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!]

The Edge

From downtown…from Mitch & Murray, Mr. Steak Knives himself, Alec Baldwin, stars alongside with Sir Fava Beans, Anthony Hopkins in The Edge — in this, another David Mamet-penned joint (as talky, though not as memorable as Glengarry Glen Ross).

Hopkins plays a polymath billionaire, an almost Victorian era-styled adventurer named Charles, who is accompanying his age-inappropriate wife on a photo-shoot in Alaskan back-country (actually, western Alberta, Canada).

Charles, along with his wife’s dashing photographer (Baldwin), and their pal Stephen (Oz/Sons of Anarchy mainstay, Harold Perrineau) find out just how dangerous nature can be right off the bat when a bird strike downs their small plane, after some foreshadowing.

Stuck in the remote bush, the trio has to fend for themselves and make it to safety while a mammoth Kodiak bear is in hot pursuit.   

What good is a survivalist tale without a healthy dose of bickering? With Mamet in charge, this takes the form of pretty welcome, wry stuff like:

“You can season meat with gunpowder. Did you know that?
…Wish we had some gunpowder.”

With a love triangle as text, not subtext, we know that it’ll take everything these people have to get out of there alive without tearing out each others’ throats before ursa does.

When it comes to genre films, 1997 was a pretty great year: LA Confidential, The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, Donnie Brasco, Jackie Brown, etc. Yet The Edge remains decidedly under the radar, despite a top-drawer cast that also includes Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones and leggy Down Under model, Elle Macpherson.

The Edge asks the question, what personality style prevails in the bush? Is it Charles’ placid hubris, Bob’s impulsive hotheadedness, Stephen’s clarion calls? (the latter even spins a Voltarian variant of “the best is the enemy of the good” with, “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”)

A genre film with smarts, The Edge loses its namesake with some coda-sagging. Still, a pretty fun nature-run-amok flick, and a great bear to boot.

*** (out of 5)