Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #96
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 26, 1979
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $21,411,158
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Fred Walton
Producers: Doug Chapin, Steve Feke
Screenplay: Steve Feke, Fred Walton
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Score: Dana Kaproff
Editing: Sam Vitale
Studio: Melvin Simon Productions, Columbia Pictures Corporation
Distributors: Columbia Pictures, AVCO Embassy Pictures, Guild Home Video
Stars: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano, William Boyett, Ron O’Neal, Rachel Roberts, Michael Champion
Suggested Audio Candy
Jim Dooley “The Carnival”
 Jim Dooley “Inside The House”
Of all the undemanding manners in which to turn a quick buck, few are as cushy as babysitting. Let’s study the facts shall we? There is no jobsworth supervisor looking over your shoulder, no general public to flash your fake smile to, no health and safety procedures to adhere to, no paltry fifteen minute lunch break to gripe about, and no need to wear a ridiculous uniform that robs you of any individuality. Instead, once that door closes and you’ve spent the obligatory half hour amusing the children, you can pack the little angels straight off to bed. Once calm has been restored, the world is your oyster. Unless you are in the house from Demon Seed, there is nothing to stop you from putting your feet up on the couch and settling in for a scary movie marathon for the next three hours or so. Easy money right?
Of course, it’s not all marshmallow fluff and covert masturbation as Chris Parker discovered in Chris Columbus’s Adventures in Babysitting. You see, while there is nobody around to bark orders, you are also the last line of defence. Being the gate-keeper certainly has its drawbacks and, when you consider it, the responsibility is actually gargantuan. Should anything untoward happen to the cherubs in question or a single hair on their heads be harmed, then you can forget about that crisp $10 bill and have to deal with the wrath of two suddenly far less hospitable parents. Of course, the odds are still stacked in your favor, but there are always exceptions to the rule and it just so happens I have a doozy for us already prepared.
Picture the scene. Unaccompanied in a house whose nuances you are not yet familiar with, sitting for two young whippersnappers who offer no moral support as they’re both tucked away in their room upstairs seemingly asleep from the day’s exertions. The only company is a telephone, offering you diminutive access to the outside world. While optimists would argue that this provides the perfect solitude, the more cynical among you would see it as a perilous plight in the making. Tied to this lonely structure you find yourself prisoner within, it suddenly appears quite the ominous set-up, never more so than when said phone chimes continuously with a poser as to whether you have “checked the children”. Indeed, this was the unenviable predicament facing hapless babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) as she endured one of the most terrifying ordeals in seventies film history.
The opening scene from Fred Walton’s 1979 suspense thriller When a Stranger Calls has become renowned for its depiction of raw terror and paranoia. Arriving in close proximity to John Carpenter’s seminal babysitting migraine maker Halloween, Walton’s film capitalized on its triumph at the box office, preying on the insecurities of its audience cunningly. Long before Drew Barrymore inadvertently answered her cell, poor Jill found herself in an increasingly demoralizing pickle. In truth, Walton’s film belonged more to the thriller genre than slasher and could not possibly expect to maintain the high levels of apprehension it delivered so effectively in its prologue. What an icebreaker though! Babysitting never appealed after being subjected to her mental anguish and I would imagine many date nights had to be given rain checks as a direct result.
Relaxed and in high spirits, Jill suddenly receives a relentless stream of calls from an unknown quantity, each subsequent ring sending her deeper into despair. Then, with her panties already thoroughly soiled, Def Con 5 is well and truly facilitated and her despondency confounded by the grim realization that these prank calls are coming from… inside the fucking house! This light bulb moment is not entirely welcomed by Jill, particularly since she suddenly realizes that she hasn’t in fact “checked the children”. In the history of discomfiting awakenings, this one ranks right up there with the moment that rickety door slides open in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to reveal one man and his meat tenderizer.
If ever there was a film of two halves then this would be it, sandwiched between the famed bookends of terror was a detective movie, focusing on the exploits of private investigator John Clifford (played by Charles Durning) who tirelessly attempted to track down the deranged prowler. Within this period of the film we would become more familiar with our stealthy assassin and herein laid When a Stranger Calls’ main pitfall; we didn’t want to see our aggressor, his voice on the end of the phone being sufficient exposure to make those neck-hairs raise and our pulses quicken.
It isn’t even that Walton handles this portion of the film unsatisfactorily, we just know that its early promise can never be fulfilled. As it ambles towards its climactic cat-and-mouse encounter, any hopes of reaching the same level of consternation have been dashed. Moreover, while Kane is the perfect choice to play our beleaguered heroine and we identify with her escalating distress, there is no getting around the fact that her skin is far thicker come the repeat performance. If you’re looking for upsides then the fact that Tony Beckley, who plays our killer Curt, was terminally ill during shooting and passed away soon afterwards is significant and knowing that he was facing his own imminent demise supplies his character with additional edge.
Ultimately, the impact of When a Stranger Calls has been lessened by the steady flow of copycats that have emerged since. Worse still, Simon West’s 2006 reboot copped out entirely, subtracting any meanness of spirit in favor of tame teenage kicks. However, while Wes Craven’s Scream supplied grisly imagery as its upshot, it couldn’t match the sheer horror of what Jill endures here and one thing is for damn sure. Ensure that you have been left to your own devices, request that one of your friends calls you at a random point in the next 97 minutes, place the landline by your side, dim the lights and boot up Walton’s film. Then try telling me that you don’t feel even the slightest bit out of your depth. That crisp $10 bill isn’t looking quite as appealing now right?
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 1/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: There is nothing to see here although one of the most disquieting appetizers in seventies cinema comes with its own exclusive benefits provided you surrender yourself accordingly. Dana Kaproff’s eerie score assists no end in leaving a hefty boot print on our psyches and rarely has grue been so surplus to requirements as it is here.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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