Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) at his home. When the children are asleep, Jill receives a telephone call from a man who asks her if she has checked the children. At first, Jill dismisses the telephone calls as a practical joke. However, as the calls become more frequent and threatening, Jill becomes frightened and decides to call the police, who promise to trace the caller if Jill keeps him on the telephone line long enough. Jill, frightened to extreme measures, arms herself as she receives one final call from the nefarious stalker. Soon after the conversation, Jill receives a call from the police, who inform her that the stalker is calling from inside the house. A light comes on at the top of the staircase, and Jill sees the stalker’s shadow. In a panic, she immediately runs to the door, unhooks the chain lock and screams. The scene segues to a close-up of detective John Clifford (Charles Durning), who enters the very same doorstep to investigate shortly afterwards. Patrol officer Charlie Garber (Ron O’Neal) explains that Jill is unharmed, but the children were murdered by the perpetrator several hours earlier, before Jill’s ordeal even started. The killer is identified as an English merchant seaman named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), who is subsequently sent to an asylum.
Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the asylum. Dr. Mandrakis hires Clifford, now a private investigator, to find Duncan. Not knowing Clifford is after him, Duncan is now a homeless, vagrant loner. He is beaten after disturbing a woman, Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), in a tavern, and later follows her to her apartment. Feeling sorry for his appearance and her involuntary role in the beating, Tracy makes light conversation with him and does not explicitly rebuff his awkward proposal to visit her for coffee the next night, hoping this will be the last of him she will see.
Meanwhile, an increasingly obsessed Clifford confides to his friend (now Lieutenant) Garber his intention to kill Duncan rather than arrest him. Garber, who was also present in the Mandrakis crime scene, agrees to collaborate. Clifford follows the trail to the tavern where Duncan was beaten, and from there to Tracy’s residence—the same day Duncan is likely to arrive for his visit. Clifford tells Tracy just how dangerous her situation has become, revealing that Duncan had literally torn and hacked up Mandrakis’ children with his bare hands, rendering their bodies unrecognizable. Tracy reluctantly accepts to be Clifford’s bait at the tavern that evening. Duncan, hiding in her closet, does not appear until after Clifford leaves her place. Tracy screams for help when Duncan attacks her, and Clifford returns and chases him away from the scene, losing his trail in the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
Jill Lockart (Johnson) is now married with two young children. One night, she and her husband Stephen (Steven Anderson) go out to dinner in celebration of a promotion, while their children are babysat by Sharon (Lenora May). At the restaurant, Jill gets a telephone call and hears Duncan’s voice again: “Have you checked the children?”. She panics and calls Sharon; nothing seems to be wrong at first, but then the call is suddenly disconnected. The police escort Jill back home and find that everything is fine, and the Lockharts go to bed. Clifford is tipped off by Garber and tries to call Jill, but finds that the line is disconnected. When Jill goes downstairs for a glass of milk, the lights suddenly go out and she goes back to her bedroom. The closet door opens a little, the phone line is dead, and she hears Duncan’s voice, at which point she tries to awaken Stephen…only to realize that the man lying next to her is Duncan. He chases her around the room and tries to strangle her, but Clifford arrives and shoots him dead. Stephen is revealed to be in the closet, unconscious but alive. The parents come home and they see the police there cleaning up the mess. The children had been murdered hours before Jill’s experience began. As Clifford comforts Jill, the last view is of the house, superimposed to the frightening eyes of Curt Duncan.
“I’ve never cared much for the telephone,” says director Fred Walton. “I’ve never been the kind of person to talk on the phone for hours. For me, it has never been friendly. It’s neutral at best. The phone is very intimate, and with a simple action, anyone can get inside your house and be there with you. When you don’t know that person, it can be very frightening, especially at night.”
As director and co-writer of When a Stranger Calls, Walton is the man largely responsible for that brief wave of telephobia. The now 45-year old Walton hardly fits the stereotype of someone who would create one of the most popular terror films of the *70s. While growing up in Washington, D.C., his first filmic inspirations came not from drive-in double bills, but from the art cinema, where he discovered Jean-Luc (Alphaville) Godard and other directors of the French New Wave. While studying at Dennison University. he met future Stranger co-writer and producer Steve Feke. Feke went straight to Los Angeles after graduation, but Walton stayed in the Midwest, honing his filmmaking skills by working on industrials. The lure of Hollywood remained strong, though, and he soon joined his friend on the West Coast.
