We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house!
What should have been an easy night of babysitting for teenager Jill (Carol Kane) becomes utterly horrifying when she’s threatened by a psychopath over the phone who just so happens to be calling from the children’s bedroom. Unfortunately for the parents of the children, they’ve seen the last of their kids; the mentally-unstable prowler butchers the children and leaves Jill a traumatized, emotional wreck. The killer is apprehended and placed in a mental institution but escapes seven years later, so a determined cop named John (Charles Durning) makes it his number one priority to catch this scumbag before he hurts anyone else.
Not only is the identity of the stalker revealed, but he actually becomes a focal point of the film very early on and throughout. One could argue that the accessibility of the stalker kills the mystique and thus makes the villain less frightening, but the revelation ultimately makes sense. Actor Tony Beckley plays “Curt Duncan” with a disturbing amount of believability, resulting in an equal parts creepy and pathetic antagonist who will make your skin crawl. Before attempting to reunite with a now grown-up and married Jill, which would bring the story full circle, he sets his sights on a rough-looking woman he meets at a bar and proceeds to court her by following her around and showing up unannounced at her apartment, proving to be just as socially incompetent as he is disturbed.
Speaking of Duncan, the film makes two things about him perfectly clear: he has bad taste in women and he’s one of the most determined individuals out there. Regarding his taste, let’s face it, Carol Kane doesn’t exactly ooze with sex appeal, and neither does the older woman he tries to pick up at the bar. And, you’d think he’d lose interest in Jill after spending years in a mental institution, but unfortunately for her it’s not the case; he apparently thrives on making her life a living hell for whatever reason.
Actress Carol Kane seems to be the name and face most associated with this film, but she doesn’t play as huge a part as you’d think. This is the Charles Durning show. Not only is he a great detective with masterful dart-throwing skills, but he apparently has great stamina for a man of his size. There’s a great foot-chase scene involving Durning’s character and Duncan towards the end of the film in which Durning, with ease, bursts through a set of doors like the Kool-Aid man. In the same chase scene, we also get a double fall down the stairs in which two flailing bodies go tumbling down a series of unforgiving steps, which is comedic if you think of it as a race to see who gets to the bottom first: Duncan or the innocent bystander who got shoved.
When a Stranger Calls is a film that has more or less reached an iconic status in the pantheon of horror, not entirely due to the credit of the film itself, but because of movies like Scream referencing it and also because of the simple fact that it has the potential to hit a little too close to home for some people (no pun intended). Not to discredit the movie or anything, but at the end of the day its effectiveness lies in the fact that it addresses a very plausible threat. There are vulnerable, defenseless young women all over the world who occasionally find themselves alone for whatever reason, and while it’s pretty unlikely in most cases, there’s always a possibility that there’s an unwelcome guest in their home who watches them and waits for the right opportunity to strike. As a film, When a Stranger Calls is quite good and arguably essential, but certainly not a masterpiece by any means. For a film that should drag, it actually breezes by at a nice pace, and Durning provides a great performance to boot.