It is often rare that a sequel can match the caliber of originality in comparison to its predecessor. The first film will set in motion expectations and powerful memories while the subsequent storylines seek to gain traction from that foundation. It is especially rare that a sequel can carry forward a new appeal when it is made for television only. At the outset, this would seem to be the case with the 1993 release of When A Stranger Calls Back. This film was the follow-up to the 1979 Columbia Pictures horror film, When A Stranger Calls. That film was a modest hit at the box office, but quickly gained acclaim and appreciation by thriller fans. The plot has even generated staying power in modern times by producing a remake in 2006.
When A Stranger Calls Back was distributed by Good Times Video and aired on television for a short period of time. The release date was April 4, 1993. The writer and director, Fred Walton, had crafted the first film and was at the helm once again. The two lead stars, Carol Kane and Charles Durning, returned to reprise their roles. Kane was known for theater and screen appearances since the 1970s. Her notable appearances were an Oscar-nominated lead in Hester Street (1975) and a supporting cast member in Woody Allen’s award-winning hit, Annie Hall (1977). She also was recognized in the television series, Taxi, and a Broadway musical, Wicked. Durning was present in over two-hundred movies and gained respect for his ability to portray a variety of lead as well as secondary Hollywood characters. He is noted for The Sting (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Tootsie (1982). He also served in World War II and participated in the Normandy Invasion. Newcomer Jill Schoelen entered the picture after already taking part in a famous slasher motion picture, The Stepfather (1987).
When A Stranger Calls Back is noteworthy for its ominous and downbeat atmosphere. The lighting was often dim. The soundtrack was regularly tense. The dialogue captured despair and frustration that each of the characters felt. The storyline was dark in content. Explanations for the series of events were left unexplained and therefore unresolved. However, this understated choice of action made this unknown film hold a known place in the consciousness of those watching.
The film begins with a premise common to most horror films and in the spirit of its predecessor. A babysitter is left alone on a cold, gloomy night without a phone to call for help. The babysitter is in a neighborhood she has never worked in before. The house is privy to invasion and exploitation. Children being watched disappear without being seen or heard. Julia Jenz (played with an authentic vulnerability by Schoelen) is asked on short notice to take care of the wealthy home of Dr. Schifrin. Her first thoughts are that this is going to be a boring night studying while kids are already in bed. Soon her plans and expectations are interrupted by a knock at the door. A man announces himself as Steven Dane and says he is stranded just a few blocks away. His car won’t start and he would like to call the Auto Club for assistance.
Julia is polite but suspicious at the same time. She knows serious risk is in play with two young children asleep upstairs. Steven is disappointed to be told that he can’t come in to use the phone. He asks instead if Julia will make the call herself with his information written down. She is not pleased but agrees to the request. The drama begins when she picks up the phone in the living room and encounters a dead line. No dial tone or explanation is present for this turn of events. Julia decides to act fast and not let Steven think there is trouble in the house. She fakes the conversation with the Auto Club by using his data jotted down on a note pad. At this moment the camera zooms in on the locked door knob with an eerie close-up. She returns to the foyer and tells the man he will have to wait for an hour before a tow can arrive. Steven is shocked because the company normally arrives in fifteen or thirty minutes. The babysitter states in a firm tone that this is what she was told. Both decide the delay must be the result of a busy work evening. He takes off after thanking the girl for her assistance. She rushes to the window in order to grab a look at her mysterious visitor. She is only able to spot a man in a trench coat taking loud steps across the sidewalk.
The night continues without much incident. Julia concentrates on her school books while a music station plays on the television set in the background. All of a sudden Steven returns. He is irked about no arrival from the Auto Club. Julia sighs and rolls her eyes with irritation. She apologizes for the fact that he has to wait but refuses when he again asks to be let inside. Steven then admits he is concerned because he has been away from home for a while and believes his wife is getting nervous about him. His unwitting companion returns to the living room to address a dead phone. She sits there for several moments looking grim before returning to the hall. She informs the man in a soft voice that there was no answer when she called. Steven then appears to relax and ask the girl if she is feeling alright. He thanks her for doing all she did and takes off. This time Julia sees no trace of him outside the window. She proceeds to close all the shades to the house and secures the back door.
When A Stranger Calls Back reaches a critical phase when Steven returns angry and accusatory. The frightened Julia lashes out and tells him to go away and bother somebody else. Steven says he knows she didn’t call and that she happens to be the only person around on this block. Her breathing escalates and panic starts to set in. Steven continues by telling the girl he knows she is a babysitter and warns her that she is not alone in this house. With those words, the girl races upstairs and is stunned to see both children missing from their beds. She runs back downstairs and is hysterical. Steven addresses her by name and she screams. From there, a tall figure appears out of the living room and approaches Julia with outstretched hands. She manages to pull open the front door and runs shrieking into the waiting hands of the doctor and his wife returning home.
