When a Stranger Calls (1979 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
When a Stranger Calls
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Walton
Written by
  • Steve Feke
  • Fred Walton
Produced by
  • Doug Chapin
  • Steve Feke
CinematographyDonald Peterman
Edited bySam Vitale
Music byDana Kaproff
Distributed byColumbia Pictures (United States)
Embassy Pictures
Release date
  • September 28, 1979 (1979-09-28)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.5 million[2][1]
Box office$21.4 million[3]

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 film history.[4] The first 12 minutes of Wes Craven's Scream (1996) is an homage to the opening of When a Stranger Calls.

The film was released in the United States on September 28, 1979, by Columbia Pictures. It was commercially successful, grossing $20 million 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 is babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis 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 call as a practical joke. However, he calls again and again, the calls increasing in frequency and threat level, and Jill becomes frightened. She calls the police, who tell her to keep the perpetrator on the line long enough for them to trace the call. Jill receives one final call from her harasser. Immediately after the conversation, the police phone to inform her that the calls are coming from a line located somewhere inside the house. Jill sees the intruder's shadow. Unbeknownst to her, an English merchant seaman named Curt Duncan killed the children shortly after Jill arrived. He leaves Jill unharmed and, after his trial, is sent to a psychiatric facility.

Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the psychiatric facility. Dr. Mandrakis hires John Clifford, who investigated the earlier murders but is now a private detective, to find Duncan. Not knowing Clifford is after him, the homeless Duncan is beaten after harassing a woman, Tracy, in a downtown bar. Duncan follows Tracy to her apartment and she takes pity on him. She tries to be nice to him while getting him to leave, hoping this will be the last she sees of him.

Meanwhile, an increasingly obsessed Clifford confides to his friend Lieutenant Garber his intention to kill Duncan rather than have him recommitted. Garber, who was also present at the Mandrakis crime scene, agrees to collaborate. Clifford tracks Duncan to Tracy's residence. He tells Tracy that Duncan literally tore the Mandrakis children apart with his bare hands and Tracy reluctantly agrees to act as bait at the bar that evening in an effort to draw Duncan out. Duncan never appears. After Clifford leaves, however, Duncan comes out of hiding from inside Tracy’s closet. Tracy screams for help and Clifford returns, chasing Duncan from the scene but losing his trail in the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Jill is now married with two young children. One night, she and her husband Stephen go to dinner to celebrate his promotion while their children are babysat by Sharon. While at the restaurant, Jill gets a telephone call and hears Duncan's voice asking again: "Have you checked the children?" The police escort Jill back home to discover that everything there is fine.

Upon hearing about the incident, Garber alerts Clifford. Clifford tries to call Jill, but finds that the line is dead in an eerie parallel to Jill's original stalking. Later that night, Jill hears Duncan's voice as the closet door appears to open. She tries to awaken her husband only to realize that the man lying next to her is the intruder. He chases Jill across the room and attempts to kill her, but Clifford arrives in time to shoot Duncan in the chest, killing him. Stephen is found in the closet, unconscious but alive. Their children are safe.


In addition, Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda appear as Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis, parents of the children murdered early in the film.



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.[2]


The film marked cinematographer Donald Peterman's feature film debut as director of photography.[5] 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 Drive, Los Angeles, California. Both houses have since been torn down.

The downtown bar where Duncan and Tracy meet was "Torchy's" at 21812 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 the 1985 version of Brewster's Millions.[6]

Tony Beckley, who played Curt Duncan, died in April 1980, six months after the film's premiere.[7] The 1993 sequel When a Stranger Calls Back was dedicated to his memory.[citation needed]


The film opened on September 28, 1979,[1] and 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]

Home media[edit]

The film was released on VHS 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 (1981) on March 26, 2013. Neither film contains any special features on the disc.[8][9]

The film was eventually released as a stand-alone on Blu-ray on February 11, 2020 by Mill Creek Entertainment with packaging designed to look like a VHS.[10]

In the United Kingdom, 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.[11]

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


Box office[edit]

The film had a gross of $482,969 from pre-release engagements. It expanded to 468 theaters and grossed $2,597,032 in its opening four days.[12] It placed second on Variety's weekly box office chart for the week ended October 3, 1979 and moved up to number one in its third week of release.[13][14] It went on to gross $20,149,106 during its initial theatrical run in the United States and Canada. 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.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 41% based on 17 reviews, with an average rating of 5.21/10.[15] On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on seven critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[16]

Roger Ebert described the film as "sleazy" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.[17] In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote "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."[18] 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."[19] 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.[19]


The Classification and Rating Administration 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 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.[20][full citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c When a Stranger Calls at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b "It's a Scream for Three Unknowns: UNKNOWNS". Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1979: p. G23.
  3. ^ a b "When a Stranger Calls (1979)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
  4. ^ "The Most Horrifying Opening Scenes (You Should Totally See!)". August 2019.
  5. ^ "PASSINGS: Perry Moore, Don Peterman, Nancy Carr". Los Angeles Times. February 22, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  6. ^ "48 HRS (1982) Movie Filming Locations - the 80s Movies Rewind".
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ "When a Stranger Calls / Happy Birthday to Me Blu-ray (Double Feature)".
  9. ^ "When a Stranger Calls". bvhscollector.com. Retrieved November 15, 2015.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ "When a Stranger Calls Blu-ray".
  11. ^ "When a Stranger Calls Blu-ray (Includes when a Stranger Calls Back and the Sitter) (United Kingdom)".
  12. ^ "'Call' Rings Up $3-Mil". Variety. October 10, 1979. p. 7.
  13. ^ "50 Top-Grossing Films". Variety. October 10, 1979. p. 9.
  14. ^ "50 Top-Grossing Films". Variety. October 24, 1979. p. 13.
  15. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  16. ^ "When a Stranger Calls (1979) Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  17. ^ Classics from the Vault: Women in Danger (1980). At the Movies. 1980. Archived from the original on 2011-10-12. Retrieved 2013-02-14 – via Ebertpresents.com.
  18. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 12, 1979). "Screen: A Killer Returns in 'When a Stranger Calls'". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ Heffner, Richard (1979). "Oral History: transcript volume 10 - 1979". {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |url= (help)

External links[edit]