“Have You Checked the Children?”
“When a Stranger Calls” is a horror thriller film directed by Fred Walton and starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, and Colleen Dewhurst. Released in 1979, the film has since become a cult classic and a part of the thriller genre’s landscape. Here’s a review of the film:
The movie kicks off with a terrifying premise: a young babysitter named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is tormented by a series of increasingly threatening phone calls from a stranger who eventually utters the iconic line: “Have you checked the children?” The caller’s identity and his connection to the children she’s watching become the film’s central mystery.
The movie is split into three distinct acts: the first focusing on the babysitter’s night of terror, the second on the detective investigating the case, and the third set years later when the killer escapes and the nightmare begins again.
- Atmosphere: The film’s suspenseful atmosphere is its most significant asset. The first act, in particular, is a masterclass in building tension with limited resources, relying on sound, lighting, and Kane’s horrified expressions.
- Carol Kane’s Performance: Kane’s portrayal of a terrorized babysitter is convincing and engaging, making the audience genuinely concerned for her character’s well-being.
- Iconic Opening: The opening 20 minutes have become a benchmark in horror cinema for creating terror through simplicity and anticipation rather than gore and violence.
- Pacing Issues: After the riveting opening act, the film slows down considerably, focusing on the detective’s pursuit of the killer. While this section provides context and character development, it lacks the immediate intensity of the opening, which may disappoint some viewers.
- Predictability: Some of the plot developments are foreseeable, and the film occasionally falls into genre clichés, reducing the overall impact of the story.
- Mismatched Tones: The film’s three acts can feel disjointed, with variations in pacing and tone that may not be appealing to all viewers.
“When a Stranger Calls” is a memorable thriller that has left its mark on the genre, primarily due to its nail-biting opening sequence. Carol Kane’s performance and the creative use of sound and lighting contribute to a genuine sense of dread. Though it suffers from pacing issues and some predictability, fans of psychological horror and classic thrillers will likely find plenty to appreciate.
Comparisons to Black Christmas
Certainly! Both “When a Stranger Calls” (1979) and “Black Christmas” (1974) are notable entries in the horror-thriller genre, and they share some striking similarities. Here’s a comparison between the two films:
Both movies revolve around the theme of terrorizing phone calls and female characters in a vulnerable position.
- “When a Stranger Calls” focuses on a babysitter who receives frightening phone calls from an unknown caller, leading to a horrifying discovery.
- “Black Christmas” is set in a sorority house during the Christmas season, where the residents begin receiving menacing calls from an unknown source, followed by a series of murders.
Thematic and Stylistic Similarities
- Phone Calls as a Terror Device: Both films use phone calls as a key method of building suspense and terror. The calls are mysterious, threatening, and a driving force behind the plot in both movies.
- Female Protagonists: Women are at the center of the narratives in both films, depicted as targets of the unseen male antagonists. Their vulnerability is exploited, turning ordinary environments into places of horror.
- Atmosphere and Tension: Both films rely on building an unsettling atmosphere through limited locations, sound design, and a slow burn of tension rather than explicit violence or gore.
- Tone and Subject Matter: While both movies employ similar techniques to create suspense, “Black Christmas” is darker and more brutal in its approach. It is a proto-slasher that influenced many subsequent slasher films, whereas “When a Stranger Calls” leans more toward psychological terror.
- Structure: “When a Stranger Calls” is segmented into three distinct acts that explore different time periods and aspects of the story. “Black Christmas” follows a more linear and tightly contained narrative centered around the sorority house.
- Cultural Impact: “Black Christmas” is often credited with being one of the earliest slasher films and has had a significant impact on the genre. “When a Stranger Calls” is renowned for its opening sequence but doesn’t hold the same pioneering status within the genre.
“When a Stranger Calls” and “Black Christmas” both effectively utilize the terror-inducing concept of threatening phone calls to female protagonists. Their focus on psychological horror, suspenseful build-up, and the vulnerability of women connects them within the genre. However, differences in tone, structure, and cultural impact set them apart. “Black Christmas” is a seminal piece of the slasher subgenre, while “When a Stranger Calls” excels in its psychological tension. Both films serve as significant contributions to horror cinema and are still referenced in discussions about suspense and terror in film.
When a Stranger Calls – still a classic
When a Stranger Calls (1979) stands on its own as a classic horror movie, delivering some of the best chills of any horror movie released during the golden era of the late 1970s through the mid 1980s.
The opening scene (about twenty minutes) is arguably one of the most frightening scenes in horror history. Fred Walton expertly directs, using camera angles, peripheral sounds, and tempo to build tension. It’s not much of a spoiler when I tell you that the story begins with a babysitter (Kane) being terrorized over the phone by a deranged caller…a caller who happens to be inside the house. After all, the trailers made clear what the opening scene entailed.
Yet Walton’s direction is so spot on. Kane’s performance is so convincing that we are forced to squirm along as the horror unfolds, knowing what the plot twist will be.
After the incredible first scene, When a Stranger Calls goes into a decided lull. The second third of the movie is half-suspense, half-detective story. The climatic final third does not disappoint, bringing the tension back in spades. I particularly like the final scene…don’t worry, no spoilers forthcoming.
Another oddity (besides the switch to detective story mode) is the unusual portrayal of the villain. We get to know him pretty well in the second act, and he is painted in a rather pathetic light. This was, and still is, an unusual angle to take in a horror movie. Usually the villain, if we are to know him/her at all, is built to be increasingly frightening. In When a Stranger Calls, we are introduced to a very human monster, one who gets kicked around quite a bit. This is subtly effective because it makes him quite believable.
When a Stranger Calls was issued during the peak era of slasher movies (after Halloween, just prior to Friday the 13th), so it is often labeled as a slasher. This tag is erroneous. When a Stranger Calls is pure horror with just a touch of slasher elements.
About the only thing I can say against this movie is that it borrowed too freely from Black Christmas. When a Stranger Calls is a classic, terrifying thriller that won’t disappoint.
Much like Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls got the Hollywood remake treatment in 2006. I’ve seen it, and I own it on DVD. It pales in comparison to the original, lacking the foreboding tension that Walton created or the premium acting Kane delivered. However, it is a fun bit of slasher horror and worthy of popcorn munching fun on a dark and windy night. My advice – stick with the original.
If you truly love When a Stranger Calls, then you would do well to pick up the little-known sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back (1993). The sequel, a made-for-TV horror movie, sees the return of Kane and Durning. Walton directs again. Amazing as it seems, the sequel is arguably even more frightening than the original. How often does that happen in the horror genre? Jill Schoelen has a breakout performance as Julia Jenz. If you can track it down (not easy), I highly recommend you watch it.
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