As with many films, the origin of When a Stranger Calls was fairly roundabout. “I was sitting around Steve’s house one day, trying to come up with stories we could pitch to a show called Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.” Walton remembers from his Pacific Northwest home. “We were kicking around ideas, and he told me about this incident with a babysitter getting phone calls that wound up being from inside her house, and the guy had murdered the kids while she was there. He said he had read it in a newspaper about six years before, and remembered it as taking place in either Santa Morica or Pacific Palisades.”
While Feke declined to be interviewed to verify the account, the story is very much in the mold of a classic urban folk tale. Called “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” in Jan Harold Brunvand’s a book The Choking Doberman (And Other Urban Myths). it fits all the characteristics of a fabricated “true story.” The only published account of the tale is from a campfire story session at a 1976 Girl Scout convention. Also, the time, details and location are exceedingly vague and subject to change. In fact, When a Stranger Calls star Carol Kane claims that after the film’s release, people from all over the U.S. told her that what happened to her character in the film had actually occurred to someone else in their hometown. If the first 11 minutes of When a Stranger Calls seem separate from the rest of the story, it’s because they are, or at least were. “Steve told me the story, and I immediately thought. ‘Wow, that’s great! ” Walton continues. “It would be perfect for making a short-it was high-concept with a hook ending, just a perfect showcase to get us work.” The director pauses, trying to suppress his laughter. “But it didn’t wind up getting me any work at all.”
The 35mm short, entitled The Sitter, had a different cast (an unknown named Lucia Strausser starred) and crew, but in many ways was identical to the opening of the duo’s forthcoming feature. “We had seen it run with an audience and witnessed how well it worked.” Walton remembers. “Therefore. when it came down to making the feature, I was duplicating shots like crazy. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.”
Audience reactions were positive. but the movie deal they had hoped for was nowhere in sight. “We went into debt over The Sitter.” the director remembers. “We needed money, and as a showcase piece we weren’t getting any work out of it—we just didn’t have the right contacts. So we decided to change our strategy and come up with a way to continue the story, and then approach low-budget producers like Roger Corman with the script for a $200,000 feature. We tried to sell the short as a first act that had already been shot.”
Feke and Walton faced a number of challenges in their decision to expand their short into a full feature. “We realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t stretch out that 10-minute film to an hour and a half,” Walton says. “It just wasn’t gonna work. And it didn’t really appeal to us to have it be the climax. But we both thought. ‘What a great opening! How can we continue the story?”
“And at the time,” he continues, “we’re talking 1977: Halloween had not come out, and the whole idea of a killer getting out of the loony bin seven years later and returning to the scene of the crime-it just occurred to us. We weren’t copying anybody. And to audiences, it still felt fresh.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
In fact, when the feature was released in fall 1979, some saw When a Stranger Calls as clearly copying elements of the massively popular John Carpenter film. “Halloween finished filming in late summer ’78,” Walton says, “and we had just started shooting. But they rushed through post-production, so they came out in October of “78, and we were out the fall of ’79.” Walton also claims that he had not seen Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which also uses the caller-in-the-house twist, but was told about it afterwards. Mel Simon, the Indiana shopping mall magnate turned movie mogul who produced films as disparate as the Runner Stumbles and Porky’s, was the exec who finally bit at the pair’s proposal and arranged for distribution through Columbia Pictures.
Unlike the makers of later “girls in-distress” horror films, Walton and Feke strove to give their film a realistic feel. Most importantly, when their Psycho killer escapes from the mental institution, he does not become a Jason-style supernatural killing machine. He winds up where many ex-mental patients go-panhandling on the streets.
“That character, Curt Duncan. at least on the page was based on a friend of mine who had mental troubles.” Walton reveals. “He was kind of a sad figure, lost, and he evoked a certain sympathy. You would believe people would let someone like that into their house. And as an actor. Tony Beckley really fit that bill.”
Way under 6 feet and bearing an accent from his native England, Beckley seemed an odd choice to play a psycho killer, but both Walton and Feke found him to be the perfect match for their image of a nontraditional villain. Sadly, the actor, who previously menaced Suzy Kendall in the British thriller Penthouse, died soon after making the film. “When a Stranger Calls came out in fall of “79, and he died in April 1980.” Walton says. “Just as he was going to enjoy his big break, he got sick and died. It was very sad.”
