When a Stranger Calls (1979)

when a stranger calls poster 1979 movie
5.5 Overall Score
Story: 4/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 7/10

Great opening scene, ok ending

Boring, below average detective story middle portion

Movie Info

Movie Name:  When a Stranger Calls

Studio:  Columbia Pictures

Genre(s):  Mystery/Suspense/Horror

Release Date(s):  October 26, 1979

MPAA Rating:  R

when a stranger calls check the children carol kane

Cue the Rockwell “Why Does It Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me?”

“Have you checked the children?”  A babysitter named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) finds herself caught in a web of terror when someone seems to be watching her…and the ending is tragic.  Now years later, private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning) learns the horror has returned when Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) escapes the asylum where he was being held.  Clifford is out to catch the killer again…but Curt Duncan might have some unfinished business.

Directed by Fred Walton, When a Stranger Calls is a psychological horror movie.  An expanded remake of Walton’s 1977 The Sitter, the film based on the urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs which originated in the 1960s and is often linked to the unsolved murder of babysitter Janett Christman on March 18, 1950.  The movie received a mixed reception.

When a Stranger Calls is a classic…but it is also a forgettable classic.  The terrifying opening sequence is something that you’ll remember, and I always remember the rather creepy ending…unfortunately, When a Stranger Calls is an hour an half long with about an hour of nothing going on in between.

when a stranger calls charles durning

We’ve now entered the exciting “Charles Durning walks around” portion of the movie

The movie is horribly unbalanced.  The opening is one of the tautest thrillers that even Hitchcock could imagine.  The horror builds and builds, and the idea of secretly being watched is scary enough…but to be watched in the place you think is safe is worse.  The movie then hits the skids with the “modern day” portion of the story which involves a boring and un-compelling police procedural to track down Duncan.  The movie picks up again when Duncan returns to menace Jill, but it is too little too late.

Carol Kane gives a great performance as the mousy babysitter who is trying to be brave in the face of danger, and despite the dullness of the portion, Tony Beckley isn’t bad as the serial killer trying to readjust to society (he died shortly after the film’s release from cancer but some believe he could have been an early victim of AIDS).  Charles Durning’s character is the death knell for the movie and the movie crawls once he shows up as the generic detective with a chip on his shoulder.

when a stranger calls colleen dewhurt tony beckley

If you scream, that boring detective will come back…you don’t want that, do you?

The opening of the movie lends itself to scares, but it is shot well.  The police detective part of the film has that gritty older look, but it also comes off as rather typical.  The movie is its best when it is voyeuristic and scary.

When a Stranger Calls is a weird movie in that it is so memorable and so forgettable at the same time.  Many people will say “oh the movie with the babysitter” but when pressed would have a hard time remember anything else about it.  Cellphones kind of ruined the story of the babysitter and the killer (now he-she could be right behind you texting), but it is fun to visit a day where even the idea of having a second line in a house was something extravagant.  If you watch the opening of When a Stranger Calls then turn it off, I wouldn’t blame you…and you wouldn’t miss much.  When a Stranger Calls was followed by the made-for-TV movie When a Stranger Calls Back in 1993 and a remake in 2006.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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