a one man lynch mob who follows his instincts and isn’t afraid of blowing away a suspect and asking questions later (I wonder if one of these questions is ‘Was the dead actually guilty?!’) This character is a right-winger’s wet dream- who cares about a fair trial and the law when these things take so long and might not (seemingly) provide actual justice. The Daily Mail’s readership must love Harry.
Harry’s policing would also include beating interviewees for confessions and said victims somehow developing breathing problems whilst in police custody.
Of course in this and subsequent films Harry is always shown to be right. Its a wasted opportunity that a Dirty Harry film wasn’t made that shows that Harry blew away an actual innocent person. At the films climax there could be a scene after that shows that the wrong person was killed and that the crimes being committed beforehand were actually continuing. Its not late for such a movie to be made. It would have the ‘Bring back hanging’ mob in uproar.
But for all of the bending of rules and trigger happy exploits of the main protagonist during the course of the film it is established that whilst he may be an authority hating maverick its because he actually wants law and order and for the citizens of San Francisco to be safe. The scene in which he runs from phone booth to phone booth to save the kidnap victim shows his willingness to undertake near impossible feats if there is a chance of a saved life at the end of his toils. There is also the scene of the kidnapped girl’s lifeless and naked body being dragged from its underground lair which Harry watches from the distance. This scene is a rare moment of tenderness in such a rough and tumble movie and is genuinely moving. Harry is established as having his priorities right even if they are accomplished in questionable ways.
But to quote Last House on the Left this is only a movie. Aside from the films politics this a rollicking good ride. It perfectly captures its time effortlessly and can be seen as some kind of American time capsule regarding the era it portrays. This was a divisive and fractious period in American history which manifests itself throughout the film. Whilst this was the time of hippies and peace and love this was also the time of Charles Manson and Altamont with more dark times ahead for America.
Whilst Clint may be the star of the film there is another star that is just as important and that is the city of San Francisco itself. It is photographed to perfection with every scene being memorable due to the amazing locales. The neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign, the huge crucifix monument, the grandeur of City Hall…the list is endless. All beautiful and integral to the film to such a degree that they feel like an actual breathing entity. This film would have been inferior or cliched if filmed in New York for instance.
An anti-hero as hard boiled and gritty as Harry Callahan deserves a villain just as idiosyncratic. Thankfully this film provides just that and then some. The character of Scorpio (named as Charles Davis in the film’s novelisation) is brilliantly depicted by Andrew Robinson as utterly unhinged, homicidal and completely batshit crazy. This character is obviously based on the Zodiac Killer who was operating in the Bay Area at the time of the films conception. In fact this is one of those performances that not only goes the extra mile but goes considerably beyond that. Watch the scene in which Scorpio hijacks a busload of schoolchildren and gets them to sing ‘Row Your Boat’ whilst saying that hes taking them to the ice cream factory. This level of insanity reminds me of Betsy Palmer’s turn as Pamela Voorhees at the end of Friday the 13th in terms of getting into ‘the zone’.
Add to this a barrage of brilliant and quirky supporting characters (shouts go out to Inspector Frank “Fatso” DiGiorgio and Hot Mary) and the stage is set for a blast of a film.
Lalo Schifrin’s score is both funky and also very, very disturbing. The music is just as brilliant as the rest of film. Thankfully the full soundtrack is available to buy both physically and as a download.
Everything is in place to make this movie a masterpiece- iconic, quotable and career defining. There was also a rash of vigilante/maverick cop movies influenced by Dirty Harry led by Michael Winner’s Death Wish (also highly recommended).
Just don’t start wishing for the kind of justice Dirty Harry or the sub-genre it spawned seem to condone.
Tales From The Crypt was released in 1972- a horror movie made up of five different tales of terror.
One of these vignettes was ‘…And All Through The House’ a Christmas based story regarding a woman who has just bumped off her hubby for his insurance. But she has more to content with…You can watch it here.
This segment is noteworthy for many reasons. The fabulous story with a twist in the tail, the gaudy and quite fantastic 70s decor, the Tales From The Unexpected on crack feel to the proceedings.
But the best ingredient is the casting of The Very Ms Joan Collins in the lead role. She is perfect in this (shes pretty much perfect in everything). Never has anyone looked so exquisite- even when shes being throttled by a maniac Father Christmas.
For more 70s Joanie horror fun check out The Within Her aka I Don’t Want To Be Born aka Sharon’s Baby. One of the best movies of the 70s. And one of the most demented. But I’ll save that for a future blog post.