When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Rating 3½

Directed by Fred Walton

Written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton

Starring Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Tony Beckley, Colleen Dewhurst, Ron O’Neal and Rachel Roberts

When Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) receives threatening telephone calls while babysitting she calls the police, but they are slow to react, and the caller, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), is already in the house. By the time the police arrive on the scene, he has brutally murdered the two small children. Seven years later, Duncan escapes from the psychiatric hospital where he has been held, and John Clifford (Charles Durning), the original arresting officer, now an aging and disillusioned private detective, takes on the job of hunting him down.

The 2006 remake took the opening scenes and stretched them out beyond breaking point to create a less than convincing horror film, made even more pointless because Wes Craven had already paid homage to those opening scenes in his 1996 film ‘Scream’. The original is not a horror film; it is a low-key thriller, much of it filmed at night in semi-darkness, occupying the underbelly of an American urban landscape.

The story moves along at a much slower pace than is common now, very typical of 1970s American cinema. It has an almost melancholy feel, and the portrayal of the psychotic Curt Duncan is interesting, because it humanises him. Tony Beckley is very effective in this role, in what proved to be his last acting performance before his death at the age of 52. The ever-reliable Charles Durning is also worthy of note.

‘When A Stranger Calls’ is not a classic, but it is a very good film and it puts the remake to shame.

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