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Sunday, February 20, 2011

When A Stranger Calls

     Based on the urban legend that scared the shit out of us all as kids, "When A Stranger Calls" is a classic spine-tingler from 1979 starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning. We all know the story- it's about a babysitter mercilessly terrorized by a psychopathic killer, who just happens to be inside the house the whole time.  And it boasts probably one of the most terrifying opening scenes in horror film history.  Seriously, the first 25 minutes or so of this little suspense thriller could easily be the blueprint for the modern slasher.  The blood-chilling phone calls asking Kane if she's checked the children are just sooooo scary that it takes you instantly back to childhood, cowering in the dark over that strange noise right outside your bedroom window.  "Halloween" also brilliantly zeroed in on this subconscious fear.  For kids, anything associated with the babysitter can be scary.  Because it means that Mom and Dad are away.  And bad things can happen when they are away...

     The first act of this movie is absolutely perfect in every way- starting with the awesome Carol Kane.  Her performance helps sell the movie.  As scary as the calls are, it's a testament to her acting that we're so frightened for her.  Even though it's only 20 minutes or so, the tension and suspense are drawn out so much that it feels like we've been through an entire movie already. The pacing is delicious- it moves very slow and deliberate. We are simply riveted to the screen, left twisting in our seats in utter terror as Kane grows more and more frantic.  As the calls keep getting more and more frightening.  That, mixed with Kane's wide-eyed horror, some great cinematography, and some downright spooky music all combine to make "When A
Stranger Calls" one of the most infamous thrillers of the period.  Many fans tend to dismiss "When A Stranger Calls" because they say only the first part is worth watching.  I disagree.  Granted, the mid-section of the film doesn't pull the punch of that first act, not fully coming back to life until the final scenes.  But that doesn't mean the middle is boring, by any means.  It just kind of shifts gears as the killer, (who is well played by Tony Benckley, by the way,) stalks barfly Colleen Dewhurst with cop Charles Durning in tow. It becomes more of a character study of the killer, which did turn some viewers off.  They didn't want to see the killer as sympathetic. Carol Kane does meet up with the killer in the frightening climax, bringing the story full circle.
     As mentioned, many find the total movie boring.  I find it a quietly chilling slasher (actually... it's more of a suspense thriller than an actual slasher...) and besides, I've seen far worse.  I think "When A Stranger Calls" works best if you can just let go of all preconcieved notions and just go with it.  Take it as it is, and it's actually more enjoyable of a movie.  It's not "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th"- it takes more of a different approach.  More subtle.

      "Scream" obviously based its famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore on the opening scene of  this film. Now if you want to get technical, "Black Christmas" had already used the phone calls coming from inside the house jazz 5 years prior.  And the urban legend of the babysitter in peril had already been brewing in popular culture since the 50's or 60's, so by the time of the film's release in 1979, audiences responded.  The film took the story to almost mythical status, firmly entrenching it in pop culture forever.

     This film stands out because it's more realistic than most movies of its type.  The killer does not wear a mask of any kind- he's just a creepy, mentally unbalanced guy.  He's not invincible- he has weak moments and can be stopped.  He hasn't risen from a nearby grave.  Just a guy.  Combined with the talents of Kane and Durning, "When A Stranger Calls" is elevated to a higher plateau than say... "The Slumber Party Massacere" (a film in which I adore... by the way...).  Anyway, that first, horrifying scene alone is worth watching, and if you stick with it, you might find that it's not a bad little movie at all.

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