Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is a teenage babysitter who arrives at the home of the Mandrakises to look after their two children for the evening. Mrs Mandrakis tells her that they have been getting over colds, so just to let them sleep and try not to wake them, and Jill bids them goodbye and settles down to attend to her homework. As the night draws on, she calls her friend for a chat, but after she puts the phone down it rings; on picking up, she hears one sentence spoken: "Have you checked the children?" - then the caller hangs up. Jill doesn't know it yet, but she is in big trouble...
One of those horror movies or thrillers based upon urban myths, When a Stranger Calls started life as director Fred Walton's short film The Sitter, which after the success of Halloween he opted to expand to feature length. What he ended up with was a minor hit thanks to the potency of that opening twenty minutes or so, which was related with the skill of a hushed tale around the campfire. Of course, now that story is so well known that much of the suspense has been lessened, especially as the remake from 2006 is better known and more widely seen than this lower budget, and far less slick effort.
That remake chose to dispense with what many at the time of the original thought was its weakest element, and that was what occurs after the first act. As will come as no surprise, Jill was being menaced by a psychopath, and after he has been caught and put away, we jump seven years into the present where he has escaped from his mental hospital incarceration. Here he is introduced as more than a voice on the phone, and is played by the British character actor Tony Beckley, who was gravely ill during filming and indeed died shortly after his scenes were completed. It's a credit to him that this performance may be what he is best recalled for, as his obvious ill-health brought an unnerving desperation to his reading of the role.
But sad to say, in spite of Walton's best efforts, it was obvious that he did not have the material to match that opening, and the tension notably dissipates during the run up to the climax. Partly that's due to the plot turning into a character study, a very seventies approach that doesn't quite come off, no matter how much sympathy Beckley tried to generate for his villain. We follow Duncan as he begs for money, lives on the streets, and chats up, then stalks, Colleen Dewhurst in a seedy bar - the whole middle section is pretty seedy, really, and lends a moody atmosphere to private detective Charles Durning tracking of his quarry.
Durning's Clifford was the policeman who oversaw the Duncan case, and you may be reminded of choice episodes of Cannon in the sequences where the decidedly portly star runs and barges his way through foot chases. You may be wondering where this is all heading by the halfway mark, but Walton did have a fitting finale in mind, it's just that again, it didn't quite match up to the archetypal quality of the urban legend that provided his inspiration, and for all his delving into the mind of a psychopath, how ever well meaning that was, the fact remains that people don't watch this kind of chiller for deep examinations of the bad guys. No, they simply wanted to be on the edge of their seat, but to be fair the film does work up a clever reveal for its last twenty minutes - two, if you count the part on the bed. When Jill receives the phone call at the restaurant, it's a fine moment, but the rest is much as you'd expect. Music by Dana Kaproff.