When a Stranger Calls (1979 film)

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When a Stranger Calls
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Fred Walton
Produced by Doug Chapin
Steve Feke
Written by Steve Feke
Fred Walton
Starring Charles Durning
Carol Kane
Colleen Dewhurst
Tony Beckley
Music by Dana Kaproff
Cinematography Donald Peterman
Edited by Sam Vitale
Columbia Pictures
Corporation Melvin Simon Productions
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • October 26, 1979 (1979-10-26)
  • October 17, 1980 (1980-10-17)
Running time
97 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.5 million[1]
Box office $20,149,106
$1,262,052 (1980 re-release) [2]

When a Stranger Calls (released in the UK as When a Stranger Rings) is a 1979 psychological horror film. It was directed by Fred Walton and stars 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 the years because of the film's opening 20 minutes which are consistently regarded as one of the scariest opening in horror movie history. The film's opening sequence was largely 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. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) 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, only to find out 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. She immediately runs to the front door to scream for help.

Afterwards, Officer John Clifford (Charles Durning) investigates the matter. It turns out that the children were murdered by the perp several hours earlier. 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, still psychopathic. 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 gets into a fight and is beaten after disturbing a middle-aged woman, Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), in a tavern, and later follows her to her apartment. As Tracy takes her keys out to open her apartment door Duncan magically materializes in a state of masterfully concealed hostility that is in itself a most remarkable performance for his character. Feeling sorry for his disastrous appearance and for the fact that his attempts at conversation with her started the fight in the first place, Tracy makes light conversation with him. While they are in the doorway talking, Tracy's phone rings. Perhaps egotistically, Tracy flings the door wide open when she answers the phone unaware that she is in any danger and allows Duncan to pick up the slack from their earlier encounter and Duncan lets himself into her apartment. Tracy does not tell him to leave right away nor does she explicitly rebuff his awkward proposal to visit her for coffee the next night, assuming or hoping it will be the last of him she will see.

Tracy asks 'Where are you from?' followed by a pause from Duncan as the phone rings. He then replies 'I'm from New York actually.'

There is a sense of Old San Francisco: a location for the film is Los Angeles.

Tracy had an attitude of some inconsiderate flow with regard to Duncan's advances on her at the tavern. This was similarly viewed as infuriating to an impartial male patron who unleashes his fists onto an indignant and unsuspecting Duncan. Duncan's butchered bar room beating is responsible for his momentary drop of Tracy when she claims a friend is on the way. Duncan sidles out the door with deliberate ease. Tracy follows and 'locks-up' behind him. The sound of an elevator arrives and the door knob twists back and forth as Duncan regains his predatory instinct and attempts to force an entry.

Meanwhile, an increasingly obsessed and vindictive Clifford, having confided to a former partner (Ron O'Neal) that his intention is to kill Duncan rather than arrest him, follows the trail to the tavern where the fight took place, then to Tracy's residence—the same night Duncan is likely to arrive for his visit. Clifford goes there and tells Tracy just how dangerous her situation has become, revealing that Duncan literally tore and hacked up Mandrakis' children with his bare hands, rendering them virtually unrecognizable. Tracy reluctantly accepts to be Clifford's bait at the tavern that evening, but Duncan does not arrive and she decides to return home. Clifford then leaves Tracy's place, but she is then attacked by Duncan, who was hiding in her closet. Tracy screams for help, and Clifford returns and chases Duncan away from the scene. In the streets of downtown Los Angeles, he loses Duncan's trail.

Jill Johnson is now an adult, married with two young children (Sara Damman and Richard Bail). One night, she and her husband Stephen (Steven Anderson) go out to dinner in celebration of a promotion, and a friend named Sharon (Lenora May) babysits her children. At the restaurant, Jill gets a telephone call from someone asking, "Have you checked the children?" Jill panics and calls Sharon. It appears that nothing is wrong at first, but then the call is suddenly disconnected. The police arrive and escort Jill back home and finds that everything was fine. Clifford tries to call Jill, but finds that the line was disconnected. Jill and Stephen sleep. Later, Jill goes down for a glass of milk, when the lights go out. She goes back upstairs and gets in bed once again. She picks up the phone and realizes the phone line is dead. The closet door opens a little, and she hears the voice of Curt Duncan. She tries to awaken Stephen, who turns around, revealing that Curt is actually in the bed. He rips Jill's nightgown and chases her around the room. Clifford arrives and shoots Curt, killing him. Stephen is revealed to be in the closet, alive but seemingly unconscious. As Clifford comforts Jill, the last view is of the house, in view of the frightening eyes of Curt Duncan.



When a Stranger Calls is essentially 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). The premise of the police calling and telling the girl the killer is inside the house is taken directly from the 1974 horror classic Black Christmas.

The film marked Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Donald Peterman's feature film debut as director of photography.[3]

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 soon after he finished filming his scenes. The 1993 sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, was dedicated to his memory.


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, Los Angeles and Sacramento were also used as filming locations.


The film had it's theatrical release on October 26, 1979. The film later had a re-release on October 17, 1980. 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.

Home Media[edit]

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. [4][5]


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 it's $1.5 million budget.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received mixed reviews from critics. On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 36% approval rate based on 10 reviews, giving it a "rotten" certification.[6]

However, the opening 22–23 minutes of the movie are largely considered the reason for the movie's cult status, and consistently regarded as one of the scariest scenes in horror cinema.[citation needed]

Negative reviews of the film cited the decline in quality following those first 20 minutes, owing to a lack of suspense and the plot development slowing down considerably. Some critics also noted that Tony Beckley looked far too physically frail to be believable as a killer who could rip children apart with his bare hands. Roger Ebert described the movie as "sleazy" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.[7]

The film has since developed a cult following. The opening sequence was ranked number 28 on TV channel Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments program in 2004.

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. [5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b It's a Scream for Three Unknowns: UNKNOWNS Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 26 Oct 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". latimes.com. 22 February 2011. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  4. ^ "When a Stranger Calls and Happy Birthday to Me". blu-ray.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015. 
  5. ^ "When a Stranger Calls". bvhscollector.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015. 
  6. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  7. ^ http://www.ebertpresents.com/movies/halloween/videos/268#ooid=92bmNyMjpQy8gFxO2bZLr-LDZFLxW6UI

5. Richard Heffner Oral History: transcript volume 10 - 1979

External links[edit]