When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) Retrospective


Julia Jenz (Jill Schoelen) arrives at Dr. Schifrin’s house for a routine baby-sitting gig. Soon after Dr. Schifrin and his wife leave, a mysterious man knocks on the door. The man tells Julia that his car is broken down and asks to come inside to use the phone. Julia refuses but agrees to call the auto club. The phone is dead. Afraid to divulge, Julia lies and says that she called the auto club. The auto club never arrives, so the man returns continuously to ask for help. Hoping he goes away, Julia continues to lie, but the conversations become increasingly sinister. Meanwhile, Julia vaguely notices things turning up out of place around the house. Soon, it becomes obvious that someone is moving in and out of the house. At this time Julia discovers the children have been abducted. The intruder eventually attacks her and she narrowly escapes. It is later revealed that the children Julia babysat were never found or heard from again.


Five years later, Julia is an introverted college student still traumatized by the incident. To make matters worse, strange things happen from time to time in her apartment, and Julia believes that the intruder is once again stalking her. Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), now a counselor at the college Julia attends, offers to help with the trauma of the experience in the past and the current events taking place. Jill contacts John Clifford (Charles Durning) to come to Julia’s aid and help figure out who is stalking her. For protection Jill helps Julia purchase a gun and teaches her how to use it. Julia begins noticing the stalker is entering her apartment while she’s sleeping and decides to stay with Jill until she feels safe to return to her own home. Having been through a similar situation years before, Jill and a reluctant John investigate the incident from Julia’s past and come to the conclusion the stalker may be a ventriloquist throwing his voice to make it seem like he was outside when speaking to Julia. While investigating, Jill and John receive news that Julia has shot herself in the head while at her apartment. Jill promises to find the stalker. John eventually tracks down the stalker at a club where he performs as a ventriloquist just like he hypothesized but the stalker is able to get away. John is able to track down the stalker’s home and finds pictures of Julia in the hospital and Jill’s apartment. Having returned to her apartment, Jill notices a carton of juice sitting out with the faces of the missing children Julia babysat on it. Frightened, Jill arms herself and the stalker begins to taunt her; he is seen in makeup that allows him to ‘disappear’ from sight against Jill’s apartment walls. He attacks and in the struggle, Jill is shot. John shows up just in time to shoot and kill the stalker.


Sometime later, Jill is recuperating in the hospital where Julia is located and is wheeled to Julia’s room to discover her out of her coma, having survived the head wound.


After years of continuing interest from producer Chapin and many abandoned story ideas, however, the sequel found inspiration from another real-life incident. “A friend of mine had borrowed our car, and it had broken down at night,” the director says. “We wound up getting a phone call from this woman saying that our friend claimed our car had broken down at such-and-such location. And even though this was a grown woman, and our friend was female, she was scared to let our friend come in and make the call herself. And I thought, what if this was a young woman, a babysitter, with a man outside, and what if she did all the right things, and tried to make the call for him, but the phone is dead, then what? On the basis of that idea, I called Doug Chapin and said, ‘I think I’ve got something.’

“I liked how it wasn’t just hooked onto the first.” says Kane, who reprised her role as Jill Johnson in the made-for-Showtime When a Stranger Calls Back. “It stands on its own. It was a totally new story. and the characters had grown and changed just like they really would have in that amount of time. My character was a mature woman who had and lost a whole life since the first one. The changes in her were quite realistic, that this woman had gone to work trying to prevent this from happening to other people, that this trauma had affected her the way it would have in real life.”

“I don’t mind doing sequels, as long as the script is good.” Durning adds. “And this one was as good as the first. Also, a lot of it was shot inside, and I liked that.” he says with a smile. “They had me out in the rain all night long for one scene. I didn’t like that.”


Introducing a new babysitter played by The Stepfather’s Jill Schoelen (in an opening cat-and-mouse game that rivals the first in nail biting suspense). When a Stranger Calls Back mirrors the structure of the original, but this time it’s Kane, not Durning, who comes to the rescue. Like the first film. the sequel starts strong and segues into a more routine police thriller, but it is actually scary, a rarity in the made-forcible thriller genre that has become synonymous with “dull.”

