When a Stranger Calls (1979 film)

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When a Stranger Calls
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Walton
Produced byDoug Chapin
Steve Feke
Written bySteve Feke
Fred Walton
StarringCharles Durning
Carol Kane
Colleen Dewhurst
Tony Beckley
Music byDana Kaproff
CinematographyDonald Peterman
Edited bySam Vitale
Distributed byColumbia 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 directed by Fred Walton and starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning. The film derives its story from the classic folk legend of "the babysitter and the man upstairs" and the 1974 horror classic Black Christmas. The film was commercially successful, grossing $21,411,158 at the box office, though it received a mixed critical reception. It was followed by the 1993 made-for-television sequel When a Stranger Calls Back and a remake in 2006.

The film has developed a cult following over time because of the first 20 minutes, now consistently regarded as one of the scariest openings in horror movie history. The opening sequence was highly influential for the horror genre and was paid homage to in Wes Craven's Scream in the latter film's opening 12 minutes.


Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) at their home. When the children are asleep, Jill receives a telephone call from a man who asks her if she has checked the children. At first, Jill 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 promise to trace the caller if Jill keeps him on the telephone line long enough. Jill, frightened to extreme measures, arms herself as she receives one final call from the nefarious stalker. Soon after the conversation Jill receives a call from the police, who inform her that the stalker is calling from inside the house. A light comes on at the top of the staircase, and Jill sees the stalker's shadow. In a panic, she immediately runs to the door, unhooks the chain lock and screams. The scene segues to a close-up of detective John Clifford (Charles Durning), who enters the very same doorstep to investigate shortly afterwards. Patrol officer Charlie Garber (Ron O'Neal) explains that Jill is unharmed, but the children had been 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), and 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 tavern, and later follows her to her apartment. Feeling sorry for his appearance and her involuntary role in the beating, Tracy makes light conversation with him and does not explicitly rebuff his awkward proposal to visit her for coffee the next night, hoping this will be the last of him she will see.

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 tavern where Duncan was beaten, and from there to Tracy's residence—the same night Duncan is likely to arrive for his visit. Clifford tells Tracy just how dangerous her situation has become, revealing that Duncan had literally torn and hacked up Mandrakis' children with his bare hands, rendering their bodies unrecognizable. Tracy reluctantly accepts to be Clifford's bait at the tavern that evening. Duncan, hiding in her closet, does not appear until after Clifford leaves her place. Tracy screams for help when Duncan attacks her, and Clifford returns and chases him 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 and find that everything is fine, and the Lockharts go to bed. Clifford is tipped off by Garber and tries to call Jill, but finds that the line is disconnected. When Jill goes for a glass of milk, the lights suddenly go out and she goes back to her bedroom. The closet door opens a little, the phone line is dead, and she hears Duncan's voice, at which point she tries to awaken Stephen...only to realize that the man lying next to her is actually Duncan. He chases her around the room and tries to strangle her, but Clifford arrives and shoots him dead. Stephen is revealed to be in the closet, unconscious but alive. As Clifford comforts Jill, the last view is of the house, superimposed to the frightening eyes of Curt Duncan.



When a Stranger Calls is an expanded remake of Fred Walton's $12,000 short film for Columbia Pictures, The Sitter, which comprised the first 20 minutes of this film.[1] Walton was inspired to turn the short into a feature-length film after the considerable success of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).[citation needed]

The film marked Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Donald Peterman's feature film debut as director of photography.[3] Principal photography took place on June 1978 and ended on August 1978. The film's production took place in California, with 2722 Club Dr., Los Angeles, California, USA, being used as the filming location for the Lockart house. Brentwood and Sacramento were also used as filming locations.[citation needed]

Exterior shots for the tavern where Duncan and Tracy meet were those of the "Torchy's" bar in 218 and a half W. Fifth Street in Downtown Los Angeles CA 90012. This is the same bar that served as filming location for the redneck bar in 48 Hrs. and for Brewster's Millions.[4]

Tony Beckley, who plays Curt Duncan, was terminally ill throughout production. Because of this, he did not at all fit the description of the killer, but Fred Walton refused to replace him. Beckley died in April 1980, six months after the film's premiere.[5] 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.[6][7]

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 33% based on 14 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 5.2/10.[8] 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".[9]

Roger Ebert described the film as "sleazy" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.[10]

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."[11] 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."[12] 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.[12]


The Classification and Rating Administration had originally voted unanimously for a PG rating (5 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.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b It's a Scream for Three Unknowns: UNKNOWNS Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, California], October 26, 1979: 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. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "Tony Beckley, Starred In 'Stranger Calls' Film, is Dead". The New York Times. NYTimes Co. 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.
  6. ^ "When a Stranger Calls and Happy Birthday to Me". blu-ray.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  7. ^ "When a Stranger Calls". bvhscollector.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  8. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Flixer. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  9. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979) Reviews - Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  10. ^ Classics from the Vault: Women in Danger (1980). At the Movies. 1980 – via Ebertpresents.com.
  11. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 12, 1979). "Screen: A Killer Returns in 'When a Stranger Calls'". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  12. ^ 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 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.open access
  13. ^ Heffner, Richard (1979). "Oral History: transcript volume 10 - 1979". Missing or empty |url= (help)

External links[edit]