Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) remains one of the most effective and terrifying horror movies made during the disco decade.

This statement is accurate, I reckon, because I knew the film’s punch-line before I ever saw the movie.  

When I was ten years old, my beloved aunt Vivian would frequently regale me with horror movie stories at family gatherings. I just couldn’t get enough of these cinematic tales, which she recited in every fantastic and grotesque detail. Vivian told me, over the years, the stories of Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Fog (1980) and When a Stranger Calls.

So I actually knew that the film’s killer was calling “from inside the house” before I ever saw the movie’s first frame.

Yet when I finally saw When a Stranger Calls with my own eyes, my pre-knowledge of that crucial “twist” made no difference whatsoever. The movie scared the shit out of me.

Watching the film again this week for the first time since 1999 (when I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s), the opening scene still unsettled me, and left my wife feeling anxious and jittery as we turned off the lights and went to bed.

And yes, that’s absolutely the sweet spot for horror movies: the promise of a troubled night’s slumber as you turn out the lights and your head hits the pillow.

Based on an urban legend (the babysitter and the man upstairs…), When a Stranger Calls opens with a meticulous, self-contained set-piece of near perfect execution. A high-school age babysitter (Carol Kane) is inside a suburban house alone, and being tormented by an increasingly creepy telephone caller. The frequency of the calls escalate, and the police trace the call….

...And, well, you know doubt know the rest.

When a Stranger Calls undeniably falters some in its second act, even as it establishes the pitiable character of its boogeyman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). The film also explores the seedy terrain of late-1970s city life, but the movie’s lead, Charles During (as Det. John Clifford) proves pretty unappealing.

Finally, When a Stranger Calls pulls itself back together with a rip-roaring finale -- and one of the creepiest jump scares of the decade -- making the audience forget how listless some scenes in the second act actually are

So When a Stranger Calls is not perfect, perhaps, in the sense that a film such as Halloween may be. But the film nonetheless opens and closes with some of the scariest imagery in the 1970s genre canon.

“Have you checked the children?”

High-schooler Jill (Kane) arrives at the house of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to babysit his two children, who are already in bed and asleep. The good doctor and his wife leave for dinner and a movie, reporting that they will not return until after midnight.

Jill settles in, and begins to study in the family living room. But before long, she begins to receive disturbing, threatening phone calls from a stranger. Jill contacts the police, and they endeavor to trace the call. 

Jill learns, to her horror that the caller is inside the house, using the upstairs phone line.

The police, including Det. Clifford (Durning) arrive and apprehend the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), but not before he has murdered the children with his bare hands.

Seven years later, Duncan escapes from an asylum, and Clifford, now a P.I., resolves, with Dr. Mandrakis’s funding, to kill him.

Clifford follows Duncan’s trail to a city bar called Torchy’s, and to a barfly named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst).  She has seen Duncan on more than one occasion, and allows Clifford to use her as bait to catch the killer.

Duncan escapes, however, and chooses different prey. 

Jill, the babysitter he once stalked (and nearly killed), is now a mother herself, with two young children…

“It’s probably some weirdo. The city is full of ‘em.”

In 2014, iPhones and cell phones have perhaps made the central scenario of When a Stranger Calls feel dated.

Now, it is easy to call anyone, from any location, including the next-room-over. But by the same token, that caller’s name is identified on a screen, so it’s tougher to prank call folks too.

But the standing assumption in 1979 was that telephone calls were coming from an exterior location, from outside the house. When a Stranger Calls thus plays wickedly with the status quo, and intriguingly, does so in the very year that AT&T’s advertising agency coined the memorable slogan “reach out and touch someone.”

Curt Duncan is someone who has taken that idea all-too literally. He uses the telephone to psychologically terrorize his prey, and he utilizes his surprising position -- inside the Mandrakis house -- to “touch” (or kill…) them.

The film’s opening scene is elegant, simple, and beautifully shot and edited. Walton doesn’t over-gird the sequence with too many elements or too many competing ideas. Instead, the inaugural set-piece boasts a purity of intent, and allows the audience to proceed from the assumption of a mystery phone caller outside the house, and then, with increasing tension, pulls the rug out from that particular assumption.  In other words, the movie tricks us.

I admire the way Walton sets the terrain for the battle too. We meet Jill and the Mandrakis parents, and then move into the living room, where the sitter does her school work. A series of long shots establish both Jill’s isolation and vulnerability, and then the shrill ringing of the telephone interrupts the solitude of the night.

Jill explores her terrain tentatively at first, a half-lit world of doors that are half-open, and freezer ice machines that make disturbing noises.  This scene is true to life in a very visceral, literal sense. How many times have you heard something you can’t readily explain, and explored your house in the dark, seeking the source? 

I have a couple of rowdy cats, so I feel like I go tracking down weird nocturnal noises in the dark at least two or three times a week.  I don’t expect or anticipate finding anything weird or disturbing or dangerous. 

But the thought that I could do so is always there in the back of my mind, lurking.

