When A Stranger Calls (1979)
Steve Feke and Fred Walton
Adapted from folk legend “The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs”
Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley
Budget $1.5M Box Office $21.4M
IMDb 6.5/10 Rotten Tomatoes 33% Metacritic 58/100
I initially saw the sequel to this movie a long time ago. It was a made for TV movie that came out in 1993 called When A Stranger Calls Back. The memory of the chilling content of that movie is what pushed me to want to see this movie, both the remake, which I already reviewed HERE and this version, the original from 1979, which I am going to address in this post.
I found out some interesting things while researching this film for review. This film is based on an urban legend widely told in the 1970s. It was spun from a classic folklore story, “The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs”. It is a story about a babysitter that is called repeatedly through the evening by an unknown callers. He tells her over and over to check the children upstairs. When she calls the police they tell her they will trace the next call. Once they do, they call her back and tell her the calls are coming from inside the house on an upstairs line and to get out immediately. As with most urban legends, this story spawned from an actual crime that happened in the 1950s.
One of the articles about Ms. Christman's untimely death. (Note: The gentleman mentioned at the end of the above article was not only not part of the attack on Ms. Christman in any way but, he was later found to be exonerated of the crimes mentioned above and found to have been savagely beaten and coerced by police officials during interrogation.)
In March of 1950, at around 7:30pm on a dreary typical day, thirteen-year-old Janett Christman went to the Romack’s quiet secluded house just outside Columbia, MO to babysit Ed and Anne Romack’s three-year-old son while the two went for a well needed night out. The Romack’s had just recently moved to the isolated rural area and being well aware of this, Ed showed Janett his shotgun, how to load and unload it and how to fire it before they left her that night. He instructed her to keep the shotgun near the front door. He told her to keep the doors and windows locked and to turn on the front porch light if anyone came to the door.
The weather that night in late March was crummy and as the night went on, mere nasty rain turned into more of a thunderstorm bringing with it sleet and below freezing temperatures. Everything was fine in the Romack house until around 10:35pm.
The Romack’s had gone to play cards with their friends, The Muellers, at another mutual friend’s house. The Romacks were there all evening long until approximately 1:15am, when they left to head home. Anne Romack had called home around 10:45-11:00pm to check on how her son was doing but, she got no answer. Anne just assumed that young Janett had fallen asleep on the couch or perhaps one of the many family members subscribed to the multi-user party-line were using the phone at the time of her call. She brushed it off and continued her evening out with her husband until they went home to relieve the young babysitter.
At around 10:35pm, as mentioned before, things became unsettling at the Romack residence. A call was placed to the local police department where, upon answering, a young woman could be heard screaming in panic and hurling the words “Come quick!” Although the answering officer tried to get more information, the call was cut off and the line went to a dial tone before he could get an address to respond to. But, he knew the terror in the lady’s voice was real and anxiously awaited a follow-up call for the address on the call-out.
At around 1:35pm the Romack’s returned home to find their teen babysitter dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor, having been brutally murdered and violently raped. She had suffered a head wound from a blunt object, multiple stab/puncture wounds from a small cylindrical object and the perpetrator had cut a cord from an iron in the sewing room with a pair of scissors from the house and tightly wrapped it around Janett’s neck. The house phone was hanging off the hook, explaining why Anne was unable to get through and young Greg, the Romack’s three-year-old son, was upstairs asleep and unharmed. Apparently he had slept through the whole attack.
While there was a lot of circumstantial evidence for one suspect, a Mr. Robert Mueller, a close friend of the Romack’s and the only other family Janett babysat for (the Muellers), there was never a trial nor even charges brought against the man. Furthermore, the investigation was not only a tug of war between to departments looking for a collar, it was also so grossly mishandled that NO ONE would ever be able to get a conviction.
The case sits unsolved to this very day. And by now, all the files, evidence and reports are completely gone. It is said that nothing remains of this investigation or case except the rumors, the implications and assumptions.
In this movie a young teenager is babysitting for a couple. While she is there she begins to receive taunting phone calls from a stranger telling her to check on the two children upstairs. At first she blows it off but, after the calls persist she phones the police. They tell her to keep the caller on the line and they will trace the next call. The young sitter is terrorized on this night and it takes years for her to move beyond it. Unfortunately, the man who terrorized her escapes from the asylum where he was being treated and a private detective is determined to find him.
This film is widely acclaimed for its first twenty minutes as it is touted as one of the scariest openings in horror film history. If that doesn’t make you want to see this movie, nothing will. Beyond that, the rest of the film is pretty well made with a good deal of suspense. Carol Kane has the perfect eyes for a horror movie. It’s as if she’s naturally in that state of fright all the time, with those big wide eyes. In my opinion, this might be her best role (other than her role as the ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged, that is just hilarious). But, Kane gives an excellent terror factor when you are looking at the fact that this was made in 1979, one year after Carpenter came out with Halloween in such massive success with Jamie Lee Curtis.
In the 70s, horror was really just in the beginning stages of pushing the REAL envelope and trying the new things that paved the way for the horror we know today so, there wasn’t a whole lot of blood and gore like we might normally see now. That’s true with this film as well. However, the director does an excellent job with allowing what you DON’T see to be the thing that actually terrifies you, a creepy voice with no body or face. I would think that is more giving a nod to Spielberg and Jaws because he more or less did that in 1975, even though the shark not being in most of the film was purely unplanned. (Hey, it still worked out magnificently and if the shark had freakin’ worked, honestly, the movie probably would have sucked. There. I said it. Now you can hate me. If you don’t already. Still…moving on.)
I do love the nostalgia of this movie. I grew up when there were no cell phones. I remember my parents, my Dad especially, being all stoked because we got our first cordless phone with an answering machine built into the base station. Up until then we didn’t have anything called voicemail. There was no call-waiting. And there weren’t all these fancy ringtones. A phone just rang. There were three places a phone would usually be in a house. The kitchen, the bedroom, or the living room. The kitchen phone sometimes had a VERY LONG springy cord that allowed you to walk through many rooms of the house IF you didn’t mind knocking over a bunch of stuff, getting tangled in everything and having to unwind and untangle the cord later. But usually, there was one phone and it was in the kitchen. This meant that if you wanted to talk on the phone, everyone got to hear your conversation. Your parents heard it, your siblings heard it, friends if they were over, company if there were people over with your parents, everybody. There wasn’t privacy. Kids didn’t talk in private. Privacy was what you got when you got a job and got your own place. But, as usual, I get sidetracked.
The fun thing for me is the old school phone ringing. Back in the late 70s and in the 80s this definitely would have changed how I felt about hearing the phone ring when I was alone at night. They all sounded the same and it a quiet, dark house, it almost has an echoing kind of sound as the phone rings over and over, like it’s taunting you.
It’s easy to see why this film would have developed a cult following over the years. It is also understandable why it did so well at the box office. What I am having trouble with is the remake. How did they get to THAT when they had THIS and the original crime, which is just awful and horrifying, to start with???? It’s almost like they tried to make it bad. When they made the remake I think they did a serious disservice to this film. And I’m not biased because I saw the remake first. Most of the time you are slanted toward the film you see first. I will not be watching the remake again after seeing the original.
5/8/2019 05:25:49 pm
When a Stranger Calls is really one of the most underrated horror movies of all time. If you ask me, I would rank it as one of the top one hundred. Sure, one hundred is a lot, but it is little compared to all of the films in the same category. If you have not watched the film already, then I recommend that you do. It would not get you to cry in horror, but it would definitely provide some entertainment.
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