Meet former police lieutenant John Clifford. Seven years ago, Clifford was directly involved in the investigation and trial of Curt Duncan, a deranged sadist. Duncan had brutally murdered the two young children of one Dr. Alexander Mandrakis. Duncan was found guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental asylum.
However, Duncan is on the prowl again. He has escaped from his padded room. Clifford has nce left the police force and is a private investigator. He’s hired by Dr. Mandrakis not only to track down Duncan, but to kill him.
Throughout this 1979 suspense thriller, Duncan is gradually portrayed as someone who is in desperate need of help. Upon escaping from the asylum, he is homeless and wanders the streets as a vagrant. He is beaten up and is often heard coughing. Though at times Duncan’s eyes reveal an inner rage, there is an excellent scene where he breaks down upon realizing what kind of monster he is. It pains him to know that he’s a killer, but he also pities himself for what he experienced while locked up.
After that scene, it seems as though the demented Duncan has achieved some peace. However, Clifford has methodically and resourcefully located his whereabouts. Clifford lures Duncan out and quickly attempts to kill him. Clifford chases Duncan through the homeless shelter hoping to finish the job, but Duncan gets away. Ultimately, these events lead to Duncan plunging back into a complete state of psychos, and soon he’s back to his old deviant ways.
It’s interesting to note that Duncan’s initial crime, the actual act of killing the two children, is never shown. In fact, Duncan himself isn’t shown until well into the movie. Despite Duncan’s crude advances toward a woman and his habit of stalking, he doesn’t seem like a savage killer. When the woman screams and when Clifford confronts him, he mply runs away. He doesn’t become more violent. Whether intentional or not, Duncan’s nature is ambiguous. Because we meet Duncan after his escape from the asylum, it seems Duncan’s mental deterioration throughout the film is due to his being off his medication and not receiving treatment. He seems like a sociopath that could potentially function within society if under continual psychiatric care and supervion.
What we know about Duncan the child murderer is revealed through the character’s voice when he harasses people over the phone (his modus operandi borrows from that of the killer in Black Christmas), his brief flashbacks, but mostly through extenve expotion by Clifford. Clifford’s descriptions of Duncan don’t accurately describe the Duncan we see on the screen for most of the film. It’s not a bothersome issue; it’s just something to think about.
The Clifford/Duncan dynamic in When a Stranger Calls is like a more realistic veron of the Dr. Loomis/Michael Myers relationship in Halloween (1978). There’s no talk of evil in this film. The killer can’t take x shots and live; he’s a homeless man who begs on the street and aspires to fit into society even though he’s aware of his dark impulses. Yet Duncan is perceived as a Michael Myers-type threat that has to be killed to be stopped.
When a Stranger Calls is an enjoyable and solid film; it’s a different take on the stalker/killer story. Myers kills because he’s evil; Henry because of his twisted upbringing; Norman Bates because of Mother. But what about Curt Duncan? In all of Clifford’s interesting talk, a reason or theory for Curt Duncan’s crimes is never offered. This killer really doesn’t have an explanation – but, do we need one? This is the film’s true mystery.
Thank you for reading.