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The story of A STRANGER CALLS is nearly as old as the telephone. A babysitter, alone in the house with their charges, receives a message from a mysterious caller. “Have you checked the children?” he ominously asks. The sitter initially dismisses it as a crank or prank caller. But the phone keeps ringing. The question persists. “Have you checked the children?” Eventually, the sitter calls the police, who trace the source of the anonymous messages. And the caller, it transpires is in the house. Panic ensues, and death it seems stalks the suburban home.
It's the stuff of urban legend. There's escaped killer is banging the roof with a decapitated head. The murderer/mental patient on the run hiding in the back seat of a car while the driver thinks the vehicle that is trying to warn her is actually chasing her. It’s also, beyond the 90s studio horror tale Urban Legends, the subject of film lore too.
It was first highlighted in the 70s slasher tale When A Stranger Calls, and later lionised in the opening scene of Scream, as Drew Barrymore played the babysitter under threat. When A Stranger Calls is, one might venture, an original tale in horror history that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, its status having been displaced by the brasher likes of Halloween and Friday The 13th.
Its reputation should be enhanced by a sumptuous new Blu-ray edition from Second Sight in the UK. The gorgeous package includes the original tale, directed by Fred Walton, plus its sequel When A Stranger Calls Again. There are extras aplenty including a booklet with essays and features on the film.
While Walton welcomes the long overdue reassessment of the film, he’s still not seen it for some 40 odd years. “Once finished, I walked away,” he says now in a transatlantic phone call. “When you look at something like that, you tend to see all the mistakes you’ve made. It’s frustrating. “But,” he adds after being told that it looks a treat and its power hasn’t diminished, “I’m glad to hear it stands up.” So how did the film come about?
"My writing partner Steve Feke and I were in college together. He graduated a couple of years before me and went to LA. We reconnected there and got work writing an episode for Tales Of The Unexpected" [the US take on slightly spooky tales with a twist].
“After we had passed through some ideas, he told me a story he had read in a newspaper. He said it was in Brentwood, LA in 1972, and about this babysitter. He claimed that it actually happened, with the babysitter getting the phone call. We didn’t think it was appropriate for Quinn Martin [effectively the equivalent of Roald Dahl], but it was a great story. We decided to make it as a short, thinking the short will serve as a showcase, and that we’d get work out from it.”
Before they started shooting the short, it became apparent this was a broader thing than they’d imagined. “Before we even started shooting, we told them the story, and someone said ‘Oh, yeah, I know this story… My grandmother told me about this. I realised it was an urban legend.
“During the first week of production, was devoted to the first act, with the babysitter alone in the house. A stand-in said ‘I've just realised the story – this happened in my neighbourhood.’ That version was a doctor, separated from his wife, who murdered his children.”
The short, of course, did act as a calling card for the feature film, which had a strong response. It presaged a wave of slasher movies that arrived during the first wave of Halloween and Friday the 13th films.
“Halloween had recently finished shooting,” Walton recalls. “We were aware of it. It had been rushed through production and came out before us. Friday the 13th came after. Halloween did better than ours, and was spun off into a more successful franchise.”
Walton was less convinced of When A Stranger Calls’ potential for a sequel – “the story had ended” he notes wryly – but, he adds: “As time went on, I needed money, got this side for a new version. It was someone at the door, instead of the phone and we turned that into a feature length thing.” The sequel is When A Stranger Calls Back. Again, Walton has not seen it since completion, although he is less happy with the completed version.
Since then, the idea has refused to go away. “I took my daughter to see Scream because she had to be accompanied by an adult. There was this scene with Drew Barrymore. I took it as a homage.”
A new take on the idea was less successful. “For the remake of When A Stranger Calls [made in the 2000s] I really was not interested in it. I got hold of a copy of the script, but I lost interest. I haven’t seen it.”
Further sequels – one developed at Miramax – stalled, but, as the new Blu-ray proves, it’s still a strong idea. Why does Walton think it has survived? It’s partly down to the opportunity that first DVD and now Blu-ray has given to reassess films such as his.
“It’s straightforward for people to see things now,” he says, “when we made the picture there was no way we had any idea that movies could be seen outside of a theatre or network television. We knew what videotapes were, but that was it. Now there’s DVDs and computers, and you can stream things, almost any movie. It has this life.”
And, of course, as Walton concludes, it’s still a compelling story.
“It’s still getting told,” he says. “As an urban legend, it still gets referred to. It was such a powerful idea – that’s nothing to do with me – we just brought it out. That original idea was so strong. It still has legs.”
• When A Stranger Calls/When A Stranger Calls Back Limited Edition Blu-ray is available from 17th December