‘When a Stranger Calls’ is a movie based upon an urban legend, usually referred to as “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.” The legend can be traced back to the 1960s and has since been found as a slightly-altered basis for a number of other movies and scenes in films & TV, perhaps most infamously as the opening scene to the mega-successful ‘Scream’ film series.
Fred Walton directs this movie – his directorial debut. He went on to primarily direct made-for-TV movies, including the sequel to this film, ‘When a Stranger Calls Back.’ Carol Kane and Charles Durning, who play Jill Johnson and John Clifford in this film, return for the sequel as well – perhaps I’ll write about it in a forthcoming #ThrowbackThursday piece! Walton also wrote the script of this film, along with Steve Feke, and when the movie was released it was highly successful, grossing over $21 million on a budget of only $740,000.
After opening with Jill coming over to babysit Dr. Mandrakis’ two small children, the movie quickly turns to a series of unsettling strange phone calls. The first time the line “Have you checked the children?” is uttered by a gravely male voice through the phone, it brings chills, but once he keeps repeating this, the effect is soon dulled. The babysitter, Jill, has a moment of what I can only guess is weakness when she goes to the good doctor’s liquor cabinet and takes a drink of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey after having a couple of these calls. I thought this was an odd move for her character, based on the development we had been given for her to that point. She later calls the police to complain, and the cop answering the phone tells her that the city is full of weirdos and, since the caller does not threaten her or use obscene language, he gives her the advice of using a loud whistle to blow into the phone the next time he calls, in order to “break his eardrum.” Again, I was left scratching my head – perhaps these issues are just by-products of the time, as the movie was written and shot in the 1970s.
The calls continue, and the police tell her to keep him on the line so they can trace the call. During one phone call, the man tells her that he wants her blood all over him. This was definitely a moment where you know you’re dealing with a dangerous person. There is a nice build-up of tension during this part of the movie, especially when the police are able to trace the call and tell her it’s coming from inside the house. Jill escapes, and the killer is arrested. At a point later in the film, it is revealed that the man had killed the two children in such a manner that the remains would have been hard to identify, and he did this using only his bare hands. That kind of ups the ante on just how crazy this man, now revealed as Curt Duncan, really is.
The movie jumps to seven years later, and Curt has escaped from the mental institution where he was being treated. We now see the man up close. He is of small stature, but what he lacks in his physical self, he makes up for with his psychotic mind and super-creepy ways. The actor playing Curt, Tony Beckley, performed his last role in this film before he passed away, and he did a fantastic job of conveying the mental instability that Curt dealt with. His quiet and strange demeanor added to the heinous acts he performed to make him even more deadly. Curt soon latches on to a woman in a bar, and begins stalking her. The old cop that saved Jill, John Clifford, returns as a private investigator hired by the father of the children that Curt murdered. John becomes hell-bent on catching Curt and even devises a plan to kill him.
Near the end, Curt finds Jill, now married with two small children. She and her husband leave the children with a babysitter to go have dinner – it’s all completely reminiscent of the beginning of the film. The couple is told they have a phone call from a restaurant worker, and when Jill goes to answer, it’s Curt asking her again, “Have you checked the children?” This, of course, brings the story full circle and sets up the climactic conclusion.
Overall, the film did have some tense moments and an interesting premise, but the sagging midsection of the film, along with some poor acting and a predictable ending, combine to make the whole a mediocre experience. This is a bad world with bad people, at times, and as sad as it is to say it, a mentally demented individual could certainly be capable of committing these atrocities. Nowadays, with technology more advanced, someone could be in the house using a cell phone, but there are also home security systems that could play a part in preventing this. Having the killer escape from the hospital and prey back upon the babysitter is a bit of a stretch.
Considering it was basically adapted from an urban legend, there isn’t a lot of originality to the plot line itself; however, if you weren’t familiar with the story, it could be considered a unique take on a babysitting job gone wrong. The writing does lack in strength and depth, and the strange expositions are obvious. The atmosphere begins with a dimly lit home with many windows leaving the babysitter exposed to the killer’s eyes. You can see the babysitters anguish as the evening progresses, and later the inner conflict of the killer parallels his outward deterioration. That said, the middle and ending of the movie left a lot to be desired.
When it’s all said and done, this film doesn’t quite reach “cult classic” status and demand to be re-watched here in the present day. I wouldn’t go out of the way to find this film if I were you, but if you catch it on TV one night, and there’s nothing else on, go ahead and check it out.