30 March 2015 | Michael_Elliott
Tense Thriller That Lives Up to Its Reputation
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
*** (out of 4)
Intense psychological thriller has a babysitter (Carol Kane) receiving phone calls from a stranger asking if she has checked on the children. Flash forward seven years when the psychopath (Tony Beckley) escapes from a mental hospital so a detective (Charles Durning) tries to track him down before he can harm anyone else.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS has become somewhat legendary in the thriller/horror genre due in large part to a nearly perfectly executed opening 20-minute sequence where Kane is terrorized by the mysterious man on the phone. There's no question that this sequence has gone down in horror history as a major highlight but I don't think the rest of the film gets nearly enough credit as it deserves. The middle portion of the film is pretty much a character study as we focus in on the psycho who is out in the streets and pretty much walking about trying to find friends. Even though we know the monster he is, the film at times paints him in a sympathetic light.
The middle portion of the film has several thriller aspects that work extremely well including one where a bar woman pretty much gives a cold shoulder to the psycho. Of course, she doesn't know who he is and this helps with the suspense because the viewer very well knows what he's capable of. Even the detective is someone we get to learn about as the movie goes along because we can tell that this is a case that haunts him and you have to think that he dropped off the force and went into a private business in hopes of one day getting his chance to kill this guy.
Director Fred Walton does a very good job at managing to build up the suspense during the opening sequence and the problem with a lot of thrillers is that they can contain one great suspense scene and then things just go flat or can never recapture that same tension. Even though the middle portion of this film is more laid back, the director still manages to build up a creepy atmosphere and the viewer is always on the edge knowing that this guy could flip at any moment. The cat and mouse game being played works out extremely well. The film also benefits from a very effective score by Dana Kaproff, which helps add to the tension and atmosphere. Add in some nice cinematography and you've really got everything working right.
The performances are also another major plus as Durning is an actor that fits that "every man's" approach. He looks like a real detective. He acts like a real detective. You can look in his eyes and see years of experience and this here just helps the film. Kane is also very effective playing the "scared" female part and there's no question that she helps sell the opening sequence. The film, however, belongs to Beckley who is simply terrific in the role of the psycho. The character actually has quite a bit to do here and the actor perfectly captures not only the evilness that lurks below the surface but as I said earlier, there are scenes where he's mistreated and the actor manages to get some sympathy even when you hate the guy. This certainly reminds one of the performance of Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is a very intense little gem but there are still some flaws to be found in it. This includes the movie running about five minutes too long and there's also another sequence inside a restaurant where you just want to scream at the Kane character to get up and do something rather than sitting around and crying on a floor. Still, this film deserves its reputation as a real gem.