When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979)

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When a Stranger Calls is nearly a good film. The filmmaking is remarkably strong, and the editing especially is used to create an incredibly eerie tension that sinks deep into your skin, invoking fear and paranoia. Fred Walton’s filmmaking, however, was let down by a very poor script. Though successfully rendered, the film’s opening sequence is incredibly derivative of Black Christmas especially, using similar motifs, revelations and even sound editing in order to get under the audience’s skin. This is not inherently a bad thing, it does however, become an issue when the rest of the film buckle’s under the over-ambition of the narrative. The opening sequence is all but twenty minutes of the film, it’s tense, to the point and it gets under your skin, but suddenly… the tone shifts and everything is turned on it’s head.

The middle sequence is troubling, and though it ushers in an almost fantastic finale… it is still middling. What were the writers thinking? Though occassionally abandoning your protagonist can be successful, especially in horror (I’m looking at you Psycho), it does not work here. It’s really the anonimity of the killer that makes the intro so frightening, and as talented as Curt Duncan may be, our sympathy for him is never allowed to grow… perhaps because his crime is so alienating, or perhaps because that is never the intention. But if it isn’t, then what is the purpose of this plot-turn around? I don’t know…

This middle part, also reveals somewhat cruel casting, as it pits (again, the talented) Charles Durning, in the role of the detective in search of this crazy person. It’s cruel because he is a very fat man, and must do a lot of running. Not just running in a straight line on an 180 degree surface, but up and down flights of stairs, down busy streets and through narrow hallways while food is pummelled at him (one almost expects this sequence to become an homage to the children’s game Hungry, Hungry Hippos… oh how delicious that would be!).

I will say though, even during this narrative headache, the editing remains strong. The film is not necessarily built on it’s strong visual flair, but there is a powerful consistency in the editing and general composition of the shots. I can’t deny holding my breath during brief sequences, or even gasping with genuine shock at some false-jump scares. The film ends on a strange foot, perhaps because the lead in is so absurd… but there is something so delicate and appealing about Carol Kane, that she grounds the horror and paranoia beautifully. The film is worth recommending, though mildly… I can’t really imagine how good it could have been if it were done properly, well I can… it’s one of my favourite horror films, Black Christmas.

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