When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
When a Stranger Calls (1979) Movie Poster Image
Grim psychothriller with a few teen urban legends.
  • R
  • 1979
  • 97 minutes

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 6 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

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.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Much drinking.

What 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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
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 disscussio... Continue reading
Adult Written byundiscovered_singer April 9, 2008

Maybe not okay for most 13 year olds, but I handled and loved it!

This movie is a very mature audience-oriented horror flick, but I've sat through House of Wax, Saw, and Carrie and such, so I absolutely loved it! Being sc... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMuffin393948 May 15, 2020

Entertaining and creepy

Very creepy keeps you on the edge of your seat could make you nervous in real life
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... Continue reading

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.

Talk to your kids 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

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