When a Stranger Calls (1979)


This is the final review for my annual Countdown to Halloween. This year, I invited you to join me as I attempted to gain some space on my DVR. Every day, I watched something from the bottom of the list, thereby reducing the percentage that's full... so I could record more!

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As an update, you can see that I got down to 29%... from when I started. Would you like to guess how full my DVR really is right now? Yep, 52%! I suppose I achieved my goal of making space for more, but on the other hand, I'm right back where I started! And that's A-OK with me... I still have a lot of great movies to watch!

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Click here to visit other great blogs and websites participating in the countdown.

When I was probably six years old (we lived at 3205 W. Maine at the time and moved to 2001 Seneca in 1969), I overheard my babysitter telling my parents a story when she arrived. I don’t remember if I thought it had actually happened or if it was a book she read or a movie she saw. It was about a babysitter who was receiving threatening phone calls and when the calls were traced, the were coming from inside the house.

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This story stuck with me for years, long before I read about the urban legend of “The Babysitter & the Man Upstairs.” She told it prior to Bob Clark making Black Christmas (1974) and Fred Walton making a short film called, The Sitter (1977.) She told it before Halloween (1978) was a huge hit and Walton seized the opportunity to expand his short into a full-length motion picture.

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I first saw When a Stranger Calls (1979) on HBO; it didn’t play in theaters in Enid, Oklahoma. I was disappointed. The idea was superb, but it wasn’t enough for a 97-minute movie. Until I re-watched it this week for the second time ever, I remembered it as having a great twist beginning and a great twist ending, with a long, boring part in the middle in which the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), wandered the city streets endlessly.

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Through the magic of time and maturity, my sentiment has changed. When a Stranger Calls still has the great twist beginning and ending, but the middle is no longer boring to me. Minus the horrifying theatrics of the bookends, it’s a tense little drama about the pursuit of Duncan by John Clifford (Charles Durning), the cop that first arrived on the scene seven years earlier when Duncan brutally killed two children with his bare hands.

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When Michael Myers… I mean Curt Duncan… escapes from the mental institution, the dead children’s father, Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) hires Clifford to find Duncan. It’s clear that Clifford was scarred by the events he witnessed and has more in mind for Duncan than simply finding him. Someone that demented doesn’t deserve to live. Clifford is weary, but now has a purpose. Durning delivers a subtle, yet effective performance.

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I had completely forgotten the character of Tracy (Coleen Dewhurst.) We know so little about her, yet are given enough clues to imagine what in her life has brought her to sitting on a barstool every night at a seedy club called, “Torchy’s.” She plays a huge role in the story when Clifford learns she had an encounter with Duncan at Torchy’s and then convinces her to help him lure the killer into the open.

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What about the babysitter, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane)? What happened to her after her horrifying experience? It’s almost irrelevant until Duncan picks up a newspaper from the gutter that has a story about her (that we’ll later assume must have contained her address.) She’s married with children and seems to have recovered nicely until she and her husband are dining out (he got a promotion) and she gets a phone call, “Have you checked the children?”

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This sets the final act in motion and the twist ending that is possibly more effective than the twist beginning because it’s not an urban legend with which we’re familiar. We don’t know what’s going to happen. When a Stranger Calls is so intense that it earned an R-rating despite not including any of the normal criteria for that designation. It’s simple and it’s so scary because it could really happen, even today. In fact, with modern technology, it’s even more possible.

Written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton

Directed by Fred Walton

Starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley

RT 97 min.

Released Oct. 26, 1979

Recorded on July 24, 2021 (TCM)

Rating 7 Slashers (out of 10)





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