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First Time Visiting ‘When A Stranger Calls’: Bruce Markusen Discusses the Classic 1979 Horror Film



Frist Time Visiting 'When A Stranger Calls': Bruce Markusen Discusses the Classic 1979 Horror Film

As a fan of horror, I pride myself on trying to keep up with the genre and make sure to watch not only the newer films, but also the classics and near classics from decades gone by. That’s why I am somewhat ashamed to say this: I had never watched the 1979 semi-classic, When A Stranger Calls—well, that is, until just over a week ago. That prompted me to ask, “What in the world is wrong with me?” Well, that’s an issue for another day, but I finally did rectify the situation by giving the movie a full view on Prime Video, where it’s apparently been available for a long time. Now, more than 40 years after the fact, I fully understand why this film has received such praise from fans of the genre over the years. It’s also a film that is tinged in tragedy, given the fates of two of the cast members.

The first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls, when babysitter Jill Johnson (played by a young Carol Kane), is terrorized by The Stranger, have become iconic. Some critics and fans have called the start of the film the scariest extended sequence in horror history, and while that is a debatable contention, there is certainly some merit to it. The constant ringing of the phone, the series of short phone calls, and the repeated question that The Stranger asks Jill, “Have you checked the children?” all succeed in stirring our concerns. The Stranger’s harassment then culminates in a longer phone discussion, leading to the major reveal of the opening sequence. These early scenes build the suspense to a relentless frenzy while testing the fear limits of even the most diehard fans of horror.

Kane handles these early scenes beautifully. While we tend to think of her as more of a comic actress, but she proves herself more than capable of handling the role of a victim being verbally stalked by a deranged man who is unseen. Kane’s performance leaves little doubt that Jill, a likeable young teenager, has been traumatized heavily, and makes us wonder what her long-term fate might be.

When A Stranger Calls Jill

When A Stranger Calls then moves into act two, but not until seven years have passed. We finally learn the identity of The Stranger, a British immigrant named Curt Duncan, who has been placed into an asylum. By now, he has gained his escape from the asylum, prompting his pursuit by policeman-turned-private eye John Clifford, played by Charles Durning. It was Clifford who was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime in the film’s first act, in reaction to the desperate pleas from the babysitter.

In one of Durning’s early scenes, he interviews the administrator of the asylum, played by an actress named Rachel Roberts. Born in Wales, the highly-trained Roberts became a second-tier star in the 1960s, earning an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the 1964 film, The Sporting Life. Roberts was especially adept at playing women known as authority figures, with a tendency toward toughened, sharp-tongued characters.

In When A Stranger Calls, Roberts once again plays a tough woman, one who refuses to give Clifford much information about Duncan, other than to repeatedly tell him to look at the former inmate’s file. In what turned out to be one of the final roles of her career, there exists a tragic irony to Roberts playing the head of a mental institution. In real life, Roberts herself suffered from mental illness, spurred on by alcoholism. It was well known that Roberts would sometimes act very strangely, especially in the midst of drinking. When drunk, she sometimes began to pretend that she was a dog. At a party thrown by fellow actor Richard Harris, she began chewing on the leg of Robert Mitchum, bringing wide-eyed reactions from the other actors in attendance.

When A Stranger Calls Curt Duncan

Some of Roberts’ personal problems stemmed from her failed marriage to actor Rex Harrison. After nine years of marriage, Harrison left her; the divorce devastated Roberts. She remained obsessed with Harrison, which apparently led her to drink more and only exacerbated her level of depression.

In November of 1980, a little more than a year after the release of When A Stranger Calls, Roberts ingested a combination of lye, a large amount of barbiturates, and alcohol. Moments later, she collapsed, falling through a glass divide in her house. Later that day, her gardener discovered her lifeless body on the floor. An autopsy determined that Roberts died from the corrosive effects of the lye, while also concluding that her death was a suicide. It was a horrific end to what had been a stellar career, ending Roberts’ life at the young age of 53.

