by Jack Sommersby
Deliberately paced and measured in its execution, which, for the most part, is dead-on.The first fifteen minutes of When a Stranger Calls are flawless, nerve-jangling stuff: a babysitter, Jill Johnson (played by Carol Kane), alone in the living room of a spacious two-story house where the owner's two young children are asleep upstairs, receives a series of unsettling phone calls from an anonymous male. In the first four calls, she's repeatedly asked the same question, "Have you checked the children lately?", before the call is terminated. After fixing herself a couple of stiff drinks from the liquor cabinet (straight-up and neat, by the way -- no ice needed given the circumstances), she answers the phone and is asked something of a slight variation, "Why haven't you checked the children lately?" The police aren't much help: without an explicit threat made against her person, and no sighting of the man in question, nothing really can be done, says the station's watch commander; though eventually they're willing to have the phone company tap the line, and the ensuing payoff is all but guaranteed to send the audience into the throes of a cardiac arrest. (Yes, it's a blatant crib from Bob Clark's eerie Black Christmas, but it's still very effective). The debuting director, Fred Walton (who also co-wrote the script), shows a knack for conjuring up and sustaining suspense through tactful suggestiveness. While the camerawork isn't particularly inventive, the emphasis on the house's confined spatial layout and shots of inanimate objects (grandfather clock, chandelier, etc.) make every harmless aspect to the house seem ripe with the potential for menace. One can take exception to a couple of logic loopholes (the babysitter's neglecting to lock any of the front door's locks and check on the children until after the sixth(!) call, and perhaps the validity of the threat is certified too early on (as opposed to us perhaps pondering whether the calls are indeed a prank), but overall this brief segment has uncanny focus and scores a bull's-eye.
"This Ain't No Telemarketer Calling!"
But where most films of this genre would end, this one is just beginning. We fast-forward seven years, when we learn that the phone-call perpetrator, Curt Dunkin (Tony Beckley), a former English merchant seaman, has escaped from an insane asylum after serving six years of a seven-year sentence. The father of the previously babysat children hires the services of private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), who was the detective in charge of the Dunkin case; not only is Clifford doggedly determined to locate Duncan, but to kill him, as well. This middle section is comprised of scenes of Dunkin's rapidly deteriorating mental state (being deprived of his meds, he starts regressing back into a psychosis) interspersed with police-procedural ones of Clifford calling on old contacts and hitting the streets. While logic loopholes plague this section, too -- my favorite is when Duncan shows up outside the apartment of a woman he angered in bar a few minutes before, and the woman's not in the least bit worried over this disheveled-looking man's unexpected arrival -- the first-rate performances by Beckley and Durning lend it gravitas and dramatic nuance. There's an effective scene in a Salvation Army bathroom where Duncan, naked and staring at himself in the mirror, slowly breaks down and weeps over his past misdeeds (brief glimpses of the slain children are included), and an even better one where Clifford, after becoming frustrated during an interview with an uncooperative mental-health doctor, locks his jaw, closes the office door, and makes clear to the woman he's in no mood for her wasting-his-time reticence. Not only is the ever-timely topic of mental illness harrowingly depicted here, but it gives Durning, usually cast in supporting roles, the chance to prove his solidity as a leading man -- he's vivid and forceful and so utterly commanding a screen presence you somewhat regret the entirety of the film isn't centered around him.
