Although it’s clearly a stab at making a classy slasher film (skilfully directed from a thoughtful script, with strong performances by a quality cast), Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979) will probably never live down the taint, in UK viewers’ minds, of debuting over here on a theatrical double bill with Barbara Peeters’ schlock riot Monster (Humanoids From The Deep), itself conceived as an eco-conscious feminist parable but turned into an explicitly violent, tit-infested Horror Of Party Beach variant after the addition of new footage by producer Roger Corman (and yes, a review of that particular trash classic is in the pipeline for 2019, here at the HOF).
Not entirely uninfluenced, one would imagine, by the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween the previous year, Walton and co-writer Steve Feke decided to re-shoot and expand their taut, suspenseful 1977 short The Sitter, with Carol Kane taking over the role that had previously been played by Lucia Stralser. That one and the first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls (which recaps it virtually shot for shot) turn on the old urban legend / campfire story about the threatening phone calls that are eventually traced as coming from inside the house! Anyone out there who knows their slasher movie shit (and I’m sure that includes all HOF readers) will have no problem also recognising this as a pinch from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), perhaps the most under-acknowledged seminal influence (now that Bava, Argento and Martino are routinely granted their due credit) on the whole stalk’n’slash phenom.
Kane (whose supersweet face would have made her a megastar in the silent era… where she would, no doubt, have spent more time getting lashed to railway lines than being threatened over the phone) plays Jill, the babysitter being bugged by some bozo who keeps asking her why she hasn’t checked the children. Suspense builds relentlessly until the above mentioned revelation, Jill’s scramble to get the hell out of that house and the superbly edited entrance of Charles Durning as the cop John Clifford, prior to the discovery of the dismembered Mandrakis children upstairs.
Once the original material has been played out, we learn that the perpetrator, a certain Curt Dunkley (Tony Beckley), was confined to a booby hatch from which, several years after the grisly event, he’s escaped. No prizes for guessing that, by the end of the picture his path is going to intersect (via a fortuitous bit of scripting) again with Jill and the children she has subsequently borne. In the build up to that Walton follows the obsessed Clifford, who’s quit the cops, gone freelance and accepted a contract from the bereaved, aggrieved Dr Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to whack the wacko. Simultaneously, we track the Hogarthian, down-and-out progress of the clearly disturbed Dunkley. Walton takes the brave decision to prevent him as a pathetic, almost sympathetic character, a gambit that pays off thanks to a sterling performance by the respected British stage actor Beckley, splendidly complimenting the performances of Kane, Durning, Ron “Super Fly” O’Neal and Rachel Roberts (who, like Beckley, would die the following year) in this little gem of an ensemble piece.
There was further evidence of Fred Walton’s directorial skill and intelligence in April Fool’s Day (1986), a late arrival in the stalk’n’slash stakes that managed a witty, Postmodern take on that sub-genre a full decade before Wes Craven’s inferior Scream (whose taunting phone killer will seem strangely familiar to anyone who’s seen When A Stranger Calls). Disappointing, then, that Walton was largely confined to TV Movies thereafter, though his stint in this milieu did lead to the sequel When A Stranger Calls Back (1993).
Included as an extra on this disc, WASCB resists the temptation to resurrect Curt Dunkley but throws in too many other improbabilities for its own good, e.g. that Jill (now a women’s counsellor, gun advocate and martial arts ace) and Clifford have teamed up to advise and protect imperilled baby sitters (as though this was the crime epidemic of the early ’90s)… specifically here, to advise and protect Julia played by Jill Schoelen (there was a time there when Jill Schoelen seemed to be in every Horror flick that came out… wonder what she’s doing now?) The baby sitter stalker in this one is cleverly written… in fact way too cleverly, Walton granting him what virtually amount to superpowers that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain in a big budget sci-fi adventure pic, though if you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief from a great height, this makes for some effective shock moments. All things considered, this sequel is a bit of a mish-mash, though.
Simon West’s 2006 remake (not included on this set) unfolds in an improbably hi-tech house that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain, either. Inexplicably more successful than the original, this one’s main points of interest come from the aptly named Camilla Belle (above) as its imperilled ingenue, filling a skimpy vest every bit as perkily as Jessica Biel did in Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When A Stranger Calls – The Musical remains, at the time of writing, a figment of my imagination, but among the other extras here you do get interviews with director Fred Walton, Rutanya “Mrs Mandrakis” Alda and soundtrack composer Dana Kaproff. If you’re sufficiently quick off the blocks, you’ll also get his OST as a bonus CD on the limited edition release, together with a slipcase, reversible poster and collector’s booklet.
‘Scuse me, I’ve got to go and make a phone call…