The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject.
Welcome to Wild-Card Wednesday. This is the second installment of the original vs. remake movie series I’m doing with Tiffany A. White. Today, I’ll be talking about the original When a Stranger Calls. Be sure to visit Tiffany’s blog on Friday for her thoughts on the 2006 remake.
When a Stranger Calls (1979) starred Carol Kane and Charles Durning. Quick and dirty summary: A psychopathic killer terrorizes a babysitter, then returns seven years later to menace her again. (Courtesy IMDB)
Watch the trailer:
The first twenty or so minutes of this movie are based on an urban legend called The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs.
A babysitter is left in charge of her employer’s residence. The children are sleeping or playing elsewhere in the house. The babysitter receives a series of threatening phone calls.
She reports the calls to the authorities, who trace the call. The babysitter learns the calls are coming from an extension within the house. In a panic, the babysitter exits the house just in time to escape a psycho who has already murdered the children.
Carol Kane is fantastic as the babysitter, Jill Johnson. Her agitation is almost palpable. She slowly comes unglued as the killer repeatedly delivers that one line of dialogue:
“Have you checked the children?”
It doesn’t sound that bad, but it is. The killer’s monotone British accent is completely hair-raising.
The second act of the movie is set seven years after the end of act one. The psycho who murdered the children has escaped and is at large. Cop turned private eye John Clifford (Charles Durning) is hired by the father of the murdered children to find and kill the psycho.
The second act, which is called boring by some reviewers on amazon.com, is not as intense as the first act. The movie’s genre switches from slasher flick to detective mystery.
Clifford (Durning) tracks the psycho killer to a bar hag on whom the killer has fixated. The bar hag agrees to help in the hunt, but the killer turns out to be more wily than Clifford expected and escapes.
Clifford then tracks the killer to a community of homeless people, which leads to a chase sequence through a building. Charles Durning was rather portly at the time of filming. At times, I was sure Clifford/Durning would have a heart attack.
The third act begins with the psycho killer, who outran the portly Clifford at the homeless shelter, picking up a newspaper out of a street gutter. The next scene jumps to Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) all grown up with two children. She is making plans to hire a babysitter and go out with her husband for the evening. Funny how history repeats itself.
When the babysitter arrives, it is revealed that Jill (Carol Kane)’s picture was in the newspaper for some civic work she did. Now, the audience knows for sure where the psycho killer is headed.
Halfway through dinner, the waiter comes to the table and tells Jill she has a phone call. This was the dark ages when there were no cell phones, remember. Jill answers the call, and that scary line is uttered one more time:
“Have you checked the children?”
Jill and her husband race home to find her children sleeping safe in their beds. Police are dispatched to drive by the home throughout the night. Jill and her husband–who wears a dorky white boy afro–go to bed.
P. I. John Clifford has figured out where the killer is headed and tries to telephone Jill (Kane). The telephone line has been disconnected. The scene cuts to Jill who can’t sleep. She checks her children and finds someone has given them candy. She’s creeped out, but not in full panic mode yet. She hasn’t yet accepted that she is in danger.
Can Charles Durning save the day? Or will the crazy killer make mincemeat of Carol Kane and family? Watch the movie and find out.
In 1993, a made-for-television sequel was made. It is titled When a Stranger Calls Back. It starred Carol Kane and Charles Durning.
When I watch movies or television, I make a point to note the storytelling techniques. It is my way of pretending I’m not just wasting time. Below are a couple of things I noted as I watched When a Stranger Calls.
Let’s return to Act Two, which has the private investigator tracking the child murder. Several amazon.com reviewers called this act boring. It definitely is a letdown after the wire-tight tension of Act One. Even so, it still contained a few storytelling lessons.
The biggest lesson is one to which I’ve already alluded. Never, ever make the first act so exciting that the second act seems boring in comparison.
The second lesson is in scene structure. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain teaches that each scene has three elements: goal, conflict, and disaster. The scenes in which Charles Durning’s private investigator is chasing the killer are a decent example of the goal, conflict, disaster model.
The goal is obvious. The private investigator intends to catch and murder the crazy killer. The crazy killer runs, which creates conflict for the chubby P. I. Each of these scenes ends with the killer getting away, leaving the private investigator to start over and find the killer again.
The last lesson is in suspense techniques. The first act of When a Stranger Calls—the enacting of the urban legend—is told from the point of view of the babysitter (Carol Kane). After that, the point-of-view jumps to different characters.
There are scenes in the P. I.’s point-of-view. There are scenes in the killer’s point-of-view. There are scenes in omniscient point-of-view. This technique allows the audience to know more than the characters. It creates tension as we watch a character unknowingly walk into a bad situation.
After his escape in Act Two, the killer wanders into a bar and fixates on a bar hag. He follows her home and gives her a good scare. The next day, the P. I. (Durning) approaches her and asks for her help in catching the killer. She agrees and goes to the bar where she first met the killer, ostensibly to lure him back to her apartment where the P. I. ill take over.
The killer never shows up at the bar. The bar hag returns to her apartment and tells Durning she didn’t see the killer. She locks herself inside the apartment. Out of her sight, the closet door cracks open, and the killer is visible inside the closet. It’s one of those “look behind you” moments.
In all, I recommend the 1979 When a Stranger Calls. If you’ve never seen it or the remake, the first twenty minutes alone are worth your time. The movie is available to watch for free on You Tube. Click here for Part 1.