The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘When A Stranger Calls’

Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “When A Stranger Calls.”

The info:

The Movie: “When A Stranger Calls”

Starring: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Rutanya Alda

Director: Fred Walton

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A psychopathic killer terrorizes a babysitter, then returns seven years later to menace her again.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 41 percent

Our take:

Brown: We’re going from a grown man hanging out with a monkey to infanticide and mental illness… Welcome to Halloween Month at the JOE-DOWN!

This is always the time of the year I dread, being a coward when it comes to scary movies and all. I’m a fat man with anxiety, so you know, these movies don’t equate to a good time.

However, Froemming is a monster on par with Frankenstein and Jimmy Carter, so here we are. 

For our Halloween Month opener, I’m going with “When A Stranger Calls,” which is known for one of the most famous 20 minutes in horror movie history. 

I’ve never seen this movie, but I remember seeing it on Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments,” which was a show I watched a lot for a guy who hates horror movies. 

After watching this, I’m swearing off babysitting. Not because I’m terrified of mentally ill seamen, but because I’d rather not deal with little brats. 

Froemming, give us your initial thoughts while I go check the children. 

Froemming: Frankenstein wasn’t the monster. His monster was the monster. Frankenstein was the mad scientist. 

Brown: 

Froemming: I also had never seen this. I never knew it was a terrifying tale of a dirty British immigrant who reigns his terror down upon a poor, hapless babysitter with his Big Book of British Smiles.

Which got me thinking. When England sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs and Beatles music. They’re bringing crime. They’re child murderers. And some, I assume, are good people.

Also, between this and “Assault on Precinct 13,” murdering children was the weirdest trope in films of the 1970s. 

Brown, as I beat up a creepy British man in a bar for harassing some woman, why don’t you kick this off?

Brown: We open in a WASP-y neighborhood where young Jill Johnson (Kane) is going to babysit for the night while Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis have put the two young kids to bed and are going to go out for dinner and a movie. They leave the number for the restaurant just in case anything’s to go wrong. 

The man of the house, Dr. Mandrakis, tells Jill that there’s a fully stocked fridge. And the first food item he tells her about is low-fat yogurt. That kind of microaggression will piss off PC Principal.

So Jill’s just sitting around, chatting with friends on the phone and doing homework when all of a sudden, the phone rings.

Froemming: And this is when things start getting spooky. Because the caller is informing Jill that her vehicle’s extended warranty is about to expire, and he keeps on calling with that very same message. And unlike today, she can’t just block numbers like that, so she has to endure it. The scariest thing on film, ever.

Wait, no. That is my personal-hell version of this movie. No, Jill has some crackpot either hanging up right away, or he tells her to check on the children. Now, I was a babysitter in my youth, and I can tell you this: Never check on the children. It will just wake them up and the next two hours of your life is trying to get them to sleep again.

Brown: Right? That’s the best kind of babysitting: when someone already did the hard work for you and you can just raid the pantry. 

Now, I haven’t seen the lambasted remake that came out in 2006, but I have to imagine that this movie can no longer work due to everyone having a cell phone, right? Not only do landlines not really exist in homes, but if I’m getting a call from an unknown number, I’m not answering that shit. 

Froemming: As I have said before, even if I know the number, if I am not expecting a call, I will not answer. Brown can attest to that.

Brown: I mean, you answer my calls. But there’s definitely a rushed tone to get off the phone as soon as possible.

Froemming: This movie reminded me of why I was glad to rid myself of a landline after I finally gave in and got a cellphone in 2006. Yes, I waited about six years after everyone had one of these before I hopped on that train.

Anyway, Jill keeps getting calls from this pervert and frankly, I don’t understand why she doesn’t do what I used to do when people kept calling me when I did not want to be bothered: Leave the phone off the hook. It ties up the line. No more calls. 

But Jill is not that smart I guess, even though everyone knew this trick. Even a dumb kid like me in the 1980s. So she keeps getting calls.