The film’s four producers (Barry Krost. Doug Chapin, Feke and Simon) and Walton filled the remaining cast with other talented veterans, playing for the most part atypical roles. Kane, mostly known for odd character parts in films such as Annie Hall, was cast as babysitter Jill Johnson, “Steve and I thought we should have some anonymous all American girl to play the babysitter, but Barry kept pushing for Carol.” Walton remembers. “I knew who she was, but had never really seen her. She seemed too out there for the part. So I watched some of her pictures, and I finally said OK. She’s very talented and not as weird as I thought she was.
“Mel Simon had worked with Charles Durning before, and they had hit it off,” he continues. “They said, ‘Well, if you can cast Durning, it’ll make Mel real happy.’ I thought Durning was a wonderful actor. Again, he’s not who I originally had in mind, but he’s interesting and unusual and I thought he could work.”
Durning’s presence afforded a nice change of pace to the police detective assigned to track down the film’s murderer. Instead of being the stereotypical hard-boiled PI or vengeful supercop, Durning’s John Clifford is basically a tired, somewhat melancholy schmoe. “John is just a guy doing his job,” says the 61 year-old Durning, who’s perhaps best remembered for his Oscar nominated performance in Tootsie. “I’m known for the common man approach. playing the guy next door, and that’s what Fred wanted.”
For the role of Duncan’s barfly victim, instead of the expected silicon enhanced B-movie starlet, 40ish Colleen Dewhurst was cast. No offense to the late Broadway veteran, but unlike a beach bunny type, Dewhurst looked like someone who has seen a few slummy bars, and had the acting skills to carry the role. Once again, casting was a matter of happy accident.
“It was Charlie who recommended Colleen.” Walton recalls. “When he suggested her, our response was, “Come on, she’s not gonna want to do something like this!” But he knew that she was broke and was trying to work her way out of debt at the time. So she agreed, and it was only six days of work for her anyway.”
“I had never done anything like it before. being a thriller,” says Kane, looking back on her decision to star in the film. “I’m particularly vulnerable to thrillers-they scare me a lot! It was kind of a challenge to be on the other side, and be calculating to scare people. And a very, very important element to me was that there was no graphic violence. I’m not keen on violence and blood. At this point in movies, we’ve had just about every possible thing done on screen. It’s very hard to shock people with an image, so it’s not what you literally see but the way that it’s done. It rested on Fred’s ability to orchestrate the tension, with shots and editing. It’s very much in the style of Hitchcock in that way.”
“You were just told about it.” agrees Durning, which is graphic enough.” “The move away from graphic violence was very instinctual.” Walton says. “I’ve always thought that less is more. When you set out to make any kind of movie, whether it’s scary or funny or whatever, all you can rely on is yourself. You think, “What would scare me?’ or, ‘What would seem funny to me?’ I’ve always chosen the lesser route.”
There is indeed almost no onscreen violence in When a Stranger Calls. The murder of the two children in the opening is never shown, only brief shots of a bloodied Beckley seen in flashback. Beckley is hardly a menacing figure, but Walton effectively builds a sense of dread of the Curt Duncan character. not by showing his ghoulish deeds. but by suggesting his unpredictably violent nature. One of the film’s most chilling moments comes when Dr. Monk (the late Rachel Roberts) plays an audiotape of Duncan when he is first admitted to the mental hospital. Instead of showing Duncan attacking his doctors in a flashback, the camera zooms in on the spinning tape reels, letting the screams ring out and suggesting more mania than could ever be shown. “People’s imaginations will scare them much more than you ever can,” the director says.
The thriller genre being new territory to all involved, shooting brought up some unique situations. “My big challenge in creating fear in my character is that a movie set is hardly conducive to working up a feeling of isolation and terror,” says Kane. “There are so many people off camera range. You have to create that solitary place for yourself in your mind in the midst of a lot of activity.” Durning, who has worked with Walton on three subsequent projects, has a more succinct recollection. “It was a lot of night work,” he says. “I don’t really like night shoots: they turn your whole world around. Watching the sun rise is not my idea of a pleasant evening.”
