After the success of Halloween, he set his sights on turning the short into a feature length film, cashing in on the then fresh, but quickly escalating, “lonely babysitter being pursued by a psychopathic stalker” sub-genre. The outcome was a terrifying 20-minute opening sequence (the original short, based on the phone call came from within the house urban legend), followed by a drab 67 minutes of filler called When a Stranger Calls.
Fast-forward 24 years to the made-for-TV (and far superior) sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back.
It begins in the tradition of the original film, where an isolated babysitter named Julia (scream queen Jill Schoelen, The Stepfather, 1987) is being harassed by a stranger through her employers’ front door. In what unfolds to a truly horrific experience, Julia lives through the incident, but is scarred for life.
A few years later, Julia is enrolled in college, but knows that the stranger has been frequenting her apartment, playing games by infiltrating her home and moving objects while Julia is absent or sleeping.
After seeking help from the police, who merely laugh at the idea, Jill and John (Carol Kane and Charles Durning reprising their roles from the first film) come to Julia’s aid to catch the stranger and help her nightmare end. The pursuit eventually unfolds into one paralyzing moment after another, and it all leads up to one of the strangest and most realistically terrifying scenes ever put to film.
When a Stranger Calls Back is an atmospheric film through it’s use of lighting and camera techniques. It sets the scene and makes viewers feel very uncomfortable through long shots and plenty of dark spaces throughout.
The disturbing realism is reminiscent of other psychological thrillers that swept through the early 90s, unfortunately leaving this one over-shadowed. Films like The Silence of the Lambs, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Cape Fear and so on, but When a Stranger Calls Back deserves to be a top contender amongst them all.
It is one of the few films that has a realistically haunting climax that has stuck in my head since first viewing over twenty years ago. I was lucky enough to find this film in one of the last remaining video stores’ VHS bins to re-live it recently, and it’s undoubtedly the same copy I rented way back when.
~ Matthew McPhee