Whenever I watch one of the “All-Time Scariest Movie Moments” specials on E! or Sci-Fi, there is always one entry I can always count on to make the list. “When a Stranger Calls” is a frustratingly uneven film. On one side, it is a tight and chilling experience. On the other, it is an overwrought and drab melodrama. Either way, there is no denying the endurance that the movie holds.It has been said by critics and fans alike that the first 20 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” are some of the best directed in horror history, and I have to agree. Co-writer/director Fred Walton gives audiences a sterling example of how to create genuine tension, without resorting to gore or cinema tricks. One room, one character, one telephone. All of the elements (acting, writing, cinematography, etc.) work beautifully.
As far as I’m concerned, the movie pretty much ends when that scene is over. The narrative then switches to the psychopath’s side of the story, as he obsessively stalks a bar chick (played by Colleen Dewhurst). Meanwhile, Clifford is set on capturing Duncan before he causes any further harm. But enough of that. It’s routine junk. Once the story gets back to Jill and her plight, the movie efficiently return to its dark foundation. The series of events cumulate in an applause-worthy finale set in Jill’s suburban home.
Carol Kane (TV’s ‘Taxi’), a brilliant comedic actress whom many would think is an odd choice to star in a thriller, is brilliant as the scarred babysitter. I doubt any actress at the time could have played this part better. In her time onscreen, Kane is incredibly nuanced and natural. Charles Durning (“State and Main”) is solid as Officer John Clifford. British thespian Tony Beckley is memorable as the villain, but Tony Award winner Colleen Dewhurst is criminally wasted in a thankless role.There are two reasons why this otherwise ho-hum thriller is still talked about today: 1) The first scene, and 2) the last scene. Bottom line: Rent it, watch those two segments, and return it to where you got it from. Trust me, it’s worth it.