The film picks up five years in the future. Julia is older with longer hair and living in a new town attending college. She has become depressed and withdrawn from all things around her. She trusts little and keeps her focus on school and a job at the local women’s shelter. She comes home one day and gasps upon finding a child’s shirt in her closet.
Julia races to the police department in the rain and tells the disbelieving officers her story. They are skeptical how a girl living in a third-story apartment and triple-bolted door could be the victim of a break-in or harassment. She recounts little movements in her home that convinced her she is being watched. The staff concludes the girl is paranoid and wants to dismiss her. A mental health worker from the school is called on the scene. It is Jill Johnson (played with grit and strength by Kane) who was once impacted by a criminal murdering the children she was babysitting. She tells the cops to believe Julia and takes her under her wing. The terrified girl is happy to have a new friend who promises to protect and care for her. Retired detective John Clifford (played with enormous compassion and insight by Durning) arrives in town by bus. He was called to consult the case by Jill. He was also the detective who tracked down and killed the assailant who tormented her in the first film.
John is convinced that one man is the culprit of this sordid affair while Julia insists she was terrorized by two men. Jill knows the case is very much active on the books because the children and Steven were never found. The doctor and his wife moved away after the event. The house where Julia lost her innocence and trust stands abandoned and for sale.
Julia tries to resume a normal pattern but a disturbance in the middle of the night wakes her up. She calls Jill who gallantly walks her through the process of checking her apartment to prove she is alone. Julia runs away at once point but comes right back home. She wants to escape the fear and uncertainty that is plaguing her life yet at the same time does not want to trade away her freedom and choice-making.
When A Stranger Calls Back reaches the half-way mark when Julia is rushed to the hospital. She was found in a coma and hovering near death after an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Jill is devastated and confused because she thought the girl was safely at her apartment that day. Turns out that Julia left Jill’s residence and returned after previously saying it was not safe. In a chilling sequence, the real perpetrator visits the hospital and slaps around Julia’s silent body in an effort to arouse a response.
John deduces that the real bad guy was working alone and has the power of a ventriloquist. This explains how he manipulated his voice outside the door of where Julia was babysitting. He believes the man was acting alone and actually inside the house the whole time. This would piece together an explanation as to why the doctor and his wife never saw anybody in the house when they returned home from their fateful night out.
Meanwhile, Jill is being followed by a stranger. He speaks to her at the supermarket, but she turns up nothing when she runs around to chase him. On the other side of town, John searches for where a ventriloquist would work in a cheap part of town. His efforts lead him to a strip club where he just misses the act of eccentric William Landis (played with an unrelenting skill and haunting demeanor by actor Gene Lythgow). Landis turns out to be the one responsible for harming Julia and snatching the children. John encounters his prey in an alley outside the club. They stand silent facing each other for several moments. Landis manages to get away and hide when the former detective gets too close. He can remain incognito due to wearing black face paint and clothes.
When A Stranger Calls Back arrives at the conclusion when John manages to track down the desolate and dank apartment belonging to William Landis. He breaks in and uncovers a stunning collection of photos tossed inside a wastebasket: shots of Julia lying in her hospital bed and close-ups of a brick wall inside Jill’s apartment. This is a clue he needs to prove Landis’ guilt and spare Jill from becoming a fatal target by the ventriloquist.
Jill arrives home to her place and finds the phone dead and a milk carton sitting in the middle of her empty table. The carton features pictures of the children stolen from Julia’s care five years ago. She is horrified when she hears the voice of Landis call out to her. She thinks fast and grabs a small pistol from her purse. Trained efficiently in martial arts, Jill takes on the villain when he appears out of nowhere. Turns out he was covered in camouflage paint matching the look of her living room wall. This is the same wall John discovered pictures of only moments ago.
Landis and Jill fight to the death. She manages to kick him several times and take away his advantage and dominance over her. He tosses a small piece of furniture at her before she has a chance to retrieve the gun. John manages to burst into the apartment just in time. He takes aim for the wall and those gun blasts finish off William Landis. Unfortunately, Jill is left unconscious and wounded when the ventriloquist kidnapper shot her. The film closes when a fragile Jill locks eyes with an awakened Julia at the hospital. John saw to it that both women could share a room together until they recovered from trauma at the hands of the same man.
When A Stranger Calls Back has a small but dedicated following by horror and drama fans alike. It proved that thriller could leave a stark impression by relying on suspense roots rather than the glamorous gore that modern technology could display with ease. Fred Walton deserves praise for bringing an extension to life of his only major film. Charles Durning captivated the plot by remaining reliable and resourceful as the detective. Carol Kane was compelling and emotional as the resilient but tormented crisis worker. Jill Schoelen managed to make herself sensitive and sympathetic at once. Gene Lythgow portrayed a vicious character without a back story or motive revealed. This film is available for purchase only if a person is willing to go hunting for it.
Movie: When A Stranger Calls Back
Director: Fred Walton
Cast: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Jill Schoelen, Gene Lythgow
Studio: Good Times Video
Running Time: 94 minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-out-of-5 stars