Brown: If she wasn’t doing all that book learning about mathematics and critical race theory (or whatever right-wingers think is actually taught at public schools), then she would have taken the phone off the hook. 

Also, if I’m Jill, I’m thinking something is really up with the kids since all this phone ringing isn’t waking the kids up. That frequency of calls is waking me up when it’s a loud-ass landline where you can’t adjust the ringer volume. We’ll find out why that’s the case, though.

With this creep calling every 15 minutes or so, Jill calls the cops. They can’t really do anything but tell her to lock the doors and not stress out. 

Froemming: The cop on the line advises her to whistle very loudly into the receiver to burst the caller’s eardrum. I wonder how many people tried this after the movie came out. Also, I can’t whistle so I would be (REDACTED) in this situation.

Brown: He says to blow a whistle, like the ones a pervy gym teacher would have.

Froemming:  Yup, only gym teachers and Axl Rose for “Paradise City” actually own those kinds of whistles.

Brown: This is getting to Jill, who is getting spooked by the ice maker and, at one point, is pouring out a glass of Jameson. Which, by the way, did we establish if she’s a high schooler or a college student?

Froemming: I think the drinking age in a lot of states in the 1970s was 18, so she could be either? I dunno, I drank in high school, though never when being responsible for children. I drank at dumb parties. With dumb people. I hated high school. 

Brown: Either way, Jill calls the cops again, and they tell her that they’ll start tracing the call so long as she can keep the creeper on the line for a minute. 

Froemming: Also in the 1970s, it took about 45 minutes to trace a call. Not like we see it here because it went through manual switchboards and whatnot. 

Brown: So when our creep calls again, it starts to get more detailed. He can see Jill. And he wants to be covered in her blood. I’ll admit to getting very tense around this time.

Two things I love about this opening:

  • Carol Kane’s expressive face and kind of meek voice works perfectly for building suspense. 
  • This movie lets the stress build whereas a horror movie nowadays would have shots with the creep poking out for some sort of cheap scare. The way this scene builds, it’s to make you as tense as Marge Simpson watching plane crash movies.

Finally, the cops call Jill and the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE! 

I knew it was coming and this still stressed me the (REDACTED) out. I can only imagine how messed up this made 1970s audiences. But, people in the 1990s didn’t learn the lesson of this movie: Don’t have two phone lines in your house. We all needed that second phone line to use America Online. We sure as hell had a second line at our house because of that.

Froemming: It was at this moment I wondered how there was still another hour left in this movie. The scary story it is based on ends here. So the first half-hour of this is a perfect horror short film.

Brown: A perfect horror short film that Wes Craven emulated to start off “Scream,” too.

Froemming: But now we have to stretch this perfect horror short film out, so we get this weird-ass mix of a “Halloween“-style mental patient escape story mixed with a bumbling detective who reminded me of “Mitchell.”

Though our mental patient is less Michael Myers and more Lester Nygaard from the first season of “Fargo.” 

Brown: Well, he did murder two children for no clear reason. And he covered himself in their blood in the kind of violence that Garland Greene from “Con-Air” would blush at.

The murderer is an English seaman named Curt Duncan, who gets sent to a psychiatric ward following the murders. 

Then we fast-forward seven years and Duncan has escaped the facility. 

Man, you’re right, this is “Halloween.”

Froemming: We are not told how he escaped, but I imagine it went like this:

Dr. Mandrakis hires this guy Clifford to find our homicidal maniac, who is also British and they make a point of that, even though it has nothing to do with anything. Clifford was one of the detectives who helped put Curt Duncan, our killer, behind bars.

Curt Duncan….He really gives me Wesley Snipes vibes:

Brown: The first thing Duncan tries to do post-escape is pick up a woman at a bar. He’s quite awkward and can’t get a clue that she has no interest in him. 

So, it’s like how Froemming and I are like when picking up women. 

Duncan’s inability to get a clue results in him getting his ass kicked by a random dude who was playing pool. And to add insult to injury, the guy pours Wild Turkey all over Duncan. I assume for the same reason that Kang and Kodos douse Homer Simpson in rum.

