Quiet town. Deserted street. Dark house. Lonely baby-sitter. Sleeping children. Sudden telephone rings. Ominous voice. Unhelpful police. Isolation. Frightened baby-sitter. Walk up stairs. Long silence. Sudden scream.
By now these ingredients in the suspense-movie formula have become so familiar, you could find them on the final exam of the Film 101 course at Hollywood High. Funny thing is, they always work. Fear of the unknown is so strong that almost any theatre full of movie nuts will respond on cue, as if to a collective goosing, at the climax of a scare sequence like this. But for any self-respecting film-maker, there must be something added to the brew: some emotional resonance, as in Hitchcock’s Psycho, some dazzling technical facility, as in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or a touch of grotesque humor, as in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
In When a Stranger Calls, Fred Walton has tried something really different. After the opening alone-with-amadman sequence, he introduces a new tone, new characters, a new setting— practically a new movie, in which the murderer comes back seven years later to terrorize the grown-up baby-sitter, a mother herself. Carol Kane, who looks like a Raggedy Ann doll gone berserk, offers her standard portrait of the frizzy-brained madonna of the ’70s. And Charles Durning, Rachel Roberts and Tony Beckley are among several actors who should know better than to bestow their classy presence on such shopworn schlock.
Walton expanded this first feature from a 20-minute film-school exercise; George Lucas did the same thing a dozen years ago for his project THX1138. All similarities end there. When a Stranger Calls does not herald a major film-making talent—it’s just another textbook experiment in terror. You will jump, though. Richard Corliss
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