Looking at the long-term effects of stalking in When a Stranger Calls
Films covered here include The Sitter (1977), When A Stranger Calls (1979), When A Stranger Calls Back (1993), and When A Stranger Calls (2006)
The urban legend of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” has been around in some form or another since at least the 1960s, and there have been variations over the years. The legend itself is thought to have been inspired by the 1950 killing of 13-year-old Janett Christman in Columbia, Missouri, which may be why, despite a handful of creative flourishes added to the film versions, the story remains terrifying mostly due to its realism.
Tales told around the campfire played up the extended game of cat and mouse between a teen girl and a remorseless monster while the films added extra context addressing how authorities so often fail to protect victims of stalking. When A Stranger Calls is a unique entry in horror due to its willingness to slow its pace and shift focus to the victims of these crimes as they suffer the long-term effects of trauma.
When A Stranger Calls is generally known for the first twenty minutes of the film, in which a teen girl (Carol Kane) is left in charge of two children and terrorized by increasingly unsettling phone calls throughout the night. The infamous line, “the call is coming from inside the house,” is spoken when a previously useless, now frenzied cop calls her to beg her to get out while she still can. The children are dead, a man is caught for the crime, and Jill is left to pick up the pieces of her life.
The film is often criticized for falling off in quality after the terrifying intro. Yet, in many ways, that’s where the story gets interesting, evolving past its origins to include a larger narrative in which Jill continues to struggle years after the attack. After Jill barely escapes with her life, the focus shifts to the investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning). Six years later, the man that quite literally ripped two children apart with his bare hands escapes from the institution where he’s been kept. This man is Curt Duncan, played by the memorable Tony Beckley in his last onscreen role. While Clifford searches for the killer, Duncan lurks, hoping to find new victims. Duncan antagonizes a single woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), who initially isn’t particularly worried about him but who later attempts to manage his fixation on her with distance and grace until finally realizing that he intends to do her serious harm. When we meet up with Jill, she has a family, but she is clearly still struggling to recover from the events of that night. When Duncan decides to pay a house call one night, Jill is thrown back into the horror she has tried desperately to escape.
In When A Stranger Calls Back, we meet a new babysitter, and a new killer, as well. Julia (Jill Schoelen) goes through a similar but uniquely terrifying and traumatic experience at the film’s beginning. Five years later, as she focuses on recovery, she finds a child’s shirt mysteriously placed in her closet alongside her other clothing items. Though the police don’t believe her, Jill, who now works with survivors of abuse and trauma, does. Calling in a favor from her old friend John Clifford, they struggle to find who is harassing Julia, and how the killer is gaining access to her apartment without being noticed.
This film serves as much more of a continuation of Jill’s story than sequels usually do. Written and directed by Fred Walton, whose feature-length directorial debut was When A Stranger Calls and whose career generally stayed within the realm of horror or thriller, there is a sense of continuity and growth between the two films. Nostalgia co-exists alongside more sobering observations around how the pain of that night in 1979 changed John and Jill’s lives forever.
Both Curt Duncan and the sequel’s William Landis are given space to show how truly empty and pathetic they are, but rather than making them seem worthy of sympathy, these moments only further villainize them. True, both of them are jostled around by stereotypical macho men, but they instigate the attacks. Duncan refuses to back off after Tracy brushes him off several times, then sneaks into her apartment the next day. Meanwhile, the first time we see Landis in the light, he walks into Julia’s hospital room where she lies in a coma, and he punches her repeatedly in the stomach. Duncan’s accusatory “Why haven’t you checked the children?” places the responsibility for his crimes on the teen girl who he has targeted, and this is in many ways repeated by Landis’ taunting at the end of the second film. These men are pitiful, but there is no question that we are dealing with unrepentant monsters. Their veneer as being “ultimately harmless” is a major part of what makes them so terrifying when the other shoe drops.
As for the criticism that the film can be boiled down to its first twenty minutes, there actually is already an example of this, also written and directed by Fred Walton. The Sitter was released two years prior to When A Stranger Calls and is condensed to that shocking opening scene. Though well-made, it lacks the impact of the later film due to its sparse commentary around the crime, making it a fairly simple and straightforward retelling of a classic urban legend rather than the character study of the films. Likewise, the remake of 2006 brought the huge, flashy budget that many horror remakes of its era did, and it offers up some quality scares, but there is no denying that the concept is stretched paper-thin over ninety minutes. Ultimately, the greatest strength of the franchise is not its chilling premise, but the willingness to examine long-term effects of trauma and none do it better than When A Stranger Calls Back.
When A Stranger Calls is a terrifying story, and in some ways, it’s a true one. Stalking victims of all genders can struggle to be believed today just as much as they did in 1950 or 1979. Authorities are often at a loss for how to protect those that are targeted. Jill does the right thing by putting a series of barriers up between herself and the killer in either film, yet stalkers can be incredibly adept at bypassing defenses. As Duncan whispers to himself while hiding in the shadows in the first film, “No one sees me, no one touches me.” A lot of people do all the “right” things in real life and still end up victimized by stalkers. Jill’s honest evaluation that the police very likely won’t be able to help her is what saves her life in the end.
As much as these films provide commentary on the nature of stalking, which puts its victim immediately on unsure footing and keeps them there through increasingly grandiose acts of intrusion, it also shows Jill struggling to cope and react. She isn’t a perfect protagonist, and she makes mistakes, but these are incredible circumstances that few among us could fully prepare for. Perhaps what is most important is that she takes trauma, both hers and Julia’s, very seriously. Bonding with people who have been through similar things and extending a hand to those in need despite her fear is what makes Carol Kane’s turn as Jill a better performance and a better character than the franchise is generally remembered for, and it’s well worth watching beyond those first twenty minutes.
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.