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Case Number 01477

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When a Stranger Calls

Sony // 1979 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 26th, 2001

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All Rise...

The Charge

Every babysitter's nightmare becomes real!

Opening Statement

Urban legends abound in our society. Have you ever heard the one about the escaped mental patient with a hook on his hand, and while listening to the radio two parked lovers flee for safety only to find the hook dangling from the door handle when they get home? Or how about the one where people say that if a car passes you with their lights off never flash them, for it's a gang ritual where they follow home the flasher and then proceed to kill them. Yes, we've all heard these tales of lore before, probably in high school or college. [Editor's Note: Or in the movie Urban Legend, maybe?] The most famous of these is the "babysitter" legend, wherein a babysitter receives terrifying phone calls to "check the children," only to find out the calls are coming from inside the house! This story was expanded in the 1979 shocker When a Stranger Calls starring Carol Kane (TVs Taxi) and Charles Durning (Tootsie). Columbia phones in this disc in a first ever widescreen edition on DVD.

Facts of the Case

While babysitting for a neighborhood family, Jill Johnson (Kane) receives disturbing phone calls from an unknown man urging her to "check the children." Thinking it's a prank, Jill ignores the calls until they finally become incessant and threatening. Contacting the police, Jill learns through a tap that the calls are coming from inside the house! Barely escaping, Jill is rescued by the police, headed by John Clifford (Durning). But the children are not so lucky. Mutilated and killed, the police arrest the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley, the original Get Carter), who is clearly insane.

Flash forward seven years later. Duncan has escaped from his prison and is now back on the loose. Clifford returns to the case in an attempt to bring Duncan back to justice. However, Duncan has no desire to return to the big house. His insane journey will lead both Duncan and Clifford to the one person that I would have bet the farm would show up again…"the babysitter," Jill Johnson.

The Evidence

While When a Stranger Calls clocks in at only 97 minutes, it still felt very, very, very, very, very, very loooooooooong. Maybe it's because after the first 20 minutes the movie turns into a chase picture that seems to go nowhere. I'm guessing that over 50 minutes of this film was taken up watching people walk or run around streets and back alleyways of the city. They walk, then run, then walk, then run, then walk some more—it seems to go on and on forever. In fact, almost the entire middle portion could have been edited out without any real consequence to the storyline.

I can honestly say that I really enjoyed the first 20 minutes of the movie. Director Fred Walton (who also co-wrote the screenplay) wrings out some intense scares with the phone calls (even though we know how it's going to end). The idea that someone is making calls from inside the house is a pretty creepy set-up. Unfortunately, after this jolting beginning, it was apparently impossible to keep any of that suspense going. One of the major problems with When a Stranger Calls is that story of the babysitter and the evil caller works best when we don't know who the caller is. Since we meet Curt Duncan after the opening scene, the frights tumble downhill fairly expediently. The plot seems to be an excuse to have Duncan meet up with Jill in the beginning of the movie and at the end. The subplot with Clifford chasing Duncan around the city quickly becomes tiring and trite. An even worse subplot involves barfly Colleen Dewhurst (The Dead Zone) and her run in with Duncan at a local watering hole.

The performances in When a Stranger Calls range from fair to moderate. Both Charles During and Carol Kane are bland and not very engaging as the two lead characters. Kane supplies a dopey eyed innocence that gets a bit weird after a while (I think we can all safely say that most of Kane's characters are odd ducks, to say the least). Charles During looks slow and paunchy as he tries to chase down Duncan, and to be honest, after about 15 minutes of the chase I wondered exactly how Durning was able to keep up. Then there's Tony Beckley (who died a year after When a Stranger Calls was filmed) as Curt Duncan, the English-accented killer who instills about as much fear as Paul Reubens would in the same role.

I can't say that When a Stranger Calls is a horrible movie. It just plays on the same level as a TV movie-of-the-week, except without the excitement (or Tori Spelling). Obviously someone out there liked it, for in 1993 a made-for-cable sequel was produced aptly titled When a Stranger Calls Back. Now that's scary.

When a Stranger Calls is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen (as well as a full frame version on side B). Columbia has done a decent job on this transfer, making sure that the black levels are all even and the colors bright and bold. There were a few instances of grain and dirt, but they were not overly intrusive to the viewing. Some edge enhancement was spotted as well, though kept to a minimum.

Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono and is mediocre at best. The fidelity of the track was very flat, but for the film it supports, it does the job without any distortion or hiss present. Also included on this disc is a Dolby Digital Mono track in French, as well as French, English, and Spanish subtitles.

The only extra features available on this edition of When a Stranger Calls are theatrical trailers for the 1990 remake of George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, as well as the teen horror movie I Know What You Did Last Summer. Surprisingly, the trailer for When a Stranger Calls is not included anywhere on this disc.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Why When a Stranger Calls got stuck with an "R" rating is beyond me. While there was some intensity in the film, I don't remember spotting a lot of blood, and the obscenities were kept to a few swear words at most. While this isn't a movie for kids, it easily could have easily been rated PG.

Closing Statement

When a Stranger Calls is available cheaply, so if you like your scares in lethargic doses you'd do well to pick up this disc. Otherwise, I really can't recommend When a Stranger Calls except for people who like their horror movies without any horror and minimal scares. Columbia has done a fair job on this title, though it's nothing very impressive.

The Verdict

My advice to you is when this stranger calls, hang up the phone and disconnect the line.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 67
Extras: 25
Acting: 73
Story: 60
Judgment: 58

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genre:
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailers for Night Of The Living Dead and I Know What You Did Last Summer

Accomplices

• IMDb








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