The last section pretty much takes us where filmgoers with at least, oh, five entries of this genre under their belts expect it to: the house of a certain mother who experienced considerable tumultuousness her last time out as a babysitter. Happily married with two young children, an initially cheerful, celebratory night out on the town with her just-promoted, sales-exec husband turns rather unpleasant when a call to the restaurant reveals the voice of a man she's long tried to forget. Again, a simple question is put to her, "Have you checked the children lately?" While highly manipulative, it's nevertheless the most effective section, with bloodcurdling tension you could cut with a knife and a throat-freezing climax that boasts another glorious unforeseen payoff. Yet it's not successful solely due to its competently engineered scare tactics, but the lived-in, three-dimensional quality of the three principal characters; if they were merely presented as stereotypes with easy-to-read labels, we wouldn't have much of an emotional stake in the outcome of the story -- we'd be involved, but only on a mechanically responsive level. In the beginning, Duncan came off as an unseen force of unspeakable evil -- a boogey man, basically; during the ending passages, he's something even more frightening -- a believable, deeply disturbed man who can't help going back to his former violent self. And Kane, who's effortlessly natural and willing to open herself up to the camera, plays Jill with a directness and purity acting coaches are probably stumped to easily explain; she makes the transition from scared-out-of-her-wits teenager to steely-nerved mother with grace and conviction, and the only quibble I have with her involvement in the climax is a person of another gender gets to pull the trigger.
When a Stranger Calls has been given a rather bum rap by audiences accusing it of offering up a dynamite opening but only a lackluster follow-through, and it's understandable why it's perceived this way: it's bereft of gore, except for a couple of brief glimpses of it in flashbacks, and shows only one on-screen killing, and that's saved until the very final reel. So it's not too surprising that those who went agog over John Carpenter's Halloween the year before were all revved up for something similarily visceral and came away disappointed. No, Walton doesn't possess Carpenter's visual panache and narrative sense that could've glided over some of the script's irregularities, and his telegraphing of the relevance of a closet as the springing-out place for the killer in a scene in an apartment is utterly careless. But the film is more about horror implied rather than horror shown -- after listening to Clifford recount to a woman how Duncan's victims were so badly mangled that the coroner had a tough time convincing a mortician the damage was solely done by Duncan's bare hands, you see validity in Walton's belief that details like these fester more alarmingly in the warm recesses of our imaginations. And Walton wisely doesn't attempt to literally define Duncan's madness -- when he says to the woman from the bar, "My mind, your mind, where do they fit in?" we're given just enough to get a decent reading on the character without it giving way to unctuous psychobabble. It's the potential for violence percolating within Duncan that holds us, so when he faces down a testosterone-fueled roughneck in the bar, Beckley, with his bravura concentrated energy, actually makes us fear for the safety of Duncan's more physically domineering opponent. Duncan, thus, could be us but is much more likely to be among us, and this shrouds the film with an unnerving omnipresence that gets under our skin.
Why is it, then, that When a Stranger Calls fails at being a small classic? Because, among other things, its logic loopholes really do get in the way. On several occasions you get the impression if certain characters had only talked sensibly to one another, their problems would have been resolved a whole lot quicker. Sure, it's understandable that the babysitting Jill is scared witless over the phone calls, but her failing to lock the doors after that first call and telling the police exactly what the man is saying is just too much; you begin wondering if maybe she's worthy of the potentially ill-timed fate. And there's simply no excuse for the veteran-cop Clifford not to do an inspection of the apartment of the woman he's using as bait to trap Duncan before he bids her farewell for the night; you feel Walton has made Clifford's brain go temporarily dead just so the plot can progress. And, yes, Clifford wants to take Duncan out, which has motivated him to cut off contact with his buddies from the LAPD until it's done, but when the overweight Clifford is clearly being outrun by Duncan, Clifford's refusal to call for backup (especially since he's close friends with a police lieutenant, who's monitoring the case) strain credibility even more. In light of these missteps, though, the film is uncommonly absorbing and seedily atmospheric; like a lizard farm, it's not the most enticing sight in the world but not the easiest thing to take your eyes off, either. I admire Walton for not heavily relying on cheap scare tactics to carry the day, and for having the courage to attempt something on the order of a character-oriented thriller, even though he does allow the story to give way to some contrivances along the way -- which, mind you, might have been the doing of his co-writer, Steve Feke, whose first writing gig this is in sixteen years following his stint on (I kid you not) the Monty Hall-hosted '60s game show Let's Make a Deal! Sometimes the devil can be in the details.Flawed but gripping from start to finish.
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originally posted: 05/09/06 10:44:45