Film Review: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Release Date: August 24th, 1979 (Indianapolis premiere)
Directed by: Fred Walton
Written by: Steve Feke, Fred Walton
Music by: Dana Kaproff
Cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Rutanya Alda, William Boyett, Ron O’Neal

Melvin Simon Productions, Columbia Pictures, Embassy Pictures (re-release), 97 Minutes

Review:

“[thinking it’s Curt again] Leave me alone!” – Jill Johnson, “Jill, this is Sergeant Sacker. Listen to me. We’ve traced the call… it’s coming from inside the house. Now a squad car’s coming over there right now, just get out of that house!” – Sgt. Sacker

This movie would be a bonafide classic, if it was just the first twenty minutes and the last twenty. It’s bogged down by the stuff in-between but I still love the hell out of this picture and when I was a kid, it was this movie and Scrooged that made me really appreciate Carol Kane, her range and how damn good she is in everything she does.

It also made me appreciate Charles Durning, who has done a slew of great things but he’s always this sort of gruff, cop-type character. Here, he really turns that up though, as he searches for the killer who has murdered children, as well as others.

The opening twenty minutes of this movie is one of the greatest horror segments ever filmed. It’s a version of the classic babysitter horror story about a killer being upstairs. We’ve all heard or read a version of the story, especially those from my generation who loved the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz.

While this takes a famous tale from American folklore, it gives it to us in the best live-action version that has ever existed. It’s stood the test of time and even with a sequel and remake of this specific movie, it’s never been replicated at this level. Sure, the original Black Christmas is a better movie, overall, and predates this but it’s more about the caller/killer being in the house and not specifically about a babysitter, alone with sleeping children.

After the incredible opening, the film switches gears and almost goes from a slasher film to a serial killer crime thriller with some noir vibes. By the final act, though, it goes into high gear and comes full circle back to a slasher-y horror flick. Granted, there isn’t enough onscreen slashing to actually categorize this as a traditional slasher. The psycho in this will just use whatever tools are at his disposal and he seems more focused on fucking with people’s minds than outright murdering them.

This is a really well acted film and it is also made better by its atmosphere and the general creepiness of the killer. However, the pacing is a mess after the first act and it is tough to get through that middle hour or so. Had that portion of the film been more fine tuned or leaned a bit more into either the slasher bits or become neo-noir (or both), I feel like this really would’ve been one of the best horror movies of its day.

Rating: 7.75/10