Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Blu-ray Review - When a Stranger Calls (1979)



It’s in the wee hours past midnight, and here I am writing a review for When a Stranger Calls (R; 97 minutes), the 1979 cult-classic horror flick about a young babysitter, Jill (played by Carol Kane), being tormented by a series of disgusting phone calls from a “stranger” who's calling from upstairs. If you haven’t already seen the film, then you’ve probably at least heard about the terrifying opening minutes. This isn’t my first viewing, as I’ve seen the movie multiple times over the years. Mill Creek Entertainment had released the movie on Blu-ray (Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart) earlier this year with a retro VHS-style slipcover. I've gotten a little behind on reviews for this blog, so I thought it was time I started to go through the stack of titles Mill Creek Entertainment has sent me over the last three months, starting with When a Stranger Calls.

Directed by Fred Walton, the movie puts a new spin on “the babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend that began in the 1960s. Like I’ve already mentioned, Carol Kane plays the young babysitter who receives ominous phone calls from a psychotic killer. After contacting the police, she learns the calls are coming from inside the home. The point-of-view changes after the first 20 minutes from the babysitter to John Clifford (played by Charles Durning), a detective who arrives at the murder scene, and it’s then that the viewers learn the caller murdered the children. The cops apprehend and identify the killer as Curt Duncan (played by Tony Beckley).

The film jumps ahead seven years and shifts its narrative from horror to a police drama. Now a private detective, John Clifford is hunting for Duncan, who had somehow escaped imprisonment from an asylum and now wants revenge.

When a Stranger Calls got a bad rap from critics upon its release in 1979, as they praised the twenty-minute babysitter scene, but complained about the rest. Originally, the Classification and Rating Administration gave it a PG rating, however, because of the dark themes they changed it to a R rating. By today’s standards, the movie would receive a PG-13 rating.

Carol Kane and Charles Durning returned for Fred Walton’s made-for-cable 1993 sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back. A forgettable (and horrible) remake came out in 2006.

Final Thoughts

The more I watch When a Stranger Calls, the more I like it. Yes, the horror elements get lost when the police procedural storyline begins, but the first twenty minutes are truly terrifying. This scene was a big inspiration for the opening scene in Wes Craven’s Scream. The late character actor Charles Durning gives an outstanding performance as a former cop obsessed with catching a killer.

The picture and sound qualities on the Blu-ray are good. There are no special features or bonus extras, not even a trailer.

When a Stranger Calls is a classic slasher flick, right up there with Psycho (1960), Black Christmas (1974), and Halloween (1978) as the forerunners of the genre. The Blu-ray is a must-have for any horror fan.

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