Froemming: Now, the woman Duncan tried to pick up, Tracy, leaves the bar after Duncan gets the bejesus knocked out of him by that very angry drunk guy. We see her walk home — in high heels which I imagine would be pure hell — while Duncan follows her in the shadows. Seems our British friends finally learned wearing bright red outfits made them stand out when they shouldn’t be calling attention to themselves.

Tracy gets to her apartment, and somehow Duncan is already on the same floor, even though she was in an elevator, so he took the stairs, meaning he should be way out of breath from running that fast up flights of stairs. And this creepy pervert just walks into her home. And he is even more awkward and bumbling than he was in the bar, probably due to the confidence booze gives people has worn off of him. 

Brown: Tracy tries to nicely dismiss Duncan by apologizing for the ass beating. He tries talking Tracy into getting coffee and she says “maybe” but CLEARLY in the I’m-trying-not-to-be-an-asshole-but-(REDACTED)-off way of saying “maybe.” Again, dude doesn’t buy a clue.

Tracy finally gets Duncan to leave. And just as she locks the dead bolt, we see the door knob jiggle as Duncan tries to get back in. Honestly, that might have been the best scare of the movie to me. It’s so unsettling and it’s done in a way that I haven’t seen from a horror movie.

Froemming: Like when we watched “Mother!” it is the lack of social cues that raises my anxiety. That stuff is more terrifying to me than jump scares and slasher shit. 

Let’s get back to John Clifford. He goes to the mental institution where Duncan escaped and gets a big bowl of sas from the doctor/nurse/(?) who treated this weirdo. She is basically in the “this is not my problem” mentality even though her hospital allowed this maniac to escape, thus is responsible if he kills again. After Clifford yells at her in private, she plays a disturbing audio tape of Duncan being mad about eating food. Probably because in the States it has flavor and isn’t boiled cabbage with a leather boot on the side. 

Then we see Duncan has slept at what looks like an all-night laundromat, along with a drunk bum who takes a shine to our awkward homicidal maniac. But Duncan does not have time to drink rotgut in a park with this fellow and his good-time buddies, he has some serious stalking to do. 

Brown: Around this time, we get our private dick Clifford going to a house party for Lt. Garber, who worked with Clifford on the Duncan murder case seven years ago. When we go to this scene, it goes from weird Duncan stalking to bass-heavy ‘70s funk music and a bunch of doofy folks making small talk. It’s a weird jump-cut.

Anyways, Clifford tells Garber in confidence that instead of apprehending Duncan, he’s just going to kill him with a lock pick. Apparently chasing after this man again has Clifford so enraged that playing executioner seems like a better idea than letting the criminal justice system do its job. Also, you probably shouldn’t tell a (REDACTED) cop that you’re going to kill a man. 

… That is until Garber decides to help Clifford.

I’m starting to think the only good cops in popular media are the guys from “CHiPS.”

Froemming: Absolutely. Old Ponch would not just abide by some guy telling him he is taking the law into his own hands. He is a man of the law. We saw that during this hostage situation:

Clifford walks around whatever city this takes place in, asking for info. He meets the bum who slept at the laundromat with Duncan, but he wants all this money for information. And given he is a drunk bum, you can only take what he says with a grain of salt.

He then goes into the bar where Duncan got the bejesus knocked out of him, so now he has a line on Tracy. This must be a pretty small town, even though it looks fairly large to me.

Brown: I could buy it being a small town until I read later in Wikipedia that this movie is in Los Angeles. Tracy, there’s hundreds of other bars you can go to. 

Tracy makes the tense walk back to her apartment, where we get glimpses of Duncan and Clifford following her. When she gets back home, Clifford is behind her, lamenting over not finding Duncan. 

Well, he didn’t find Duncan because Duncan snuck into Tracy’s apartment and hid in the closet like Tom Cruise in South Park, Colorado.

This leads to a chase sequence where Clifford goes after Duncan through the streets and homeless shelters of L.A.

