When a Stranger Calls (1979 film)

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When a Stranger Calls
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Walton
Produced by
  • Doug Chapin
  • Steve Feke
Written by
  • Steve Feke
  • Fred Walton
Music byDana Kaproff
CinematographyDonald Peterman
Edited bySam Vitale
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Embassy Pictures
Release date
  • October 26, 1979 (1979-10-26)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.5 million[1]
Box office
  • $20.1 million
  • $1.2 million (1980 re-release)[2]
  • $21.4 million (full gross)

When a Stranger Calls is a 1979 American psychological horror film written and directed by Fred Walton and co-written by Steve Feke. It stars Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley and Charles Durning. The film derives its story from the classic folk legend of "the babysitter and the man upstairs".

The film has developed a large cult following over time because of the first 20 minutes, now consistently regarded as one of the scariest openings in movie history. The first 12 minutes of Wes Craven's Scream is an homage to the opening of When a Stranger Calls.

The film was released in the United States on October 26, 1979, by Columbia Pictures. It was commercially successful, grossing $21,411,158 at the box office. It received a mixed critical reception, with many praising the opening scene and performances, but criticism for its writing and lack of scares. It was followed by the 1993 made-for-cable sequel When a Stranger Calls Back and a remake in 2006.


Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) at his home. When the children are asleep, Jill receives a telephone call from a man who asks her if she has checked the children. Jill initially dismisses the telephone calls as a practical joke. However, as the calls become more frequent and threatening, Jill becomes frightened and decides to call the police, who tell Jill to keep the caller on the line long enough for them to trace the call. Jill receives one final call from her stalker. Immediately after the conversation, the police phone to inform her that the calls are coming from a phone inside the house. Jill runs to the door as a light comes on at the top of the staircase, and the stalker's shadow appears. The scene segues to a close-up of detective John Clifford (Charles Durning), who is investigating the matter. Patrol officer Charlie Garber (Ron O'Neal) explains that Jill is unharmed, but the children were murdered by the perpetrator several hours earlier, before Jill's ordeal even started. The killer is identified as an English merchant seaman named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), who is subsequently sent to an asylum.

Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the asylum. Dr. Mandrakis hires Clifford, now a private investigator, to find Duncan. Not knowing Clifford is after him, Duncan is now a homeless, vagrant loner. He is beaten after disturbing a woman, Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), in a downtown bar, and later follows her to her apartment. Feeling sorry for his appearance and her involuntary role in the beating, Tracy tries to be nice to the man while getting him to leave, hoping this will be the last she sees of him.

Meanwhile, an increasingly obsessed Clifford confides to his friend (now Lieutenant) Garber his intention to kill Duncan rather than arrest him. Garber, who was also present in the Mandrakis crime scene, agrees to collaborate. Clifford follows the trail to the bar where Duncan was beaten, and from there to Tracy's residence. Clifford tells Tracy just how dangerous her situation has become, revealing that Duncan had literally torn apart the Mandrakis children with his bare hands. Tracy reluctantly agrees to be Clifford's bait at the bar that evening should Duncan reappear. Clifford surreptitiously follows Tracy from the bar to her apartment, but sees no sign of Duncan. After Clifford leaves, however, Duncan comes out of hiding from inside Tracy’s closet. Tracy screams for help. Clifford returns and chases Duncan away from the scene, losing his trail in the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Jill Lockart (née Johnson) is now married with two young children. One night, she and her husband Stephen (Steven Anderson) go out to dinner in celebration of a promotion, while their children are babysat by Sharon (Lenora May). At the restaurant, Jill gets a telephone call and hears Duncan's voice again: "Have you checked the children?". She panics and calls Sharon; nothing seems to be wrong at first, but then the call is suddenly disconnected. The police escort Jill back home to discover that everything there is fine. Clifford is tipped off by Garber, however, and tries to call Jill, but finds that the line is disconnected. Later that night, Jill goes downstairs for a glass of milk when the lights suddenly go out. She returns to bed and hears Duncan's voice as the closet door appears to open. Jill tries shaking her husband awake only to realize that the man lying next to her is Duncan. Duncan chases Jill across the room and attempts to kill her when Clifford arrives and fatally shoots Duncan. Jill’s husband Stephen is revealed to be in the closet, unconscious but alive. Their children are safe. As Clifford comforts Jill, the last view is of the house, superimposed beneath the eyes of Curt Duncan.




When a Stranger Calls is an expanded remake of Fred Walton and Steve Feke's short film, The Sitter, which roughly comprised the first 20 minutes of this film.[1]


The film marked Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Donald Peterman's feature film debut as director of photography.[3] Principal photography took place over 27 1/2 days in the fall of 1978 on locations in and around Los Angeles. The house which served as the location for the first act of the movie was at 321 S. Chadbourne Ave., in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Lockhart home in the final act was at 2722 Club Dr., Los Angeles, California, USA. Both houses have since been torn down. Additional photography took place in Big Bear Lake.[4]

The downtown bar where Duncan and Tracy meet was "Torchy's" at 218​12 W. Fifth Street in Los Angeles, CA 90012. This is the same bar that served as filming locations for the redneck bar in 48 Hrs. and for Brewster's Millions.[5]

