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When a Stranger Calls (1979)



Grim psychothriller with a few teen urban legends.
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Release Year: 1979
  • Running Time: 97 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The 'hero' is an ex-cop basically being paid to be a hit man (though it's pretty easy to see he's eager to kill this particular fugitive regardless of monetary reward). His old friend on the force secretly assists in the crime. Other characters are basically unpleasant.


While the horrific stuff is left to the viewer's imagination, we see flashbacks of the murderer covered in blood. One shooting up close, a bar fight, and a woman nearly strangled to death.


Very little, surprisingly for this type of movie, though the insane Curt practically stalks a lady he meets in a bar. We later see him naked (non-explicitly), having a breakdown, alone.

Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Much drinking.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this movie is violent, though it's almost always kept offscreen. Two small children are killed at the outset. There is additional disturbing imagery of a shooting, death threats, a bar fight, and non-explicit male nudity.

What's the story?

Teenage babysitter Jill (Carole Kane) starts getting repeat phone calls from a stranger asking "Have you checked the children?" (Jill's actually been told not to, because they're supposed to be sleeping off colds). Jill phones the police, who finally put a trace on the recurring calls, and discover that the calls are coming from inside the house. Police officer Clifford (Charles Durning) arrives too late – the children have already been brutally slain by Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), described as a lunatic from Britain, newly-arrived in the USA. Years later, Duncan has escaped a poorly-guarded mental institution, and Clifford is now a private investigator, hired to find him. Clifford's client is the murdered children's father, who wants Duncan killed as revenge, and Clifford, haunted by the case, doesn't argue with that. Duncan reverts to his homicidal nature and somehow tracks down poor Jill again. Now she's a mother with two small children, and she's hired a sitter to watch them for the night.

Is it any good?


Most of When a Stranger Calls is a ploddingly realistic, depressingly downcast crime drama. This movie came to theaters with the dreaded 'slasher' movie craze that included the original Halloween, Friday the 13th, and other R-rated fare that centered generally on teens slaughtered by fiends. It doubtlessly influenced the Scream series, with the murderer who tauntingly telephones victims in advance. But this chiller, to give it its due, is pitched on a more mature, suspense-based level than just gore and titillation. It would likely receive a PG-13 today. Still, it's one grim picture. Hitchcock's Psycho had more humor. What morsel of a moral the tale contains is a (very faint) implication that being hunted down for vigilante execution by Clifford is what pushes Duncan over the edge again.

There are none of the later slasher ingredients of slumber parties, teen sex, unsupervised campgrounds, and dumb pranks in cheerleader locker rooms, and you could say that When a Stranger Calls, at least in its opening and closing, does a much better job in capturing the simple creepiness of a campfire maniac-with-a-hook-hand anecdote than did the later Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer series that strive to hook young viewers. Still, it's pretty disturbing stuff for tweens. There's also the issue of revenge in the plot, and whether Clifford's deadly mission is at all justified. While history has chosen to pigeonhole When a Stranger Calls as low-grade horror, the same question of vengeance and morality came up with more emphasis on the ethics in the upscale Jack Nicholson drama The Crossing Guard.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the revenge aspect of the plot. They can also talk about the appeal of horror movies. Why do people like being scared?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:October 29, 1979
DVD/Streaming release date:October 9, 2001
Cast:Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst
Director:Fred Walton
Studio:Sony Pictures
Run time:97 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:violence, mature themes

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Adult Written byhomey335 May 28, 2012

Scary movie from 1979, ghost stories were created because of it.

Violence: 6/10- There are some bloody moments, and physical fighting. A character is stalked. Sexual Content: 5/10- Some un graphic nudity and sexual disscussion. Language: 2/10- Some mild language like d*mn and h*ll. Drinking and drugs: 4/10- Alcohal is seen. Frightining scenes: 7/10- This movie is frightining.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written bycerealkiller189 January 14, 2012

Eerie,tension packed and bloody intense.What more could a horror movie deserve?

Ok,I've to admit even though this didn't make me lift a finger,it really scared the holy crap out of my brother when he watched.he still remembers it up to now.basically it's about this babysitter who gets terrorized by a killer.she gets a phone call saying "have you checked the kids lately?"tension starts from there.she calls the cops,and the call gets traced from inside the house.creepy enough,eh?the rest of the story will probably give your kids under 8 nightmares so don't buy it for them if you are not confident.i won't spoil it but it's really intense.go watch it first before you let your kids.
Teen, 13 years old Written byiamjustinbieber... February 26, 2011

The beginning and the ending whhere creepy and good but the rest of the movie was....

i loved the beginning of the movie it was pritty creepy. I also like the ending it was even scaryer when the guy got shot in the head. But the reest of the movie was completly boring...
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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