A babysitter (Carol Kane) is stalked by a child-killer (Tony Beckley) in Fred Walton’s 1979 thriller adapted from his short film The Sitter, itself based on an urban legend about a babysitter receiving the coldest of calls.
When a Stranger Calls is best known for the opening that inspired Scream, and probably gets too much credit as a result. It takes the escaped-killer-terrorises-babysitter setup from Halloween, “the call is coming from inside the house” line from Black Christmas, and the That One Case trope from every detective film ever.
And while the famous beginning efficiently executes the urban legend, it is neutered not only by Scream in retrospect but also Halloween in advance. As per the campfire tale, the phone rings and a voice asks, “Have you checked the children?” Not only does Jill neglect to check the children (ie. take the threat seriously), she continues to answer the phone every time he calls (so she equally fails to treat it as a prank). Either way, that’s the last time they hire Jill as a babysitter. That would be something of a middle-class extravagance considering their children are dead.
The film then turns its back on its slasher introduction and becomes a kind of psychological stalker study, more Michael Douglas than Michael Myers. It jumps forward seven years to follow the escaped Curt Duncan and the cop-turned-private investigator (Charles Durning) on his tail, eschewing sex and violence for an almost M-like commentary on society. We see Curt being beaten up and sleeping rough, while the PI is desperate to succeed where the police failed. If there is a comment on the failure of American institutions, it is confused by the fact Curt escaped from one that was basically keeping him safe. The system is stacked against the pedocidal stalker, but in fairness to the system that is sort of its purpose.
More interesting is the way Walton inverts the way Halloween is told. John Carpenter’s film starts with the killer’s point of view before switching to the final girl’s, shifting where we identify as an audience. Here we start with the final girl’s perspective and then switch to the killer’s, a confronting move that trades suspense for discomfort. It then switches back to Jill at the end, and culminates in a sequence where Curt hides in a closet just as Laurie Strode did in Halloween. But that final switch doesn’t come with any course of action for the final girl (Jill never fights back or hides like Laurie), so in a sense the movie depicts both Jill and Curt as victims.
This makes When a Stranger Calls more of a genre curiosity than a worthwhile viewing experience, its thrills too few and far between to fully justify its cultural standing. Walton would further subvert the slasher formula in 1986’s April Fool’s Day, before delivering TV sequel When a Stranger Calls Back in 1993. A remake followed in 2006, but sadly these days the only scary thing about phones is the bill.