Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I learnt about When A Stranger Calls after seeing the excellent horror film compilation Terror in the Aisles. I then saw the full film and was blown away. I bought the bare bones American DVD release years later and thought that was the best cineastes would get regarding this film.

So I was thrilled when I learnt that the amazing company Second Sight Films were releasing the movie on Blu ray with a ton of extra features. These include the sequel. And the original short film The Sitter that director Fred Walton made prior to the feature length film. And the soundtrack. This sounded like one hell of an amazing package. Does the reality live up to the specs?

The Film-

A young babysitter receives phone-calls asking if shes ‘checked the children’. After numerous calls to the police she learns that the calls are coming from inside the house (this plot device had only been used one time before in film terms with that film being Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974).

After this extremely tense first 20 mins the film shifts gear and the second act of the film involves the killer, the cop determined to catch him and a bar patron the killer first rather clumsily tries to pick up and when that fails, stalks.

The last act of the film involves the babysitter years later again with the killer trying to kill her again.

Lazy critics and film fans will have you believe that the first and last acts of this film are great, with the middle act (and majority) of the film being boring and pedestrian. This is utter rubbish. My thoughts on the film and particularly the middle act of the film can be found here.

When a Stranger Calls is a masterpiece and I believe one of the best horror films ever made. Really. It should be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining and Psycho but isn’t. Maybe this Blu ray release will help to rectify this situation.

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Video-

The transfer on Second Sight’s Blu ray is amazing. The picture quality is flawless and visuals crisp even though the intended look of the film is quite soft. I compared this release to the Region 1 DVD I mentioned earlier and this transfer represents a significant step up in terms of visuals especially in the scenes that happen at night or where shadows are involved. One scene that nicely demonstrates this is the nocturnal walk home the character Tracey takes from the bar.

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Audio-

The audio is just as great as the visuals. Previous releases had a tendency to sound muffled and flat in places. Second Sight’s release rectifies this to such a degree that both music and dialogue are crystal clear and easy to hear. There no need for a manual sound mix using your remote with this release as with so many other releases from other labels.

Features-

This release is jam-packed with special features and the kind of features that fans of the film were waiting decades to see.

Firstly, we get director Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter that was made as a short film with Walton hoping to expand this into a full-length feature after the success of Halloween. It’s interesting to see that a lot of the nuance and detail that are present in the When a Stranger Calls are already a part of The Sitter. The ice maker as a source of terror, Dr Mandrakis’ funny line about ‘we even have low fat yoghurt’ and the opening of the front door to reveal a detective are all in place in The Sitter showing that attention to detail was there from the very start. These elements weren’t added as an afterthought into the full length feature. I’ve waited years to see The Sitter and the wait was worth it. It certainly feels like the embryonic streak of genius that would later be more fully realised in the later film.

The Blu ray also includes the TV movie sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. It was great to finally see this film after hearing so much about it. The character arcs of Carol Kane and Charles Durning’s characters feel realistic and authentic and this is a worthy continuation of their stories. As with the main feature the video and audio on this movie are both top notch.

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Also included are interviews with director Fred Walton, stars Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff. For a film of which little was known, fans suddenly have a treasure trove of information about the film’s genesis, it’s production and it’s reception. Walton’s interview is the most revealing and is full of anecdotes which shed considerable light on the film. One such is how actor Tony Beckley felt massively insecure about acting with an actress as great as Carol Kane. Colleen Dewhurst said something to him that instantly remedied the situation beautifully and restored his confidence in his abilities.

And if these special features weren’t brilliant enough we also get the film’s soundtrack on CD (a great addition as Dana Kaproff’s score is a massive part as to why the film works so well), a booklet including an excellent essay on the film and a replica of the original film’s poster.

Of all of the Blu rays I’ve bought this year this is by far the best. A great film has been given the treatment it truly deserves. But I have come to expect this kind of product from Second Sight Films as they were responsible for the amazing package released for The Changeling. I look forward to their release of Boys in the Band early next year.

5 stars out of 5.

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

I love a sequel that not only ups the ante regarding the original film but decides to be as extreme as possible and really ‘go for it’.

In this film theres a new family who move into Amityville. You know that any family that includes Burt Young and Rutanya Alda as members is going to be dysfunctional. And, by Christ, I mean VERY dysfunctional. Any film that deals with incest is going to be special. Theres also a domestic violence subplot which is just as shocking.

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Keeping it in the family

Add to that some of the grossest special effects as the teenage son is possessed and transformed into an utter beast of a nightmarish character and you have a great, twisted and truly messed up (in a good way) sequel.

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I remember this having one of the most disturbing sleeves of any horror video in my local video stores which instantly made me want to investigate this further.

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Truly disturbing VHS art for Amityville 2

There is also a scene involving a Sony Walkman which freaked me out so much that it made me question using mine for days after seeing this filth classic.

Don’t miss this messed up gem of a movie.

4 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- The Gorgon (1964)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- The Gorgon (1964)

A Hammer film that looks to Greek mythology for the basis of it’s plot with the mythical creature known as The Gorgon (a woman with snakes for hair and the ability to turn anyone who looks her in the eye to stone) being adapted and shone through the Hammer Films’ prism.

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This film features the combined talents of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Patrick Troughton who are all amazing. In fact, the storyline between Cushing, his wife and her lover overshadows the actual gorgon at one point. This isn’t detrimental to the film’s narrative though.

