A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
- Parents say
- Kids say
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.