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Default When A Stranger Calls



Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: July 11, 2003

Released by: Columbia Tri-Star
Release date: 10/16/2001
MSRP: $19.95
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Full Frame 1.33:1



"Have you checked the children?" With that simple question, the low-budgeted When A Stranger Calls became a hit with North American audiences in 1979. Although not a traditional slasher per se, it was one of the seminal films responsible for the birth of the slasher brand of horror films, along with classics like Halloween and Friday the 13th. After a long wait, Columbia has finally released the film on DVD, to go along with its already released sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back. Is Stranger worth meeting, or is its success merely due to the coat tailing fan base brought upon by Halloween?

The Story

inline ImageIt is a still, quiet night in a typical all-American town. Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is babysitting two youngsters asleep in their beds upstairs. She chats with her friends on the phone about boys and love. She hangs up, and moments later the phone rings. Nothing; a silent call. She starts back at her homework, but the phone rings again. She answers it, sheepishly asking whom it is. "Have you checked the children?" Click. She doesn't check the kids, but the unidentified man keeps calling. Scared and desperate she calls the police asking for help, and they tell her that the phone call is coming from inside the house. The caller, Kirk Duncan (Tony Beckley), is lying upstairs draped in the blood of the two youngsters. Jill escapes, and Duncan is caught, but that dreadful night will never be forgotten.

inline Image Flash forward seven years, and it is discovered that Duncan has escaped the mental institution and now roams the streets. A victim of torture and maltreatment, he is a scarred soul looking for human connection and understanding. Hot on his trail is the private investigator, John Clifford (Charles Durning), who was involved in Duncan's apprehension seven years ago. Hired by the parents of the slain children, he vows to kill Duncan once and for all.

inline Image Duncan tries to talk to a woman at the bar, but she repeatedly refuses his advances, and eventually has him brutally beat up. Hobbling around, Duncan begs for money in order to support himself in the big city. He is a man apart from society, turned away by institutions and the public in general. As he suffers Clifford gets closer on his trail. Distraught and afraid, Duncan decides to go back and see Jill, who now has children of her own. Will Clifford be fast enough, or will Jill's worst nightmare commence for a second time?

inline ImageWhen A Stranger Calls is a stellar film, rich with character and high on suspense. The opening "babysitter in peril" 20 minutes are some of the strongest moments in slasher film history. Although owing its share of debt to Black Christmas, the opening is still expertly done, drawing upon the universal fears of babysitters. Nothing is even shown during this opening, it is strictly psychological. Through the innocent eyes of Carol Kane the viewer is plunged into a creepy and suspenseful guessing game of who, where, how and why? As the sequence comes to a close, one is left wondering how the film can trump such a strong and self-contained opening vignette. The answer is not really what one would expect.

inline Image Instead of using the tense opening as a springboard for more murders, like in Friday the 13th, Part 2 or most other slashers for that matter, the film instead switches gears. It becomes a character study, focusing on the disturbed and sad soul of Kirk Duncan. In one of horror's finest performances, Tony Beckley truly creates a character to both pity and fear. He is soft-spoken and well mannered, but beneath his appearance lies a disturbed and distraught man. Throughout the film, Director Fred Walton wisely allows several lingering shots on the face of Beckley. His eyes scream of rage, and his tapered visage is truly one to behold. Beckley convincingly creates a man scarred by his own self-torment. He brutally murdered two helpless kids, but oddly enough, the film paints him as a sympathetic character.

inline ImageLike in Halloween, the killer in When A Stranger Calls is given a degree of pathos because of his mistreatment in the mental institution. Loomis did everything he could to prevent Michael from receiving a fair trail, and in Ducan's case, the matron coldly admits to shocking and beating Duncan much more than is legally acceptable. In slasher films like Halloween and Stranger the blame is passed from the killer to the institution. It was the mental institutions that further destroyed and mistreated these souls, and it is therefore them that are responsible for the vicious acts that follow in the films. People like Michael Myers and Kirk Duncan seem to serve as symbolic representations of the effects of corrupt social institutions.

inline ImageLike in the gritty cop film Serpico or the institutional classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, When A Stranger Calls reinforces the characteristic disdain for public institutions expressed so clearly throughout 70's cinema. Unlike most of the slasher films to follow in its wake, Stranger clearly has subtext towards not only public institutions, but also religion (look for the "Jesus Saves" sign). The film begins and ends with masterfully composed shock sequences, but in-between cleverly provides the film with a biting political message and a complex villain. The character of Kirk Duncan is not a mindless killer with a simple motive. Reality is never that simple, and thankfully Fred Walton gives his character an ambiguity that seems honest and believable.

inline ImageWhen A Stranger Calls is a very ambitious film, serving as part slasher and part thriller, and as a result the film is somewhat uneven. There is a disjointing change of pace and character of the film, as it shifts from beginning to middle and to end. It is almost presented as two films: one about a babysitter and how a man continues to stalk her throughout her life, and another about a detective on the hunt for a killer. The transition between the two seems a bit rough, and the film at times seems to have trouble deciding what it ultimately wants to be. It juggles being a manhunt film, a slasher film, and a character drama, and it admittedly fumbles a few times along the way.

Not without flaws, When A Stranger Calls still remains a thrilling and intriguing horror film. It is ultimately a slasher along the lines of Black Christmas and Maniac despite its shifting genre characterizations. This is a historically important, and largely forgotten slasher film, one that represents a genre in its infancy and probably at its best. Not only was Director Fred Walton been responsible for one of the defining slasher films, but he was also be seminal in the bookending of the original slasher phase with his other great slasher, April Fool's Day. When A Stranger Calls is a tense and intellectually satisfying slasher film from an era before blood and gore and mindless clichNis eventually brought the slasher genre to its direct-to-video decline.

Image Quality

Presented on a doubled sided disc in either 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or 1.33:1 open matte, the overall print of Stranger is somewhat soft. While there are hardly any blemishes, and the colors remain consistent, the film lacks the sharpness of Anchor Bay and Blue Underground films from a similar time. Many scenes appear soft and at times grainy, especially during some of the night scenes. The softness is never a problem, but again the film lacks the sharpness of some of its contemporaries. For a film of its age (nearly 25 years young!) it looks good, but at the same time somewhat under whelming.

Sound

English and French mono tracks are all that is included in this release, and they sound just fine. The dialogue is always clear, and that menacing phone ring sounds just as freaky as ever. For a mono track, it could be a whole lot worse.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageSadly, no supplements for When A Stranger Calls have been included on this release, not even a trailer. Bonus trailers for Night of the Living Dead (1990) and I Know What You Did Last Summer are included on the disc, but that's it. Columbia never even included a trailer for the sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back. Maybe next time?




Final Thoughts

Expertly directed and tense throughout, When A Stranger Calls is a great little slasher film that has fallen out of the public sphere in recent years. It contains some great horror moments, biting social commentary and a truly great performance by Tony Beckley in his final film role. The DVD is short on extras, but the audio and video quality is more than acceptable. This is a must-see for slasher fans, and at a cheap list price of only $19.95, this should be seen by all. So cook up a pot of popcorn, turn off the lights and get ready for a great little chiller. Oh, but make sure you check the children first.

Rating

Movie - A-
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - C-


Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 37 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English mono
  • French mono
  • English subtitles
  • French subtitles
  • Spanish subtitles

Supplements
  • Colubmia trailers

Other Pictures

 

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