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).
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!]