When a Stranger Calls

Equal parts Don’t Answer the Phone! and Barfly, When a Stranger Calls also puts seedy LA front and center. And it gets down to business with what’s now become a time-honored horror trope, one exploited by Wes Craven in Scream: the woman home alone receiving threatening phone calls originating from the basement.

Here, it’s Jill (Carol Kane), who, much like Laurie Strode in Halloween, appears a bit long-in-the-tooth to be associated with babysitting work and worrying about cute boys (The similarities to Halloween don’t end there, with the antagonist here also confined to a mental institution and treated intensively  and ineffectively  by health professionals).

Jill is left to take care of the Mendrakis kids as the doctor and wife are out on the town for the evening.

A heavy breather calls repeatedly with the “have you checked the children?” query, and cops are initially not all that keen to help (“probably just a weirdo”).

LAPD then trace the call to SOMEONE CALLING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! That’s one of the all-time great urban legends, to go along with the hook-for-a-hand lurking around Make out Point, or You Have AIDS scrawled on a bathroom mirror.

When a Stranger Calls then does an abrupt shift, going all police procedural as two forces of 70s cinema take charge to hunt down the perp: Charles Durning (The Sting/Dog Day Afternoon) and Ron O’Neal (Super Fly).

Meanwhile, the antagonist is drifting through LA’s Skid Row, meeting up with an aging bar queen a la Henry Chinaski in Barfly.

When a Stranger Calls is either a good bad movie, or a bad good movie and you’d be forgiven for coming down on either ledger. The outset is clockwork tension-horror, a wonderful set up on a deserted street, with a dynamite score and rich primrose tones. After that stunning opener, things go a bit south with exposition-riddled blather and a bit of a pacing letup, before it finishes strong.

There’s enough meat to keep horror fans satiated. Just don’t expect big portions.

*** (out of 5)

[Check out our podcast discussion of When a Stranger Calls on the Really Awful Movies Podcast!]

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