When a Stranger Calls – Limited Edition Box Set
Directed by Fred Walton.
Starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Rutanya Alda, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley, Gene Lythgow, and Jill Schoelen.
Limited edition Blu-ray box set featuring the original 1979 When a Stranger Calls and its 1993 sequel.
This year in the horror genre it’s all been about Halloween and Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode, the intended target of a killer with no real motive other than his own impulses, in a belated sequel that tweaks a few details but basically tells a similar story. That’s all well and good but Halloween 2018 returning to the well comes 25 years after When a Stranger Calls Back did the same thing to its source material, 1979s When a Stranger Calls, a suspense thriller with slasher tropes that came a year after John Carpenter’s original babysitter stalker and five years after Black Christmas, another movie from which it borrowed a few ideas. However, despite some obvious similarities to what came before it, When a Stranger Calls had a few iconic moments of its own, as the opening scene of Scream pays homage to, and now Second Sight Films have brought these two movies together in a lavish Blu-ray box set.
With both movies directed by Fred Walton (April Fool’s Day) this set offers a fairly consistent pairing of movies that play around with the clichés you are already familiar with but without resorting to full-on horror. Walton himself has said in various interviews that he did not want to make horror movies in the same vein as Halloween or Friday the 13th but prefers the use of suspense to create terror and both movies use this technique effectively (hence the 12 rating, but don’t let that put you off). Of the two it is When a Stranger Calls that has is more memorable thanks to the opening 20 minutes of Jill Johnson (Carol Kane – Scrooged/Addams Family Values) being tormented over the phone by an unnamed stalker while she is babysitting two children. A great short movie by itself – it is based on a 1977 short by Fred Walton called The Sitter, included on the disc – the film then takes a turn when the police – led by John Clifford (Charles Durning) – show up and things go from bad to worse before we flash forward seven years and Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), the man on the phone, has escaped from the asylum he was sent to and John Clifford, now a private detective, is hired to find him.
What lets When a Stranger Calls down is that after that iconic opening the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and the remaining story that is built around what happens seven years later is really quite basic with very few surprises thrown in. That said, Carol Kane, John Clifford and Tony Beckley are all wonderful in their respective roles and despite the movie turning things around for an eventful finale the padded middle section feels too sluggish to really hold any momentum.
However, come 1993 and Fred Walton, Carol Kane and Charles Durning returned for a made-for-TV sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back. Now, given that this is a TV movie sequel to a well-received and iconic thriller from over a decade earlier, one could be forgiven for being a bit sceptical about it but it actually works quite well. Perhaps the made-for-TV way of doing things was better suited to Fred Walton’s style of filmmaking but When a Stranger Calls Back manages to hit the same highs as the first film, even surpassing them in some cases, and doesn’t feel like the cheap cash-in that normally blights these projects.
In this one we begin with babysitter Julia Jenz (Jill Schoelen – The Stepfather) not being terrorised on the phone but having trouble with a voice on the other side of the front door who claims his car has broken down. Events escalate, parents arrive home and we are then transported five years ahead where Julia is still traumatised over what happened and believes she is still being stalked by the mysterious voice. Now a counsellor at the college Julia attends, Jill Johnson begins to investigate and, with the help of John Clifford, the hunt is on to work out who the voice belongs to.
With obvious nods to Michael Mann’s Manhunter, When a Stranger Calls Back doesn’t feel quite as baggy as its predecessor despite employing similar structural techniques. Carol Kane is brilliant as Jill, having survived her ordeal and now going full Sarah Connor on this new stalker, and Charles Durning, despite being 70 when he made this, still brings the endearing gruff sensibility that made him such a popular character actor, but unfortunately the rest of the cast are pretty dreary, especially Jill Schoelen whose line delivery is as wooden as the huge front door she spends most of the first third of the movie talking to. Nevertheless, it moves along at a brisker pace and does have some genuinely creepy moments, albeit ones that just aren’t as iconic or well-remembered as the first film.
Housed in a rigid slip case, the set includes new restorations of both movies, Fred Walton’s original short The Sitter, new interviews with Walton, actors Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff, a reversible poster featuring new artwork, a book with notes on the films by Kevin Lyons and a soundtrack CD, so as a package this is pretty cool stuff for collectors as the score for When a Stranger Calls is as effective as John Carpenter’s was for Halloween, again just not as iconic. The films aren’t effects-heavy or full of dizzying camerawork but the HD cleanup looks decent enough and overall, although neither movie is as consistently entertaining or rewatchable as the movies that inspired them, there are some seriously tense and terrifying moments to be had whilst watching them and this limited edition set should be a welcome addition to any horror collectors Blu-ray collection.
When a Stranger Calls – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★
When a Stranger Calls Back – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★★