Once again, Walton refused to resort to explicit gore. bypassing shocks for a more psychological approach. “There are a lot of instances in both Strangers where you don’t know exactly what’s going on.” he says, explaining his approach to eliciting fear. “One of the elements of terror is to never be entirely clear about what has happened or is happening. There were a number of times where, as a filmmaker, I didn’t try to answer all the questions. I never tried to visualize specifically what went on in that hospital room. Or in the sequel, when Julia (Schoelen] turns up with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the head. I myself never did piece it out for anyone. If Jill had come up to me to ask what actually happened, I probably would have said, ‘You just decide for yourself and don’t bother to tell me.”

Fifteen years later, both Kane and Durning, still in the midst of active, varied careers, fondly recall their rare stopover in the horror arena, which is available on Columbia TriStar Home Video. “Both movies made all the characters, even the killer, believable and smart,” says Kane, who will next be seen in the comedy Big Bully. “It gave the audience the chance to watch the characters thinking me, Charles, the killer. You’re watching everyone trying to figure it out, which is what you would hopefully do in that situation.”

“Our movie was really the start of all that splatter stuff that was big in the ’80s,” replies Durning. who recently filmed Home for the Holidays under the direction of Jodie Foster. “With the exception of Halloween, we were the first. We paved the way for Freddy Krueger and all that. And now they’re talking about making a third Stranger. What’s that-a triquel? I hope it doesn’t take 10 years. Then I’ll have to come on in a wheelchair!”

While both actors are generally excited about the prospect of a third installment, as of press time, the second Stranger sequel appears to be in a permanent holding pattern. “It would’ve been really different, as different as possible but thematically still the same. No babysitter, but there would still be a stalker or serial killer.” Hesitant at first to talk about it, the normally good-natured Walton begins to bristle with anger. “When a Stranger Calls Back was one of Showtime’s highest-rated movies of all time, and they wanted to give us less money for a third one. We told them they could forget it. No, that’s a lie we told them to f**k off. The sons of bitches at Showtime are too cheap to back a winner. You tell your readers that.”


When A Stranger Calls and When A Stranger Calls Back, and he mentioned that he’d just happened into horror and thriller films. Was that the case with you, or did you have an interest in those sorts of films?

Jill Schoelen: I had no interest in it. I was not a fan of the genre. Strangely, though you can’t make this stuff up the one scary movie that I loved was When A Stranger Calls. I was, in my own way, a teenager and watching that, there was a sense of reality about that film and I just loved it. The movie doesn’t have a strong second half, like it does the first half, but isn’t that coincidental? I mostly did not do genre films. My very first film was a film called D.C. Cab, and then I did a little teenage beach-y film called Hot Moves, I did That Was Then, This Is Now, I did a rock ‘n’ roll movie called Thunder Alley; those were my first films. I don’t think my first of the genre films was until The Stepfather and strangely, the script did not read like a genre script. It read like a mystery, a crime thing. I was much more attracted to that and as an actress me, Jill, as a human being and then tying that to an actress I resonated much, much more with that than the whole scream queen kind of thing where girls get killed off by these bad people and creatures. And, because they were more thriller-based than in that way, the girls that I played in both Stepfather and When A Stranger Calls Back, they were characters. They were relatable girls, I think, in their vulnerability. If it happened to them, it could happen to you, the situation that they found themselves in, rather than something fantastical that’s in those other genre films, where people come back from the dead and stuff.

“When a Stranger Calls Back” is surprisingly strong for a sequel. I know the director originally didn’t think you were right for the role. When you are up against the wall like that, how do you keep your mind clear headed to not crazy? Do you talk yourself through situations? Write in a diary? Talk with friends?

Jill Schoelen: I was completely unaware of the director’s thoughts, as he was unaware I was coming in to read for him that day. As I remember, from how he told me–when Fred Walton found out I was coming in, he asked the casting director to cancel my appointment. He thought I was all wrong and that it was a waste of time to even see me, but the casting director said they could not cancel me on late notice, so they sat through my reading. But the thing is, Fred later told me, I did such a good job, he completely changed his mind. I was against the type of what he had in mind, but he cast me anyway. “You won the part!” he said. I suppose if I hadn’t walked away from acting to be a wife and mother, that story would not mean so much to me–but given the life changes I have had, I am very happy and I suppose, proud, about that story.

Fred Walton

Carol Kane
Charles Durning
Jill Schoelen

Based Characters created
Steve Feke
Fred Walton

Dana Kaproff


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