Beckley. while a veteran of the London stage, was a relative newcomer to Hollywood films, and had some problems adjusting. “Tony was a real sweetheart.” Walton recalls.
Carol had recently been up for an Oscar, and he was very much in awe of her. We shot the opening first, and all he had to do was feed her lines off camera. He was kind of blown away by her acting abilities. In the second week. when we had to focus on his story, he was chatting with Colleen Dewhurst, and Colleen had picked up on how inferior poor Tony felt. He said, “God, you know, Carol’s just so good,’ and Colleen just said, ‘Yeah, but we’re better.’ And he just perked on up. and from then on had no problems.”
Kane has no recollection of Beckley’s feelings of inferiority, but sympathizes with his worries. “You’re always wondering whether you’re as good as your peers,” she explains. “There is a lot of room for failure in movies. All you have to do is miss it by a zillionth of a hair and you’ve lost it. It’s not an exact science, and can be very frightening. I think it’s good that he was so worried about being as good as us, because that led him to create such a great performance. You never cared so much about a villain as you did about Tony.”
While the first-time feature director and his veteran cast worked well together during the 27-day shooting schedule. trouble was looming for the 29-year-old Walton, but from higher up. “I had shot The Sitter in three days,” he recalls. And they had scheduled that first part of the feature to be shot in four. It wound up taking six. So there was a lot of tearing of hair at that point. There were constantly notes coming back from dailies, which I didn’t even bother to watch. that it was static and dull and this and that-negativity from people in positions that the producers would listen to. There was even talk about pulling the plug on the thing. Of course, when they finally saw the finished picture, they were stunned, because they thought it was going to be a complete dog.” Like the campfire tale that inspired it. When a Stranger Calls pushed a big emotional button with audiences, especially current and potential babysitters. Word of mouth and an effective prime-time TV campaign (which gave away the “calls are coming from in the house hook) turned the $1.6 million effort into a major hit. That year, it grossed over $7 million in studio rentals. beating out big-budget films like Meteor at the box office.
“It was just plain scary,” Walton says when asked to explain the film’s popularity. “You gotta remember that in 1979, the suspense genre had been dead for a few years. Then in 1978. John Carpenter came out with Halloween, and then that Christmas. Phil Kaufman came out with his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And then the following fall, we came along. We were the third in this huge revival of the genre. And audiences were ready. They craved it.”
“When a Stranger Calls was a tale that didn’t require extraordinary circumstances, Kane elaborates. “It could happen anywhere. And that titillated a lot of people. They could easily imagine themselves in that situation. That’s something much more frightening than ‘Hey, there’s a UFO coming in and landing on the roof of my Ford! You can imagine yourself sitting at home one day and getting that call. If you think about it, the big instrument of terror in the film is a phone-and we’ve all got one!”
As is often the case with the thriller genre, critical reaction did not keep step with general audience sentiment. “When Stranger came out, there were some critics who flat out hated it,” Walton recalls. And their negativity was so out of proportion with what the movie was that I chose to believe that they were scared so badly by it that they resented it and turned on it. My wife hates horror movies, and she’s the easiest person in the world to scare. And I accept that. Some people don’t want to go on the rollercoaster, but that doesn’t mean you should tear it down. Critics need to realize that.”
When a Stranger Calls was also singled out in a now infamous episode of PBS’s Sneak Previews devoted to exposing the sexist phenomenon of “women-in-danger” horror films. “Siskel and Ebert accused it of being typical of the slash-and gore genre.” Walton remembers, and went on to list three or four characteristics of this type of film that was so despicable, like the hand-held killer POV shots, upraised gleaming knives and blood and gore, and Stranger had none of them!” It might be noted that The Howling, which also contains none of the aforementioned elements. was additionally singled out, solely on the basis of its poster-months before the film was even released!
Afraid of being pigeonholed, and unwilling to commit to scripts he didn’t like. Walton’s subsequent directorial career was hardly meteoric. He did reappear in the ’80s with the similarly themed TV remake of William Castle’s I Saw What You Did and the underrated horror/comedy April Fool’s Day. But the ghost of his debut hit continued to haunt him. despite his firm stance against a follow-up. “I never had much interest in a sequel, honestly.” Walton says. “The stranger died and that’s that. Even if I wanted to, how could I continue the story?”