Directed by: Fred Walton, Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley. Horror, US 1979, 97mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray, download and on-demand on 17th December 2018 by Second Sight Films.
Restaged and expanded to feature length from his original short film THE SITTER, director Fred Walton (APRIL FOOL’S DAY) helmed arguably the definitive retelling of the babysitter-in-peril urban legend with one of the most suspenseful, taunt, minimalist and ruthlessly efficient opening thirds in the sub-genre. Vulnerable wide-eyed babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), alone in a large suburban house with her two young charges (supposedly) fast asleep upstairs recovering from heavy colds, starts to receive increasingly threatening phone calls whereby the caller repeatedly enquires: “Have you checked the children?”
It goes somewhat against my nature not to tip-toe around potentially spoilerific territory, even though 39 years have passed since 1979’s non-iPhone mobile world. Can first-time viewers nowadays fully appreciate the palpable frisson of fear generated in cinemas on its initial release or on subsequent VHS home-viewings when the origin of the landline telephone calls - the chillingly simple deus ex machina – is revealed? Clearly, the distributors have abandoned any pretence to hide the twist as it’s detailed in the pre-release blurb!
True story: back in the early 80’s, (when I was 13 years old), I somehow persuaded my form teacher to allow me to screen the film for my classmates under the dubious auspices of ‘media studies’. We got as far as the conclusion of the opening act, at which point the girls screamed so loudly the screening was terminated with immediate effect (heh heh heh...)
Unfortunately, after a gripping tight opening third, the proceeding middle segment (set seven years later) feels loose and saggy in comparison. It’s certainly not without interest mind you - but inevitably it’s the filler sandwiched between the belting opening and the final third where director Walton (presumably) felt obliged to pull a visual rabbit out of the hat and stages a sleight-of-hand set piece which succeeds in being both audacious and implausibly corny all at once.
Brit actor Tony Beckley, who sadly died shortly after the film premiered, portrays the aforementioned stalker/caller, Curt Duncan, an English merchant seaman, newly arrived in the US, who instead of embarking on the usual touristy sightseeing decides instead to randomly murder two children in their beds with his bare hands and scare the crap out of a college student. Captured literally red-handed (in a very brief but disturbingly graphic flashback) Curt Duncan is incarcerated in a state mental institution. Unfortunately, it’s one with “less than perfect security” it so happens, perhaps it’s one with a similar level of security as the Smith's Grove Sanitarium as featured a year earlier in a somewhat successful indie horror film which also featured babysitters in-peril...
Glimpsed only in silhouette in the opening third, director Walton and co-writer Steve Feke then present Duncan front and centre as he struggles to cope with life on the seedy downtown streets. Attempting to chat up Colleen Dewhurst’s barfly character only results in a beating by a fellow patron while the barman, (played by future ‘Michael Myers’ Dick Warlock no less) watches nervously on. It’s a testament to Tony Beckley’s performance that despite the previous atrocities he has committed, the disarmingly exposed vulnerability he brings to the character fleshes out a role that could so quickly have been limited to the mindless, one-dimensional bogeyman. When former cop now turned private investigator John Clifford (the reliably superb Charles Durning) hunts for Duncan along the rows of beds at the hostel he has sought refuge, the scene is played as a role reversal with the stalker becomes the stalked as the terrified killer tries to evade not capture and re-incarceration but termination.
Having built up this uneasy disquietingly picture of a man who has undergone “rather forceful” therapy - which we are told included 38 sessions of electric shock treatment before his escape - the final segment requires Tony Beckley’s damaged, untethered character to once more takes up the mantle of the ‘boo’ provider. This shift in tone and focus feels inconsistent and incongruous with what has gone before it and appears to have been shoehorned into achieving a slightly ill-fitting circular arc for Carol Kane’s now married with children character.
Watching the film again now it’s not hard to see the influence it has exerted on the genre, Wes Craven’s SCREAM(1996) being the obvious example with Drew Barrymore’s deadly horror trivia phone quiz. The score by Dana Kaproff pulls out all the stops, or rather strings to squeeze and enhance every sinew of suspense (key beats reminded me of the THX sound effect crescendo!) The use of optical zoom free-frame as jump scare hasn’t aged well, however.
This limited edition release also includes Walton’s 1993 made-for-TV sequel WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK. Following a similar three-act structure, the opening third finds another young babysitter, Jill Schoelen (THE STEPFATHER, 1987), being terrorised by an unwelcome visitor to the front door claiming his car has broken down and asking to come inside and ring the vehicle recovery company. It’s altogether a slicker production, not as effective in the tension stakes, but it boasts a unique (and equally implausible) denouement, enhancing the original’s final bow concept, and returning Carol Kane gets to kick some ass teaching self-defence as a crisis centre counsellor now who is the only one to believe Jill Schoelen’s character. The original short feature THE SITTER is also included which is a fascinating watch to see just how close Walton stuck to the original concept when turning it into the opening of the feature. It also contains this hilarious time-capsule criticism of the babysitter: “You’re so straight, you go to a private school, you wear a bra...”
The limited edition package also includes a 40-page booklet, original soundtrack CD, poster and reversible sleeve. There are yet more goodies in the form of interviews with director Fred Walton, Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff.
I would have given this release more than 3-stars were it not for the grain levels in the brand new scanned and restored HD transfer for WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. While the sequel and the original short both boast excellent visual presentations, I found the almost constant gauze-like veil of grain masking the undoubtedly excellent picture behind it at times distracting and, for this reviewer's fussy old eyes at least, it lessened my enjoyment of a film that I championed as a young teen.
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