This film looks absolutely beautiful. I watched the restored Blu-ray version from the first Indicator boxset and they have done a phenomenal job. I hadn’t even heard of this film before the release of the boxset but I’m glad I did. It’s a brilliant film and deserves to be seen more widely. I would love a cinema release of some of Hammer’s films so that their full glory can be seen on the big screen.

4 out of 5 stars

 

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

An earthquake uproots cockroach-like bugs that can set fire to things and, more importantly for a horror film, also to animals and humans. But never fear, a biology professor played by Bradford Dillman is on the case.

This great little 70’s B movie is directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who would go on to make the hugely enjoyable Jaws 2 and the brilliant campfest that is Supergirl) and produced by William Castle (no introduction needed). Gorgeous Californian locations, bugs setting cats alight (is it un-PC to find this hilariously entertaining?) and also crawling into huge teased 70’s women’s hairdos and letting rip. This is a great popcorn movie.

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But then the movie changes course and gets all metaphysical as the film’s designated bug expert starts to research the incendiary insects in greater depth and even starts to communicate with them!

This is the kind of film that you could stumble upon on a late night TV channel and absolutely love. A low-key joy.

4 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- Maniac (1980)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- Maniac (1980)

William Lustig’s depraved classic was massively controversial when first released. It garnered the ultimate accolades for an exploitation film- it was HATED by Siskel and Ebert (Gene Siskel said he made it to the shotgun murder then had to leave the preview screening as he couldn’t stomach anymore!) and it was picketed by feminist groups.

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Feminists give ‘Maniac’ free publicity

The film centres around serial killer Frank Zito who likes to scalp his victims and place the scalps on top of shop mannequins in his apartment. It’s also shown that hes a victim of abuse by his mother who later died in a car accident (did he cause this?) On the walls of his apartment are paintings of deformed children amongst other things.

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Everyone should have a hobby

Tom Savini provides the special effects and does so with gay abandon. He also stars in the film with explosive results!

Maniac isn’t just a great piece of sleazy horror cinema but is also a snapshot of a time when New York really was run-down, dangerous and crime-ridden. It feels more like a gritty documentary than a film made for 42nd Street. The scene in the deserted subway station at night is the stuff of nightmares!

The movie also places actor Joe Spinell centre stage in the role of Frank. He gives one of the greatest depictions of psychotic psychopathy ever captured on film. Spinell can also be seen in Taxi Driver (he delivers that ‘You talkin’ to me’ line in Maniac) and William Friedkin’s masterpiece Cruising. An amazing actor.

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The film also looks gorgeous. Check out the framing of the murder of the couple on the beach that opens the film. It’s exquisite. In fact the film seems more like a giallo, an opera of blood, splattered brains and strands of hair.

The first time I learnt of the film was when I saw the poster for the movie in a copy of the French horror magazine Vendredi 13 in the mid-80s- a close up of the killer’s midriff and crotch (which leaves nothing to the imagination), the words ‘I warned you not to go out tonight!’ written in spiky font, a knife in one of the psycho’s hands and a severed woman’s head in the other. Even this poster wound up in trouble and had to be censored in certain countries.

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The greatest film poster ever?

The film was rejected for cinema release by the BBFC in 1980 and again in 1998 for a potential VHS release. It was then cut for a DVD release in 2002. But worry not- Blue Underground, the director’s Blu-ray label are releasing a 4K transfer in December.

A sick, disgusting film that proves itself to be worthy of the hype. Highly recommended.

4/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to a haunted house with each receiving $10,000 if they last the night.

This is a William Castle film so you know it’s going to be genius. And it doesn’t disappoint. I love the house with it’s sliding doors, acid bath and shadow play. Vincent Price in the lead is once again perfect casting with his trademark wryness, camp and sarcasm being demonstrated in spades. There also seems to be more understatement and, dare I say, nuance in this role.

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The film itself looks amazing. I wish director Castle would get the proper adoration and respect for his films and legacy. The gimmicks associated with his films seem to overshadow the actual films themselves. This is a shame. I honestly thing Castle was an auteur who seriously influenced the genre of horror for the better. The House on Haunted Hill influenced Hitchcock when he was making Psycho apparently. I’m wondering if Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques influenced Castle’s film with the numerous double-crossings and red herrings that keep the audience guessing until the very last frame.

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Emergo was the gimmick Castle used for this film. During a scene concerning a skeleton an actual skeleton on a pulley would be flown over the startled audience. Genius.

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The audience experience ‘Emergo’

This film is currently (and inexplicably) in the public domain. I look forward to a really great Blu-ray release and transfer. The film’s beauty is a gem yet to be seen in all it’s glory.

4 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 22- Urban Legend (1998)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 22- Urban Legend (1998)

A group of teens find themselves the victims of urban legends that come true. These legends range from ‘The Stranger in the Backseat’ to ‘Eating Pop Rocks and Drinking Soda’ (never heard of this but I’m keen to try it).

In the late 90’s there were a slew of teen horror movies made in the wake of one of the most irritating and terrible films ever made, Scream. They involved a group of pretty young actors in movies completely devoid of likeable characters, tension or any kind of intelligence.

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This still is better than the entire film

Urban Legend is an example of this wave. Stars from recent TV shows were cast to draw in the young audience members who wouldn’t know good from bad in terms of filmmaking. Even Robert Englund can’t save this turkey.

Aside from being a time capsule from the late 90’s this really doesn’t serve any purpose. When I went to see the vile Scream in the 90’s I saw David Cronenberg’s Crash straight after it. So my advice to you is to watch this auto-erotic car fetishist’s wet-dream instead. Crash proved that some great horror movies were being made in that time period.

1 out of 5 stars