We then view Jill from outside the house, through the windows, and the visual impression is of a bird in a cage. 

Another impression created by this composition is that Jill is being watched or stalked from the outside of the house.  We thus mistake the perspective for a point-of-view subjective shot. Of course, this isn’t so.  We are observing that Jill is in danger, trapped inside.  There is no danger outside.

This is the film's "inversion" principle, which I love. When Jill locks herself in for safety's sake (on the instructions of the police), she is not saving herself, she is trapping herself.

As the scene progresses, and events reach a fever pitch, the phone seems to take on a larger stature within the frame. The device is seen -- looming ever-larger in the frame -- in insert shots and close-ups. The phone is the avenue by which Jill is terrorized, and so its importance seems to grow as the scene gears up.  In Poltergeist (1982), the TV is the portal through which terror enters the world of the normal or routine.  In When a Stranger Calls, it is the phone that introduces a sinister element to the real world.

After the killer’s down-right terrifying enunciation of a mission statement -- he wants Jill’s blood, all over him -- we then get the panicked police calling Jill and warning her to get out of the house…that the killer is inside the home with her. Jill runs for the door and the film cuts to the upstairs hallway, where light bleeds suddenly out of a bedroom, and a silhouette appears.

We see no killer, no weapon. There is no violence at all, actually, only a beam of light and that menacing shadow to suggest the presence of evil.

And the restraint works like absolute gangbusters. What we fear is not a particular person or even a particular pathology, but rather the Id-like specter that can, somehow, pierce the balloon of safety we have erected around our neighborhoods and our homes.

Uniquely, the second act veers in the opposite direction, making Duncan much more than a shadow or “Shape.”  We see him hitting on Tracy (Dewhurst) in Torchy’s and getting beaten up by another bar patron.  We see him living on the streets, in skid-row, trying desperately to connect to someone.  

The malevolent silhouette of the first act becomes a hauntingly human – and frail -- individual in the second act.

In a sense, this is the way of all fear. It starts out palpable and urgent when we don’t understand it. But when it becomes recognizable or quantifiable, the sense of terror lessens.

I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this development in the film. On one hand, familiarity diminishes the sense of horror, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s. The more we see that Duncan is a slight-of-build, mentally-ill British man, the less fearsome he becomes.  Horror absolutely thrives on the things we don’t know and don’t understand, not the things we do know and do understand.

Oppositely, it is interesting and ambitious that When a Stranger Calls doesn’t hew to a two-dimensional approach to its boogeyman. Duncan is not Evil Incarnate, but a deeply sick man whom society has abandoned.  I suppose my real problem with the second act may be that Duncan seems no match -- physically or mentally -- for the portly, grave-faced veteran cop Clifford, a man who is willing to commit murder outside the confines of the law to bring his quarry to justice.

But even this somewhat deflated second act possesses moments of raw power, and more importantly, fear.

On two occasions, director Walton takes the audience on a night-time sojourn through the seedy city, from Torchy’s to Tracy’s apartment building.  The camera seems to move further and further away from her as she walks home by sickly-green city-light. As the camera retracts, and Tracy gets ever smaller in the frame, one can’t help but get the impression of a world in which the city has been ceded to criminals, or to the sick.  This isn’t a place of safety or security, and Walton’s expressive camera work expresses this notion well.

Again -- in the second act this time -- Duncan violates the safety or sanctity of the hearth, of the home. He hides in Tracy’s hall closet and leaps out at her when she least suspects danger. This scene is lensed almost entirely in close-up, which makes for a real and dramatic switch from the long, lonely, dark shots of the city streets. Walton’s visual approach and selection of shots seems to suggest that Duncan’s violation is highly intimate, even if his stalking grounds feel lonely, abandoned, and vast.

I suppose the real test of Beckley’s effectiveness in the role of Duncan is that the final act works effectively.  Curt goes after Jill again, in her suburban home this time, and hides in her bed -- in plain sight -- as her sleeping husband.  In extreme, warped close-up, Duncan looks sick and twisted, and attacks Jill, and the moment is utterly terrifying.  Even when he know the killer, then, his disruption of our expectations of safety has a mighty impact.

Gazing at Walton’s visual technique, one might be able to detect a subtle message or subtext here. Society (epitomized by the cold, clinical Dr. Monk) has given the cities to the crazies, to the violent, to the wackos.  And worse, those crazies aren’t satisfied with what has been ceded to them.  They are encroaching ever deeper into the suburbs, appearing in places that should be safe: the bedrooms of our most cherished family members: our children or our spouses.

This leitmotif may make the film sound paranoid, but the horror genre is not, largely, about reason or logic, but rather about the fears that won’t go silent, even when we know they aren’t entirely rational.

When a Stranger Calls is really about the crazy “outside” making in-roads “inside,” not just in your family room or kitchen, but inside your head too, in your very imagination. 

The killer is inside the house already -- and has been for some time -- but you don’t know it yet.

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