Written by: Fred Walton (screenplay), Steve Feke (characters)
Directed by: Fred Walton
Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, and Jill Schoelen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Someone has been in my apartment and they've done things, little things, to let me know that he's there."
Can a sequel act as penance for its predecessor? That’s something that always crosses my mind with When a Stranger Calls Back, Fred Walton’s direct-to-Showtime follow-up to his original 1979…classic? I’m not sure if that’s the right word since When a Stranger Calls occupies a strange space: its opening sequence is an iconic masterclass in suspense filmmaking, but the rest of it is easily forgettable wheel-spinning that seems to forget what type of movie it’s supposed to be. It’s fine but ultimately kind of unremarkable, which is what makes the sequel—which arrived 14 years later—an interesting sort of do-over, at least at first glance. Where the first film is a weird, meandering effort that only features Carol Kane (for all intents and purposes its star protagonist) during its bookends, the sequel is at least better-focused in this regard.
It opens on a similar scene, as young babysitter Julia Jenz (Jill Schoelen) has an unnerving encounter when a man arrives at her door, insisting that he has car trouble and needs to use the house phone. Skeptical, she does everything she can—including lying outright (not that I blame her)—to rid herself of the guy. None of it works. Before long, he’s back at her door, knocking and trying to worm his way inside. She’s steadfast until he asks her when she last checked on the children, prompting her to frantically rush upstairs, where she discovers two empty beds. Her attempt to leave the house ends with the discovery that her tormenter—or perhaps an accomplice—has somehow broken in. However, the police have also arrived, albeit too late: the children have been abducted with no sign of the man who harassed Julia all night.
She is, of course, left devastated by the ordeal, which continues to haunt her five years later as a college student. Despite taking an abundance of precaution with her own apartment, she’s convinced that someone—perhaps the same man from five years earlier—is somehow entering her apartment and stalking her. Her report to the police attracts the attention of campus counselor Jill Johnson (Kane), whose own horrific babysitting experience makes her uniquely qualified to help Julia. After enlisting the help of John Clifford (Charles Durning, also reprising his role from the original), Jill commits to protecting Julia, perhaps as an act of redemption for her own ordeal.
You may recall that Durning actually emerges as the star of When a Stranger Calls, almost out of default during that bizarre second act that finds escaped psychopath Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) stalking a completely different woman altogether until he happens to stumble upon Jill’s neighborhood in the third act. It’s an odd structure that diffuses the tension: that opening act thrives on mystery that quickly deflates once you begin to hover closely around Duncan’s exploits. Any right-minded person would probably assume that the rest of the film should probably feature him finishing what he started and exploring how the incident traumatized Jill; instead, Walton has him doing a whole lot of wandering until he figures maybe it’d make sense to come back around to the original story he was telling.
If nothing else, When a Stranger Calls Back doesn’t have this problem. It’s perhaps what the original should have been: a sobering exploration of surviving trauma, specifically form a female perspective. Early scenes where Julia has to face down questions from skeptical cops eager to dismiss her fears are powerful reminders of the institutionalized biases women face when authorities can just write them off as hysterical. The bond that forms between Julia and Jill makes for a solid, compelling foundation for the film, especially since Walton isn’t in a rush to just stage a stalk-and-slash movie. This is another slow burn looking to emphasize suspense and character development in lieu of violence. It’s a movie that attempts to subtly unnerve the audience through the suggestion that Julia’s stalker has returned without leaving much hard evidence.
The approach isn’t without its issues this time around as well, though. Like its predecessor, Calls Back is admirable in its calculated, atmospheric manner but falls a bit flat too. Long stretches of the film leave you waiting for something substantial to happen, and the principal players just aren’t quite up to the task of keeping things interested—mostly because they simply don’t have anything interesting to do. Julia and Jill’s relationship takes a sharp turn with a mid-movie development that takes the former out of the equation completely, leaving Kane and Durning to pick up a pretty slack narrative that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
To its credit, the sequel presents a better mystery than the original; rather than intimately dwell on Julia’s stalker, the script keeps him in the shadows (quite literally) for much of the runtime. It’s not until Clifford starts to uncover some clues—starting with his hunch that he’s dealing with a ventriloquist—that we actually see Gene Lythgow as the mysterious stalker. The script affords him one outrageous, starling freak out to break up the monotony before he’s back to unnervingly lurking in the background, quietly creeping along until the big climax, where he infiltrates Jill’s apartment wearing absurd camouflage. He might be the only villain in movie history who’s both a ventriloquist and a ninja.
That sounds silly, but When a Stranger Calls Back is fairly serious, and sometimes even downright grim. Furthermore, absurd camouflage aside, the climax is one of the few scenes here that recaptures those unnerving moments that made the original—or at least its first 20 minutes—so memorable. Obviously, this film’s opening aims to do the same with its own prologue and pulls it off fairly well: it’s not as striking or as indelible as the original’s, but it preys upon the same primal fear of being alone in an eerily still house in the dead of night, only to discover you’re not alone after all. Home invasion might be the most primal terror, as it strikes us in our safest space, often when we’re at our most vulnerable. Likewise, this film’s best scene—which features Julia’s stalker emerging from the inky darkness of her hospital room, completely undetected—is an even more disturbing reminder of how potently grim this duo of films can be when they’re at their best.
I find those moments to be a bit too fleeting, personally. While this sequel is more consistently engaging, it doesn’t quite reach the unsettling heights of the first movie; in both cases, you’re dealing with movies that surround handfuls of terrific scenes with dull police procedurals. It makes for a strange legacy: without a doubt, the original at least feels like required, essential viewing, even if most of it is just a humdrum affair following that memorable prologue. Somehow, that opening 20 minutes—which were inspired by Walton’s short film “The Sitter”—inspired an entire franchise of sorts, complete with this decent sequel and a pretty forgettable remake. We’ve seen short films stretched into feature films, but this feels like a bridge too far, as that killer premise became stretched too thin over the course of three movies.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, it’s the sequel that debuts on a decent Blu-ray release before the original, which briefly showed up on a bare-bones 2-pack with Happy Birthday to Me some years back. Scream Factory has done the honors here, and they’ve given us two choices of aspect ratios: the original 1:33 for TV and a 1.78 widescreen version. They’ve also produced a trio of new interviews with Walton (who reveals he once had an idea for a third film that never came to fruition), Kane, and Schoelen, plus included the original TV spot. Of most interest here, however, is the inclusion of “The Sitter” itself, allowing fans to glimpse how this improbably series started in the first place. It’s mostly a beat-for-beat, word-for-word mirror of the sequence from the first film, only with Lucia Strasler instead of Carol Kane, but it’s cool to see nonetheless.
Plus, again, you can’t help but marvel that the germ of this basic but evocative idea spawned three movies and helped this title to etch itself and its immortal phrase (“have you checked the children?”) into public consciousness forever. The sequel is perhaps a little bit more forgotten, but this release is a good reminder that it’s more or less as solid as the original, even if it doesn’t completely succeed as a do-over since it shares many of the same flaws. Hopefully nobody gets any wild ideas about a Blu-ray release doing the same for the actual do-over, though.
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