There's this urban legend chestnut about a babysitter getting menacing phone calls from an escaped lunatic or hook handed psycho or drug-addled sociopath or whatever you like. The caller tells her to "check on the kids." And if you've grown up in the United States you know the rest. It's the punch line that matters and it's always, the killer's in the house! He's calling from upstairs! And it's usually followed - around campfires - by screams.
The story is about as old as babysitting and it is always scary, even in it's countless variations. Today, with the advent of cell phones and the internet it's taken on new life in the innumerable post-post-modern slasher films of the last decade.
But, boys and girls, here is where the whole shebang started.
1979's When a Stranger Calls has an odd pedigree. The film was originally a short titled The Sitter. It was a scary, well-adapted nugget of urban legend terror. Ah, but the forces of unbridled capitalism demanded more, more, more. So, director Fred Walton shot a bunch of other stuff to pad out his short film, which now comprises the first 15 minutes and the last few minutes of the 97-minute running time. So what about the new stuff? Well, it's unnecessary.
Carol Kane (The Pacifier) stars as Jill Johnson, the babysitter who is terrorized by a maniac (Tony Beckley) in the first tense and very frightening minutes of the film. We flash forward, regrettably, seven years, to the killer's escape from prison and his renewed campaign of terror. Johnson, her hubbie and kids are at the receiving end. But a detective named Clifford, Charles Durning (The Final Countdown), is hot on the psycho's tail.
The acting is uniformly decent, with Beckley at the top of his game. This was, sadly, his last feature film, and he left quite a catalog of memorable performances, from Get Carter to Revenge of The Pink Panther. Director Walton's subsequent films have either been retreads or out and out remakes. Writer Steve Feke graced the screen with such monster turds as Poltergeist III and Mac and Me and the execrably titled Walton collaboration, When a Stranger Calls Back that, like this one, is great for the first 20 or so minutes and then just falls flat.
Honestly, the opening minutes of When a Stranger Calls are incredible. Walton has this thing wrapped tight and edgy and he soaks it for every agonizing second. It's a shame that padding the film out to feature length dilutes the terror so efficiently. It's funny that this is a film that teenagers have been daring each other to stay up late and watch with the lights out since the early '80s. I dare you to try sitting through the middle 70 minutes.