Roberts’ scene with Durning marks her last appearance in the film, but it also gives us the first clue as to the determined nature of Durning’s Clifford. No longer a policeman and now a detective, Clifford becomes obsessed with not only finding Duncan—but killing him. Much of the middle part of the film deals with Durning’s dogged pursuit of Duncan through the seamier side of the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

When A Stranger Calls John Clifford

Durning, as usual, delivers a good performance. An excellent character actor, he was always effective in playing police officers, particularly those with quick tempers. But in some ways, he was miscast in the role of Clifford, whose character is required to chase Duncan through the streets of the city. A heavyset actor who was in his late fifties at the time, Durning looks a bit odd trying to conduct a frantic chase of a criminal without any kind of backup assistance. A younger, more athletic actor might have made better sense for the part. Or perhaps director Fred Walton should have simply eliminated the chase scenes from the film.

Then there is the character of Duncan, or The Stranger. Duncan is played by a relatively little-known British actor named Tony Beckley. Under Walton’s direction, Beckley does not play Duncan as a soulless maniac, but as a rather pathetic victim of psychosis. He is lonely and desperate for companionship, which he pursues in the form of a middle-aged Colleen Dewhurst, a local barfly who seems to be leading a lonely existence herself. All of their interactions take place in shabby and unattractive locations, including a dive bar and Dewhurst’s low-rent apartment, reflecting the gritty backdrop to the film’s middle act.

As with Rachel Roberts, Beckley’s appearance in the film brings with it tragedy. In April of 1980, only a few months after the film’s release, Beckley died from cancer. Publicly, director Walton has maintained that Beckley’s diagnosis came after the filming, but others believe that the director knew about his condition through his friendship with the actor and wanted to give him a good role in his final days.

When A Stranger Calls Curt Duncan Still

There remains uncertainty as to when Beckley was stricken and diagnosed, but he does look physically ill throughout the movie; he is very thin, with a face that looks tired and a bit ragged, making him appear much older than his actual age of 50. His fragile appearance makes us doubt that he could have committed the physical violence enacted in the early part of the film, but if Walton indeed gave Beckley the role because of his terminal illness, it’s something for which the director should be commended, and not derided.

While Beckley is an actor who has become forgotten over time, he succeeds in this role because of his ability to give us something different in the examination of a mad killer. For the most part, Duncan is not full of mindless rage, but is quiet and soft-spoken—a lost soul looking for help in the form of a meaningful relationship. If Beckley and Walton wanted us to feel some sympathy for the character, then they certainly succeeded in that goal. We feel badly for Duncan—at least I did—until his behavior relapses into the violence of the first act.

Duncan and Clifford become the focus of attention during the second act, so much so that we begin to wonder: what happened to Carol Kane’s character, the babysitter? Will she ever return to the film’s story? That answer would come during the final 20 minutes. We’re relieved to see that Jill Johnson has fully recovered from the trauma; she is now happily married with two children and residing in what appears to be a nicer suburb of the city. All seems well until Jill, while dining out at a restaurant with her husband, receives a phone call. Jill thinks the phone call is from the babysitter that she has hired, but it is a man in a familiar voice, whispering the words, “Have you checked the children?”

When A Stranger Calls Jill Phone

Duncan’s abrupt return to Jill’s life put her into hysterics and sets the stage for a dramatic conclusion taking place in Jill’s house—including a jump scare that practically bounced me out of my living room chair. It’s a good conclusion to the film, one that brings us back full circle to the opening of the film.

At the time of its release, When A Stranger Calls did not receive much in the way of favorable reviews. Among others, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert panned it during their syndicated TV show, deriding it as a poorly made film that was “unusually cruel” in “terrorizing women.” As much as I enjoyed the two late critics in general, their analysis of the film reflected their ignorance of horror, where all sorts of people are “terrorized” and often done so in a cruel way; it’s the nature of the genre. As for their criticism of the film “not being well made,” I’m guessing that refers to the radical jump from act one to act two, which is so abrupt that it makes you think you’re watching a different movie. That’s a legitimate point of criticism, and one of the few flaws within the film, but it’s not enough to detract from a suspenseful story and what is an interesting study of a man plunged into the depths of mental illness.

More than 40 years later, When A Stranger Calls is now regarded as a cult classic, and for good reason. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking film, with a high level of tension and suspense, some degree of mystery, and a few intense jump scares that will catch you off guard. Kane is great, too, in one of her earlier film roles. Don’t repeat my mistake of overlooking this film. If you’ve never seen When A Stranger Calls, take some time to watch it. And if you’ve seen it already, give it another look.

Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.