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DVD: When a Stranger Calls (1979)
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1 (NTSC)

9 October 2001




Genre: Mystery / Suspense  
Seven years after the murder of two kids, the killer escapes from the boobey hatch, and makes his way towards the babysitter that tickled his fancy.  



Directed by:

Fred Walton
Screenplay by: Fred Walton, Steve Feke
Music by: Dana Kaproff
Produced by: Doug Chapin, Steve Feke

Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Ron O'Neal, Steven Anderson, Rachel Roberts, Rutanya Alda, and Carmen Argenziano.

Film Length: 97 mins.
Process/Ratio: 1.85:1
Anamorphic DVD: Yes
Languages:   English Mono
Subtitles:   May 15, 2001
Special Features :  

B-side features full frame version

Comments :

Co-writer/director Fred Walton had a brisk career making suspense and mystery flicks before disappearing from the scene after the 1996 TV movie, The Stepford Husbands, starring Donna Mills, and Michael Ontkean. Walton's theatrical ventures in both genres include The Rosary Murders, the teen slasher spoof April Fool's Day, and his debut, When a Stranger Calls - a mini-classic that's been somewhat overshadowed by the 2006 remake from action director Simon West.

Walton's career path wasn't dissimilar from James Dearden, who wrote & directed an intriguing short film (Diversion) that was expanded and re-filmed by director Adrian Lyne as Fatal Attraction, in 1987; in Walton's case, it was The Sitter that was given a revision, taking place 7 years after the original babysitter assault and child murders.

One can trace the film's influence (if not its raison d'etre) to the success of John Carpenter's Halloween, although one wonders if Walton's real inspiration lay in taking the concept of traumatic phone calls and home-alone teens from William Castle's silly I Saw What You Did (1965) - a film Walton later remade for the boob tube in 1988, with Shawnee Smith (Saw and Saw 2).



Whereas phone pranks germinated the events in Castle's film, in Walton's concept it's a real psycho whose calling from inside the same house as the babysitter and kiddies. How does the killer manage to perform this technological miracle in what is presumably a dwelling with one phone line? No idea, although that gimmick was the key twist in Bob Clark's 1974 cult favourite, Black Christmas, where university coeds are traumatized and dispatched to Heaven by a killer calling from the attic.

That novel twist - the killer is in the house - is immediately blown in the trailer of the 2006 remake, although it's hardly a shock to anyone familiar with the original film. (Or a certain generation of filmgoers. When the film hit theatre and TV screens, there were plenty of annoying friends that uttered the film's guttural tagline, "Have you checked the chil-dren?" straight to your face, or as a prank phone call).

Walton's expanded screenplay, co-written with co-producer Steve Feke, reportedly left the claustrophobic 20min. opening with the babysitter (played by Carol Kane in the feature) intact, and continued with the arrival of a police detective (Charles Durning) and several patrolmen (including Ron O'Neal, the original Superfly), plus a new 7-year flash-forward section. The script then picks up after the killer (beautifully played by British thespian Tony Beckley, in his final feature film) has escaped from the looney bin, and is tracked down and ultimately brought to street justice.

For the remake, writer Jake Wade Wall stuck with the original's fearsome 20 min. opening, and stretched the material into a deadly-dull 40 min. chunk before the killer (rendered a nameless, largely faceless variation of Halloween's unstoppable Michael Myers) finally starts attacking the babysitter. Most of the dialogue is reiterated from the Walton-Feke screenplay, and Wall tried to open up his restrictive revision by showing the girlfriend and ex-boyfriend, who are just referred to in the original film.

That ploy allowed Wall to bring the girlfriend to the lonely house with the sitter, and have her dispatched so the killer can call the sitter on the dead girl's cellphone. While Wall labels his script as a classic morality kampf between good vs. evil in the remake's DVD making-of featurette, that's all P.R. posturing, as he failed to create sustainable, feature-length tension. Forty minutes of phone calls - from inside the house, or from a nearby guesthouse, where the owners' college-age son might be - and the sitter whining about being scared, really scared, and then really really scared before calling the police and getting a trace on the line just make any existing tension fizzle away; those structural flaws are foreshadowed when the sitter's arrival at the otherwise spooky home doesn't happen until 20 mins. into the film.

Viewers of the remake will find the original film quite a surprise, because all the nonsense and meandering of Wall's script are done within the first half-hour, and the flash-forward shows the escaped killer as deranged loon with plenty of inner torment: he stalks bitchy Colleen Dewhurst, wanders through and hides out in skid row, and can't help but make a phone call to poor Carol Kane. It's a predictable conceit, but the build up to Kane's beautifully timed collapse and hysteria is particularly fun since Kane and her up-and-coming hubbie are now parents who've left their two kids with a teen babysitter.

Walton also adds a short but vital scene in which Kane talks to her children before going out for her celebratory dinner, whereas Wall reduces the kids in the remake to whining, whimpering creatures that never utter a single word of intelligible dialogue; they're merely chum for the killer, and function as a plot sideline as the sitter runs all over the massive house in that film's otherwise well-executed game of cat-and-mouse.



Both babysitter films, however, benefit from gorgeous cinematography and art direction: in the remake, the isolated lakefront home of the Mandrakis family is, much like the idiotic remake of Thirteen Ghosts, the real star, and in the '79 original, Fred Walton and cinematographer Donald Peterman establish beautiful compositions, elegant lighting schemes for interior and exterior sets, and a crisp colour design that's prevented the movie from aging like a gaudy seventies time capsule. (Peterman's later work includes Flashdance, Point Break, and Get Shorty.)

The original also contains an excellent score by underrated composer Dana Kaproff, who wrote a small, low-key, orchestral soundtrack. Walton's well-timed pauses and silent cutaways of hallways, doors, and Kane's sullen face are nicely punched up with a ghoulish motif from close-miked strings, and some eerie metallic effects. It's a mono mix, but Kaproff's music is way up front in the stalking scenes.

Walton later reunited with Kaproff and actors Durning and Kane in the 1993 TV movie, When a Stranger Calls Back, although one of his best films remains the 1989 TV movie Trapped, as Kathleen Quinlan is stalked by a murderer in locked office tower (and some unfunny monkeys).

Columbia 's transfer is very clean, but it's a shame the studio didn't bother with a new special edition release, riding on the coattails of the blah remake. A commentary from major participants and the inclusion of the original short would have been a major plus, as Walton's little film manages to accomplish something the $15 million remake failed to achieve: be frightening, and tremendously fun.


© 2006 Mark R. Hasan

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