Splatter Time Fun Fest 2013: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

when a stranger calls

My cell phone doesn’t work in the house as is, so I think I’m all good, no?

Written By: Steve Feke & Fred Walton
Directed By: Fred Walton

A very strong beginning and end surround an odd middle portion. When A Stranger Calls mixes together a couple of different genres, and while it doesn’t always work it is an interesting experiment. The results aren’t particularly scary, or as I always say I don’t think people who get scared would find them particularly scary, but they are interesting. Sometimes in a horror film that’s what makes the experience worthwhile, how interesting the viewing experience is. When A Stranger Calls doesn’t break any new eggs or redraw any maps, but it does take a standard slasher home invasion idea and turn it on its head a bit.

The first twenty minutes of When A Stranger Calls is a standard home invasion babysitter horror motif. The way that When A Stranger Calls plays with that standard motif is to start right off with the babysitter already in the house. There’s no preamble, no exposition, and no reason given for why the babysitter has chosen this night to babysit. The harassing phone calls begin, and immediately we are tossed into a horror film. The twenty minutes that make up the opening are tense and suspenseful. They’re also quite lean, hitting so many horror tropes without a lot of the unnecessary movement that can bog down a horror film. Suddenly, the opening is over and we flash forward seven years. That’s a big time jump, and to be honest the film does not handle cutting ahead in time all that well.

The middle section of the film takes on a different horror motif. In the middle section we get the disturbed killer versus the obsessed detective. The change is jarring, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. It took me a bit to adjust to what Fred Walton and company were doing, but once I did I found myself intrigued by what I was watching. Charles Durning, as the detective, and Tony Beckley, as the killer, are fun to watch in their roles. Both men display a level of conviction in their roles that makes them easy to buy as those characters. Mr. Walton enhances the middle portion by staying out of the way and allowing his two main actors to do all of the work. Misters Durning and Beckley work the camera over and by the sheer force of their performances manage to take what initially feels like a disjointed middle portion and connect it to the rest of the film in a satisfactory manner.

The shift to the finale of the film isn’t as jarring as the shift from beginning to middle. We’ve already been in house invader territory once before in the film, so moving back to it doesn’t comes across as odd or out of the blue. The film picks up greatly again in the final act. The main complaint I have with the film is that while the middle portion is interesting it does slow the film down a ton. The finale has no such problem, as Mr. Walton, together with co-writer Steve Feke, brings about a harried and ominous atmosphere. Something is going to happen in the house, we know that and the film does not try to hide that. The finale comes across so well because Mr. Walton dives headfirst into horror tropes and works within them to provide some genuinely suspenseful moments.

When A Stranger Calls is a uniquely put together horror film. It’s not often that horror films deviate from the type of horror film that they start out as. A slasher is a slasher, a zombie drama is a zombie drama, etc.. No matter how great the horror film may be it usually sticks to one form and really nails that one form. When A Stranger Calls tried for something a little different. Not everything that the film tried for worked, but on the whole I enjoyed the genre mash-up that Mr. Walton was giving me. It’s not a horror film that horror buffs needs seek out, but if you ever stumble across When A Stranger Calls it’s definitely a film worth giving a once over.




3 responses to “Splatter Time Fun Fest 2013: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

  1. Nice review here. I loved your notion of the rarity of a horror film deviating from the horror it introduced us to. And I agree, this film starts and ends incredibly strong, and is a little awkward in the middle, yet I really do enjoy it.

  2. It is enjoyable, I have a friend who really loves the sequel as well.

  3. Pingback: Splatter Time Fun Fest 2013: The 4th Annual Bloody Machete Awards | Bill's Movie Emporium

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