Tony Beckley, who played Curt Duncan, died in April 1980, six months after the film's premiere.[6] The 1993 sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, was dedicated to his memory.[citation needed]


The film was released on October 26, 1979, and later re-released on October 17, 1980.[citation needed] Carol Kane stated in an interview that while watching the film in the theater the audience began screaming and talking back to the screen during the opening 20 minutes of the film.[citation needed] The film was eventually released on the VHS format in 1986. A DVD release was distributed on October 9, 2001, with the only supplements being bonus trailers. A Blu-ray version of the film was eventually released by Mill Creek Entertainment in a double feature with Happy Birthday to Me on March 26, 2013. Neither film contains any special features on the disc.[7][8] The film was later released by Mill Creek Entertainment on blu ray, separate from ‘Happy Birthday to me.’ The packaging designed to look like a VHS. It was realized separate on February 11, 2020.(2/11/20)

Home video[edit]

Second Sight announced a special edition, which was released on December 17, 2018. The Blu-ray includes a brand new scan and restoration, plus the sequel When a Stranger Calls Back, a new scan and restoration of the original short film The Sitter, a reversible sleeve with new artwork by Obviously Creative and original poster artwork, as well as interviews with director Fred Walton, Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, composer Dana Kaproff, the "limited edition" original soundtrack CD, along with a 40-page perfect-bound booklet with a new essay by Kevin Lyons.


Box office[edit]

The film had a total domestic gross of $20,149,106 during its initial theatrical run. In its 1980 theatrical re-release the film managed to gross $1,262,052. The film was a financial success, given its $1.5 million budget.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 41% based on 17 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 5.21/10.[9] On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on 7 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[10]

Roger Ebert described the film as "sleazy" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.[11]

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote of the film "When a Stranger Calls is an energetic first film", adding that "the frightened-babysitter opening of the movie is marvelously modern, as Mr. Walton demonstrates that a haunted house with an ice-making refrigerator is intrinsically scarier than a house without one. He also makes the most of that fearsome modern weapon, the telephone."[12] Author Travis Holt elaborates on the importance of the telephone to the film's portrayal of horror, noting that in the beginning "The phone is presented as a means of safety and comfort; it is a savior rather than a burden."[13] Once the harassing phone calls begin, however, the view of the telephone becomes more sinister:

With the constant central framing of the telephone and its intrusion into the tranquility of the house, the phone has become Jill's nemesis. Jill remains trapped in a situation where she can do nothing but pray that the perpetrator stops calling. The device that usually holds so much promise for positive communication has become virtually her worst nightmare.[13]


The Classification and Rating Administration had originally voted unanimously for a PG rating (five years before the PG-13 rating was available for use). However, CARA chair Richard Heffner then viewed the film and called the board for further discussion to consider voting for an R rating instead. Although the theme of a film could potentially be accommodated within a PG rating, Heffner argued that this film's treatment of its theme was too unsettling for most parents to want it to be freely available to unaccompanied children. A majority vote was then received to assign the film its R rating.[14][full citation needed]

Home media[edit]

Title Format Discs Region 1 Region 2 Region 4 Special Features Distributors
When a Stranger Calls Blu-ray 01 3 December 2018 Content New Special Features Second Sight
When a Stranger Calls Back Blu-ray 01 2018 Content New Special Features Scream Factory
When a Stranger Calls Blu-ray 01 4 December 2014 None Umbrella Entertainment

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "It's a Scream for Three Unknowns: UNKNOWNS". Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1979: p. G23.
  2. ^ a b "When a Stranger Calls (1979)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  3. ^ "PASSINGS: Perry Moore, Don Peterman, Nancy Carr". Los Angeles Times. February 22, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  4. ^ {{cite web|url=https://www.bigbear.com/about/filming/%7Cwork=BigBear.com%7Cpublisher=[[Big Bear Lake, California|City of Big Bear Lake|title=Hollywood's Natural Backlot|url-status=live|archive-url=http://archive.is/NhemX%7Carchive-date=April 5, 2020}}
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "Tony Beckley, Starred In 'Stranger Calls' Film, is Dead". The New York Times. April 23, 1980. p. B14. ISSN 0362-4331. Tony Beckley, who played the title role of a killer in 'When a Stranger Calls,' a commercially successful horror film that was released last year, died of cancer Saturday at the Medical Center of the University of California at Los Angeles.
  7. ^ "When a Stranger Calls and Happy Birthday to Me". blu-ray.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  8. ^ "When a Stranger Calls". bvhscollector.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  9. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  10. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979) Reviews - Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  11. ^ Classics from the Vault: Women in Danger (1980). At the Movies. 1980 – via Ebertpresents.com.
  12. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 12, 1979). "Screen: A Killer Returns in 'When a Stranger Calls'". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  13. ^ a b Holt, Travis Mark (2011). "The Horror Film and Telephony: When a Stranger Calls (1979)". Film and Telephony: The Evolution of Cinematic Communication (Master's thesis). Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama. pp. 41–43. Document No.1505195.open access
  14. ^ Heffner, Richard (1979). "Oral History: transcript volume 10 - 1979". Missing or empty |url= (help)

External links[edit]