It’s time to trek through some vintage features that still merit occaonal conversation. In this case, we’re talking one of the earlier and creepier slashers to hit the market, Fred Walton’s, When a Stranger Calls. While the premise had already been tackled prior to release, the picture boasts one of the finest first acts in genre history, and that alone justifies the time invested in writing this piece.
Walk with me as we head straight through the story and into the opinion…
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) meets with the Mandrakis family to see that their children are looked after while they head out for dinner and a movie; piece of cake condering the children are already sound asleep upstairs. But Jill’s seemingly mundane evening of studies and telephone banter takes a turn for the worse, when Jill begins receiving a string of eerie telephone calls from some anonymous caller in which she is unable to identify. Have you checked the children? The caller asks repeatedly. Hetant to check on the children, anchored by fear - Jill telephones the police, who in turn arrange to have any future calls traced. As Jill continues to catch the creepy incoming calls, she begins hearing strange sounds from within the house. Before Ms. Johnson has the chance to learn the fate of the children upstairs, police phone her to inform her that those mysterious calls she’s been receiving, are originating right there, within the home.
Patrol cars are dispatched, and manage to get to the Mandrakis redence before Jill herself can become a victim, but it’s too late for the children she never checked upon. They’ve both been slaughtered, and the mysterious caller/killer, who we come to know as Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley, who died of cancer shortly after filming WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) is captured and… almost punished for his heinous crimes. Upon trial Duncan is declared legally insane and, rather than being shipped off to the pen to rot in a cell for the remainder of his twisted life, gets a ticket to an insane asylum in which he’ll call home for seven years… until he manages to escape.
While I love some of the shocks this old treasure has to offer, I’d be a liar if I told you the film was perfect. The first half hour is absolute genius; the remainder of the film is a rollercoaster. There are a few noteworthy sequences in the final act, but for the most part, the film unloads its haymakers in the first act. To follow up on a near palpable tenon created in the first act of the film with a dull second frame and inconstent finale is a little sketchy. Thank the Hollywood gods the first half hour is so intense; this one could have potentially disappeared in history’s chapters, never to be seen again.Grade: C+