Famously inspiring the beginning of Scream, the original When a Stranger Calls from 1979 also spawned those unforgettable lines ‘The call’s coming from inside the house!’ and ‘Have you checked the children?’ – something star Carol Kane still gets quoted at her today. In an era of Michael, Jason and Freddy, Stranger was actually ahead of its time and did something quite unusual with the idea of the serial killer: making you simultaneously feel sorry for him whilst curling your lip at his actions. But has this – and its TV movie sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back, also included here in HD – stood the test of time?
Hired to babysit for Mr and Mrs Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano & Rutanya Alda), student Jill (Kane, probably best known as the excellent bad fairy from Scrooged) finds herself plagued with nuisance phone calls. At first she thinks it’s the parents checking on their two kids, because the voice keeps asking about them, but it soon becomes clear that something more sinister is happening.
Spin on seven years and John Clifford (Dog Day Afternoon’s Charles Durning), the former cop who dealt with the case, is hired to find the nutter who was the cause of all that misery so long ago. Having just escaped from an institution, Curt Duncan (English actor Tony Beckley from The Italian Job) is hanging around bars and pestering women – stalking one in particular, Tracy (The Dead Zone’s Colleen Dewhurst). Managing to avoid Clifford’s clutches, Duncan sets his sights on Jill once more, who now has a family of her own…
In the 1993 sequel, another babysitting teen Julia (Jill Schoelen) is being hassled – this time by a guy who claims his car has broken down, and can he come in to phone for help? Wisely, Julia doesn’t let him, but that doesn’t stop more mayhem from occurring. After another time-skip of five years, we find Julia at college and still being stalked. When she reports it, Jill – now a counsellor – is brought in and it isn’t long before Clifford is back as well, helping to track down this new crazy. And the way this stalker operates is so bizarre it borders on genius – think Magic crossed with A Game of Shadows.
Inspired by a news clipping about an actual babysitter attack, writer/director Fred Walton (as he explains in one of the new featurettes) then went on to make a short film called Sitter (also included in this edition) in the hopes of getting some Oscar attention. Of course that didn’t happen, but it did help with funding the feature and indeed the first 20 minutes – arguably the best of the entire original movie – are pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of that. A suspense film rather than a horror, according to Walton, Stranger actually contains very little in the way of bloodshed and the psychological aspects are handled quite well. Where it drags is in the middle section where Clifford is hunting Duncan, although we do get to see more of the stalker’s decline into madness. What’s not very clear is his motivation for all this other than he’s unhinged, and the same goes for the sequel – at one point Clifford says ‘You know what it’s like with these psychopaths, they have all kinds of reasons’ as if that explains everything. The acting, however, is top-notch with Kane going especially method to get into the role (though I have to confess I kept expecting her to hit the stalkers with a toaster!).
The limited edition, as well as presenting a new scan and restoration of the original film, also contains all sorts of extras, including more interviews with Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff, a CD of the score, a 40 page booklet with an essay by Kevin Lyons, a reversible poster with new artwork and a reversible sleeve. Calling all stalker fans… Paul Kane