Let’s consider, at least, the spark that drove his initial creativity. Based around an old urban legend about a babysitter who gets harassing calls from a menace that may in fact be located just upstairs, the premise previously served to fuel the rousing climax to “Black Christmas,” that 1973 film often credited with preceding “Halloween” in the emerging new age of modern crime-based horror. Like that movie, a great weight of dread passes through the eyes of the stalked and directly into the hearts of the committed viewer, who suspects what is obvious but clings to the hope, however misplaced, that the terrified victim might persevere against her brutal attacker. A great number of teenagers up against Michael Myers were never able to match wits with their killer, and for much of the first 20 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls,” we aren’t entirely convinced that Jill (Carol Kane) is going to fair any better either. She is terrified, haunted, uncertain. Her eyes show it all even as her voice attempts to remain firm, her posture guarded. “Have you checked the children?” the voice asks. They are asleep upstairs, but she is too afraid to go up and discover exactly what he means – both wise and strategic, at least for the purpose of the sequence’s decisive reveal. She places a call to the police and begs them to trace its origin, but then is horrified to hear after one final macabre taunt that the voice belongs to someone inside the house – and when she ventures towards the front door to leave, his shadow emerges in the hallway as if poised to pounce.
Who is this ominous stranger? The short subject never discloses his identity. In the longer and more procedural version, we discover he is Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), a loner who murdered the two children upstairs, sought to do the same to their babysitter but was then apprehended and sent off to live the remainder of his years in a psychiatric ward, where doctors and nurses document his mental spiral on audio tapes to play over ensuing dialogue exchanges. Seven years later he escapes captivity and wanders off into the streets of New York, propelling the FBI agent that first caught him (Charles Durning) to follow the trail before it becomes cold. It turns out he doesn’t have to wait very long for leads; shortly after the escape, Curt begins trolling slum bars and leering over lonely women with chips on their shoulders – the most notable being Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), who so protests his meek come-ons that it ends with him bruised and bloodied by a would-be protector on the other side of the nearby pool table.
Later that night, almost upon cue, Tracy returns home and find him waiting for her there – “to apologize,” he says, although it is she who expresses the most regret after catching a glimpse of all his bruises. “I didn’t mean for you to get beat up,” she replies, just before she excuses herself to answer the phone. Common sense runs out before the scene is even over: after going into her apartment, she leaves the door wide open and unattended, just so that he can wander in and instill a sense of dread in her newly-optimistic approach. Quick: how many people do you know who live in the big city who leave their doors unlocked when a creepy person is just on the other side of it?
No matter. The next day, John Clifford (Durning) discovers the escaped madman has set his sights on Tracy and makes an appearance at her place of residence long enough to acquire her help, although the movie never really clarifies how he discovered this information. There are additional side encounters to fill time, including some with a group of homeless men and women who may keep company with Curt while he lays low, and a local police lieutenant named Charlie Garber (Ron O’Neal), who quickly surmises that John is there for more than just a mere apprehension of the accused (“take your time and do it right”). Just as the murderer’s temptation grows, so does the obsessive nature of his hunter, and when they eventually come to encounter one another in the first of two climaxes, they seem almost at peace with the prospect, as if both actors have resigned themselves to playing the behaviors without benefit of their own intellectual displacement.
Perhaps, in better and more tempered material, both Charles Durning and Tony Beckley would have brought some shrewd sophistication to their performances instead of just going through perfunctory motions. Beckley, who was terminally ill at the time of production, is at least plausible in the other scenes – especially those with Dewhurst, who balances his brand of nuanced creepiness with her own recipe of fearful resentment and cautious awareness. But none of that can be said of Durning, who is normally a more agreeable and likable screen presence than what this material suggests. That’s because he is simply the wrong brand of personality for a hard-boiled police detective, and that gives his time on screen an air of amateurish defiance. There is a scene between him and the police lieutenant where he is supposed to verbally confess all his loathing and resentment that comes with the Duncan case, but we are never convinced there’s anything to the matter other than just words. It’s all just empty gestures, only serving to foreshadow a chase sequence that seems more forced than tense. The movie, furthermore, is alarmingly light on violence despite its R rating. When you’re dealing with a premise this grim, what’s the purpose of holding back a critical gut-punch if the rest of the story is barely swinging to begin with?
If there is a silver lining to the slog of the second act, it’s that Curt is forced back to his original hunting grounds to pursue Jill again, who is now married with two children of her own. Seemingly recovered from her earlier ordeal and out to dinner with her newly-promoted husband, all the old fears return when she answers a call at the front desk of the restaurant, and his ominous words come back to haunt her. “Not again!” she screams. This is all a precursor to a series of jump scares and surprise ambushes that keep with the tone and spirit of the early scenes, and a final showdown that allows Curt to connect with the very real evil lurking inside his character, if only for a very brief moment. His apprehension up to that point, I’m sure, was a shooting schedule that probably rushed him and his co-stars through writing that never went through dramatic consideration. It needed two or three rewrites before it was ready to be shot. All the same, Beckley connects with the devious gusto that we expected and hoped for well before his time comes to an end. They key is getting through much of the nonsense that precedes it. Better movies would be made about this idea, including the “Scream” pictures, also about homicidal maniacs taunting their victims on the phone before killing them. But for the brief passages in which “When a Stranger Calls” has a grip on our attention, we are rewarded with the sort of heart-pounding atmosphere and engrossing tension that would have made even Hitchcock proud.
Written by DAVID KEYESHorror/Thriller (US); 1979; Rated R; Running Time: 97 Minutes
Carol Kane: Jill Johnson
Charles Durning: John Clifford
Tony Beckley: Curt Duncan
Colleen Dewhurst: Tracy
Ron O’Neal: Lt. Charlie Garber
Produced by Doug Chapin, Steve Feke, Larry Kostroff, Barry Krost and Melvin Simon; Directed by Fred Walton; Written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton