Cinematic history has taught us that babysitters don’t fare too well in horror movies. And Fred Walton’s 1979 film When a Stranger Calls may be why we think this way. You’ve heard the story before: a babysitter is watching over some kids in an unfamiliar home. After receiving a series of unsettling phone calls from a strange man, she’s informed by the police that her harasser has been inside the house with her all along. The babysitter is left unscathed, but for the rest of her life, she fears that the madman will one day find her and finish what he started.
It’s true that John Carpenter’s Halloween—another famous horror movie about a babysitter who is stalked by a killer—predates When a Stranger Calls by a year. In all fairness, Peter Collinson’s Fright beat them both to the punch in 1971. Walton, however, molded such a perfect opening scene that a number of horror films to follow would look to his debut as inspiration.
TRACING THE CALL
The first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls are basically a shot-for-shot remake of Walton’s 1977 short The Sitter. According to Adam Rockoff’s book Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, Fred and his college friend Steve Feck put the piece together for only $12,000. They eventually produced a feature-length adaptation that was distributed by Columbia Pictures. Walton directed the film, but he and Feck co-wrote the script together. The final product enjoyed a $21 million box office against a $1.5 million budget, and it’s been cited as influential for the slasher sub-genre ever since.
In spite of its relative success at the box office, When a Stranger Calls stayed a one-and-done film until April 4, 1993. Walton revisited the urban legend that made him famous in the sequel When a Stranger Calls Back. As with its predecessor, the story concerns a babysitter who is subjected to a night of terror by an unseen intruder. The victim this time, Julia (Jill Schoelen), is aided by a familiar face when she thinks her stalker has returned.
When a Stranger Calls Back quietly premiered on a Sunday night in the tail end of prime time. The Vancouver-shot telepic came and went on Showtime without much fuss, but critics like Variety‘s Tony Scott—who called the film a “good rattler”—helped the sequel secure some positive word-of-mouth. The film found its way to home video (VHS, Laserdisc, DVD) in the years to come, and sometimes you could catch it on basic cable, too. Regardless of its availability, the movie still remained undetected.
By 1993, Jill Schoelen was no novice when it came to horror; she had already starred in films like The Stepfather, The Phantom of the Opera, Cutting Class, and Popcorn. Yet at the time of casting, director Fred Walton didn’t think she was right for the part of Julia. He asked the casting director to cancel her audition, but it was too late. Although she went “against the type of [actor he] had in mind,” Walton changed his opinion upon watching Schoelen in action.
It would have been easy to make the sequel a standalone, but Walton connected it to the first film by having Carol Kane and Charles Durning reprise their roles. Kane, who played the babysitter Jill in When a Stranger Calls, was someone who Walton remembers as being “difficult” when shooting the original film. He realized that Kane was really only prepping for her scene—”in order to act upset, she had to be upset.” Durning, who passed away in 2012, was a decorated veteran turned actor. He had enjoyed almost two decades of acting before taking on the part of John Clifford, a grizzled detective and later private investigator.
Finally, with a new story came a new “stranger.” Julia‘s stalker was portrayed by Gene Lythgow, a newcomer who more than held his own in the presence of three established actors. That eerily soothing voice of his is disquieting and unforgettable.
“IT’S DARK, I CAN’T SEE, NO PHONE”
Stigmatized as “cheesy” or “trashy,” television-movies have a bad wrap. It should be mentioned, though, that in their early days, plenty of TV-movies were made as a response to topical issues that often went unnoticed by films on the big screen. According to Amanda Reyes’ book Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, urgent narratives about women were more likely to be shared through this medium as the target audience was predominantly female.
Another common complaint with TV-movies is how they look: cheap. Having worked in television more than film, Fred Walton mastered techniques that made his small screen pictures look better than something else airing on the same network. For When a Stranger Calls Back, the fuzzy video quality and muted colors all add to the overall moodiness. In the more frightening scenes, the positioning of shadows elevates one’s sense of uneasiness. The gritty, crime-thriller appearance of Walton’s anterior movie is nowhere to be found, but that same stark tension is still discernible all thanks to the director’s expert eye for detail.
“When a Stranger Calls Back lacks a crucial element from the 1979 film—the telephone.”
When a Stranger Calls Back lacks a crucial element from the 1979 film—the telephone. There is one call that Julia writes off as a misdial, but those creepy “Have you checked the children?” calls are nowhere to be found here. The line goes dead early on so all communication between the babysitter and her unexpected guest happens with only a door separating them. Or so we’re led to believe. Walton reinvents his own mythos by including two bizarre elements that are strokes of genius. Ultimately, the director’s gambit pays off, and two of the film’s biggest reveals stay ingrained in so many people’s memories.
Walton and Feck’s 1979 collaboration tapped into fear at its purest and most surface. In When a Stranger Calls Back, Walton’s ability to convey authentic paranoia is laudable. Tom Walton said his father wrote Julia to react like he would “if he were in her shoes.”
In lieu of physical harm, William Landis engages in a series of head games with Julia. He prefer the “long con” as opposed to direct confrontation. He moves things in her apartment, he sets her alarm clock to ring at a different time, and he leaves a child’s shirt hanging in her closet. Julia‘s stalker knows exactly what he’s doing. He behaves like the culprits in old Hollywood mysteries such as Midnight Lace and Scream of Fear—he first makes her doubt her own sanity before ever implementing violence. These tactics are also in line with those of the villains of police procedural films, a sub-genre that became more popular after the release of The Silence of the Lambs.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Julia‘s stalker is his mind. As evident in both the beginning and climax of the film, Landis has an extraordinary ability to plan ahead. He goes to incredible lengths to orchestrate these outrageous scenarios. It’s frightening to think what someone like him is capable of had he worked on a grander scale.
TAKE A MESSAGE
The protracted second act of the first film—John Clifford plays cat-and-mouse for an hour with the pathetic child killer Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley)—is where many viewers agree the story lost its footing. The antagonist’s celluloid sympathy tour leaves little room for Jill‘s character development, and she’s only shown as someone with zero agency in her life. Walton rectified all of this in the sequel by having Jill front and center for most of the movie while still allocating screen time for Julia‘s stalker. In giving Carol Kane a more substantial role, Jill vicariously confronts her past as she becomes Julia‘s protector as well as her friend.
From the eighties and onward, the issue of abuse at or close to home was gaining more awareness through various media outlets like music (Suzanne Vega’s 1987 song “Luka”), television (Roseanne‘s 1993 episode “Crime and Punishment”), film (Sleeping with the Enemy), and PSAs. When Jill meets Julia, she begins to coach her on how to survive. In doing so, we get a glimpse of the going-ons at the university crisis center—a battered woman has her photo taken, a phone operator urgently jots down what could be life-saving information, and Jill teaches a self-defense class. All of this is commentary on the growing concern with domestic violence in our society.
“.. for every “stranger” there is in the world, there are those who are willing to help, too.”
We never find out what happened to Jill‘s family from the previous film. Last we saw of him, Jill‘s husband was still alive. As for their children, it’s unclear. So one has to draw their own conclusion and move on from this oversight. That’s not to say Jill doesn’t have a family in the sequel. If truth be told, When a Stranger Calls Back is a movie all about families. Jill and John become stand-in parents for Julia, a young woman who’s so stricken with grief and PTSD that she’s closed herself off to the idea of having a future. This surrogate family angle is an affecting aspect in a film you wouldn’t normally think of as emotionally provoking. Not only do Jill and John come to rescue Julia from her stalker, they also mend her broken spirit. They prove that for every “stranger” there is in the world, there are those who are willing to help, too.
In 1980, renowned critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert went on a tirade about slashers in an episode of their Sneak Previews show. Dubbing them “women in danger” films, the duo lumped When a Stranger Calls in with slasher staples like Prom Night and Friday the 13th. Siskel and Ebert accused this portion of horror of being misogynistic and exploitative. The truth is, Fred Walton never wanted to be just a “scary filmmaker.” He only meant for his movie to be a “springboard to launch [his] career.” Even so, the criticisms may have steered Walton in new directions whenever he returned to the genre that made him—he turned formulas against themselves (April Fool’s Day), and he made sure his female characters were more take-charge in their survival (I Saw What You Did, Trapped).
For whatever the reasons, Fred Walton’s first movie has been subjected to divisive reviews since its initial release. Some dislike the pacing, some liken it to a one trick pony, and others are critical of how underdeveloped the main character is. He did the uncanny, though, and created a sequel better than the original. He responded to glaring criticisms, and he made When a Stranger Calls Back an overall more enjoyable and more rewarding film to watch. In his effort to vindicate Jill Johnson, Fred Walton has allowed himself his own redemption story.