Froemming: Just a minor jump back here. Tracy agrees to help Clifford after he tells her how brutal the child murders at Duncan’s hands were. Literally at his hands. There was no weapon used in the bloodbath, just the man’s hands. Which was a horrific detail into what kind of monster Duncan truly is.

Now let’s get back to a chase scene that is rivaled only by the time Kramer was chased by the Plaza Cableman:

Duncan is in a homeless shelter, getting some needed rest after a day of stalking and being chased by Hydrox Brian Dennehy. But rest is not in the cards for this psychopath. Clifford wanders into this shelter, waking and blinding people with enough problems in life with a bright flashlight. And we get a comically sad chase, where Clifford is thwarted by cardboard boxes and crates of fruit lazily tossed at him by Duncan.

Brown: There’s a point where Duncan falls between tables in what looks like a cafeteria. And yet, Clifford STILL can’t catch up to him. At this point, I’m expecting Clifford to be puking on the street like he’s Seth Rogen running after Michael Cera in “Superbad.”

Froemming: I suspect Duncan was so fast because he was carbo loading like Michael Scott:

Duncan gets away, much to the anger of Clifford. But to be fair, if Clifford had bothered just grabbing him once at any of the many points he was within reach, this madman would have been caught.

Brown: With Duncan still out in the streets and the trail cold, we suddenly see a grown-up Jill with two little rugrats of her own, living in her own WASP-y neighborhood. She and her yuppie husband are going out to celebrate his new promotion and hired a babysitter to watch the kids, not unlike how this movie started.

During the meal, Jill gets a phone call at the restaurant, where a familiar voice asks “Have you checked the children?” Obviously, panic ensues.

I dunno, man. The odds of all of this — Duncan escaping, then finding and going to stalk the girl he traumatized seven years ago — are so (REDACTED) astronomical that it was hard for me to really buy into the last 15 minutes or so of this movie. 

Froemming: 

I think Jill was better off being kicked out of a hotel lobby and mocking the manager.

But alas, she has a very legitimate breakdown, as the PTSD of what happened years before have been triggered.

Also, Duncan finds out she is still around from a newspaper article on her. One of the many perils and evil of print media. 

She gets to the house with her husband and the police, and everything seems fine. The children are fine, the babysitter confused by all this. 

Then at the police station, they see Duncan escaped *checks notes* WAY EARLY AGO IN THIS MOVIE! They then debate if they should include this connection with the call in their report.

I am starting to suspect the LAPD are not very good at their jobs.

Then the cop — who Clifford told he was going to murder Duncan in cold blood through vigilante justice — decides to give the private dick this lead.

Again, I am starting to suspect the LAPD are not very good at their jobs.

Brown: The CHiPS are the only good cops, Froemming.

Jill and her husband get ready for bed, and he grabs a shotgun from the closet to *checks notes* comfort his wife? I think staying somewhere other than the house or somewhere under strict police supervision would be a better idea.

This is even more clear when, after Jill goes to the kitchen, some of the lights go out. And when Clifford tries calling Jill’s house, the phone lines have been cut.

When Jill crawls back into bed, she starts hearing a voice come from the closet. Trying to rustle her husband awake, it turns out that it’s Duncan under the covers, which leads to him trying to kill our female lead. 

As he’s jumping on top of her, we hear gunshots and Duncan hits the floor, presumably dead. I say presumably because there is a sequel to this movie, “When A Stranger Calls Back” that I have no intention of watching. 

Froemming: Duncan brought fists to a gunfight, and my reaction was:

Clifford finally killed this man in cold blood, like he promised the cops he would. I imagine he never goes to jail for this. In fact, he will probably be labeled a hero. Morals in movies were really odd in the 1970s.

Brown, let’s escape down to recommendations!

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: Yes. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the first 20 minutes, but it’s still a quality horror/thriller flick.

Froemming: I would. The first half-hour alone is worth it. It drags with the padding in the middle, but it was a good watch.

Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN

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