Friday, October 22, 2010

Have You Checked the Children?

Director: Fred Walton
Writers: Steve Feke, Fred Walton
Starring: Charles Durning, Carole Kane, Tony Beckley
1979 | United States | R | 97 mins

Prank phone calls, heavy breathers, crank callers, all of these are effectively creepy when heard on the other end of the line and you have absolutely no idea who it is, or their motives.  But they keep calling back, and your nerves are shot before you know it. But when you're on the job looking after a home and its young inhabitants, you really cannot go anywhere else and are almost certainly trapped. The babysitter legend has had its fair share of screen time with films like HalloweenBabysitter Murders, etc. But one of the most effective and chilling takes of the lone babysitter who has to deal with a psychopath is the original When a Stranger Calls.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) has it pretty easy as a babysitter. The parents won't be out overly late and the two kids are already sound asleep in bed when she arrives at the Mandrakis residence. But soon the phone starts ringing every fifteen minutes and it's not her friends calling, but a menacing voice asking her if she has "checked the children." Terrified, Jill calls the police who soon trace the call and inform her it is coming from within the house! Now seven years later Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), the convicted psychopath, has escaped from a mental hospital and has returned to the city. Private Investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning) is determined to locate Duncan and put an end to the terror before Duncan returns to finish his sick motives with Jill.

The first 20 minutes minutes of When a Stranger Calls are tense, claustrophobic, and terrifying. When we actually find out the crazy caller is inside the house chills immediately go down your spine. Carol Kane is perfect as the frightened babysitter and the choice to never reveal the psychopath or the murders until quite later in the film is a wise decision by the writers and director. However, after the initial opening sequence when the film shifts to the escaped lunatic seven years later, the overall tone of the film also changes drastically from a tense and unbearable horror film to a slow, seedy dramatic thriller almost akin to the depressing character study of Taxi Driver. Quite unexpected this change doesn't really work for the film as a whole and these two sections feel like separate films with different agendas.

When a Stranger Calls is an entertaining and chilling film, but because of the pace and tonal change midway through the climax of the horror is in those first 20 minutes and the remainder never fully pays off to its setup. Likely to terrify every soon-to-be-babysitter, When a Stranger Calls set the rules for future scary phone call films and families were sure to disconnect secondary lines in their homes afterwards. Unfortunately When a Stranger Calls doesn't fully deserve its classic status it has in most circles but still works as an effective cautionary tale.

All contents copyright 2010 Tyler Baptist

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