Hooptober 8.0 – When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Being Film #7 for Hooptober 2021

“THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!” Even if you haven’t seen When a Stranger Calls, chances are you’re familiar with that phrase. You’re probably even more familiar with Scream, whose entire beginning is an homage to the first 20 minutes of this film. But knowing all that won’t prepare you for how terrifying and effective those first 20 minutes are. I only wish the remaining hour was just as good.

THE QUICK SUMMARY: Jill thought it was going to be just another babysitting gig: a few hours watching over two sleeping kids as Dr. Mandrakis and his wife have a night out. Then the phone rings. “Have you checked the children?” The evening ends in tragedy, but at least they captured crazed killer Curt Duncan, who is locked away. Seven years later Duncan escapes, and it falls to retired cop turned private detective Charles Durning to track Duncan down. Will history repeat it itself with the now-married Jill and her own young children? Will you care after watching Charles Durning literally mope across the screen?

It’s really weird to see how something so terrifying as the first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls falls apart so quickly. Although Tony Beckley gives a strong performance as Curt Duncan, he’s failed by a story that tries to insert the killer as a sympathetic person even as he continues to terrorize and murder without any real insight into why. Director Fred Walton strives to elicit our feelings when he’s savagely beaten by an asshole at a bar, but this comes after he repeatedly hits on a woman who clearly lets him know she’s not interested. yeah, different time and all that, but it’s makes for a wishy-washy tone that feels lifeless, mirrored by Durning’s ex-cop.

A couple things to note: Carol Kane gives a great performance as Jill – it’s great to see her play a straight ahead character instead of the oddball effervescent types she’s typically known for in things like Scrooged and Kimmy Schmidt. And Tom Beckley is effective as Curt Duncan, but I just wish he were in a different, better movie. He’s playing it as high art, but the movie is just cheap sleaze.

But that beginning, man…it feels like it’s ripped out of a different movie. I can’t say I recommend When a Stranger Calls, but I definitely recommend checking out that opening.

It’s a killer.

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