From 1979, featuring one of the greatest openings of any Suspense/Horror movie of the Seventies…followed by a so-so 70 minutes, but starring an exceptional cast: Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Carol Kane, Ron O’Neal, Rachel Roberts, and the creepy Tony Beckley as the child-killing psychopath who escapes the loony bin and resumes stalking Kane, now a suburban housewife with kids of her own.
Siskel and Ebert included this picture in their famous (infamous, rather) Sneak Previews episode from 1980, “Women In Danger”, even showcasing a clip from the film’s classic opening sequence to illustrate their opinion that (then) modern “Slasher” movies hated women.
(Clip begins at 3:15):
Except this movie’s not a Slasher movie. There are exactly two characters in the movie killed by the ‘stranger’, offscreen, whose bodies we barely get a glimpse of.
We never meet these characters when they’re alive, never even hear them…because the two victims– two small children in the care of teen babysitter Carol Kane– aren’t meant to be characters, per se, but plot devices.
The children’s fate…indicated briefly, and in shadowy light, through the presence of blood that’s drenched the killer’s clothing and skin, and described through dialogue spoken by other characters after the fact…is about as restrained as you can get in a movie this grim and suspenseful.
It’s not a Slasher film, not really what I’d call a Horror film, either, but a Suspense-Thriller.
No dead teenagers, no nudity (except for an unappealing glimpse of the middle-aged psychopath’s full nudity during a breakdown moment), very little gore, just a series of cat-and-mouse action/suspense sequences.
Those moments, the most effective parts of the entire film, are what made the movie memorable, along with its supremely spooky score by Dana Kaproff, one of the best of that era.
What I could gather from Siskel and Ebert’s comments during the Women In Danger episode is that they were alarmed and disturbed by the notion of a vulnerable young woman, Carol Kane, being menaced by a psychotic killer.
Yet on the same show, they each praise John Carpenter’s Halloween (another favorite of mine, naturally)…which does feature dead teenagers (three females, only one male), teen nudity, about the same amount of gore, and a vulnerable young woman being terrorized by an unrelenting male psychopath.
None of this seemed to matter to S & E, however, because, they note, Halloween was made with more style. It’s slicker and prettier to look at than When A Stranger Calls, that’s for sure. Their argument doesn’t seem to extend much beyond that, which, coming from such a well-regarded pair of ‘film scholars’, strikes me as an extremely superficial way to judge a motion picture, of any kind.
When A Stranger Calls has its flaws, certainly, but, much like S & E’s unjustified inclusion of several other well-made and well-regarded titles on the “Women In Danger” episode (i.e., The Howling, Motel Hell, Silent Scream), When A Stranger Calls didn’t really fit in with the cheap Slasher flicks they were excoriating. It did, however, help both men come off as reactionary, uptight and myopic, not to mention pompous and a tad shrill.