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When a Stranger Calls and the Phones Are Out

While the openings to Fred Walton’s The Sitter (1977), When A Stranger Calls (1979), and When A Stranger Calls Back (1993) don’t match-up completely, they are remarkably similar, and when it comes to The Sitter and When A Stranger Calls (the former having inspired the first twenty minutes of the feature), the similarities are so deeply rooted that even a line like Mr. Mandrakis’ body shaming with low fat yogurt gets carried over from one Jill (Lucia Stralser) to the next (Carol Kane).

Babysitting gigs aren’t usually so cookie cutter but since in all three cases the children are asleep upon arrival (in the TV sequel, Calls Back, Julia’s charges might be awake but they’re lying in their beds, so she waits before checking on them), everything points to a quiet night of house sitting and homework for the Jills and Julia. The beauty of Second Sight releasing these films together on Blu-ray is you get to see the different ways this narrative can play out and while some deviations are just that (Jill walking up to the house isn’t any scarier than Julia (Jill Schoelen) getting dropped off there), others make a serious impact (like the misleading title of A Stranger Calls Back).

With The Sitter and When A Stranger Calls, especially, there’s a lot of crossover (Steve Feke shares a screenwriting credit with Walton on both) but, beyond the fact that When A Stranger Calls picks up the story seven years later, with John Clifford (Charles Durning) no longer a police lieutenant but a private investigator, looking into the stranger’s escape from a mental institution, the pacing of the two films is quite different. In When A Stranger Calls you’re waiting with Carol Kane for the phone to ring and feeling every second of dread in the interim. In “The Sitter,” the way the short is cut make it feel like more time has passed between phone calls and while that’s not actually true (Stralser’s Jill tells the police it’s been every fifteen minutes), it takes longer for the short to build up tension and convey how much danger Jill’s in.

Both features shine thanks to Second Sight’s new scan and restoration of When A Stranger Calls, while Calls Back is included in HD, but the new scan and restoration of The Sitter doesn’t do the short any favors. You can see clips of the unrestored version during Walton’s interview (additional interviewees include composer, Dana Kaproff, and actresses, Kane and Rutanya Alda) and the short plays better with muted colors. Second Sight’s restoration is too bright.

That’s nothing, however, to Jill’s refusal to acknowledge the kids she’s supposed to be watching and for being such a famous babysitter movie, Jill has no right to the title. It’s not that Jill values her life over theirs, so much as she doesn’t consider the kids at all, like she’s forgotten they exist when she tells the police she’s alone in the house. Since it’s the only thing the stranger wants to talk about (almost all of his phone calls are, “Have you checked the children?”) it’s really hard to figure how Jill goes the entire movie without checking on them once.

In that regard, Calls Back comes as a relief because of how little fault there is to find in Julia’s actions. Unlike with Jill, the phone at the house where Julia’s babysitting doesn’t work so when a stranger comes to the door, claiming car trouble, Julia has to figure out what to do by herself. Unable to call the police (and for Jill’s part, she did that fairly quickly, wasting no time trying to talk herself out of making the call), Julia never opens the door. She checks on the kids – makes sure the rest of the house is secure. Nothing she does is wrong, but it doesn’t matter and, in the end, it’s not just the house that’s deemed unsafe but the outside, too, leaving Julia in the doorway, unsure which way to go.   

Structure-wise both films have their flaws. After the attack, Jill isn’t seen again until the end of the movie. The cops say she’ll be ok, but ok could mean a lot of things, and while it’s later revealed that she’s married with kids, neither are mentioned in Calls Back. Calls Back, rather, is Julia’s film (for two-thirds of it, anyway) so when the final third is handed to Jill it feels like a mistake, putting too much stock on fans of the original being Call Back’s audience.

Tony Beckley, who played the stranger in When A Stranger Calls¸ died shortly after filming and Calls Back doesn’t try to bring him back or recast him. The stranger they introduce instead is not as deftly written, to the point that we’re not even sure whether he’s a killer or a kidnapper (the film again taking little interest in clearing up what happened to the babysat kids). Beckley’s stranger was mentally ill and sent to a hospital that wasn’t equipped to help him. Unlike many mentally ill killers, who are also portrayed as diabolical and five steps ahead, Beckley’s stranger is neither of these things. In fact, he’d be long caught if Clifford didn’t try and catch him by himself, so he can kill him.

All part of the franchise’s evolving relationship with the police, in When A Stranger Calls Clifford had to leave the force because they were too by the book. Sergeant Straker may not have been much help to Jill on the phone, but he never acted like she was irritating, so she doesn’t hesitate to phone back when the calls get more serious. Julia, on the other hand, is made painfully aware that the police don’t believe her and find talking to her to be a waste of their time.

The difference fourteen years can make but, whichever of these three films you prefer, When A Stranger Calls Back proves the value in updating a classic. You can see why Walton, Kane, and Durning would be inspired to return, and while cell phones might make it hard to bring the series into the 21st century (the change from rotary to push button was dramatic enough), Second Sight’s one-stop package for watching all three makes for wonderful viewing (and appreciation of caller id).
When A Stranger Calls/When A Stranger Calls Back goes on sale December 17th. The limited edition is region free and comes with an original soundtrack CD, a 40-page perfect bound booklet with new essay by Kevin Lyons, and a reversible poster with new and original artwork.

About Rachel Bellwoar

Rachel Bellwoar is the Comics Editor at That's Not Current and a contributing writer for Flickering Myth. Her first Alfred Hitchcock movie was Rear Window and she questions the value of the binge model for watching television — much better to avoid endings. Having found out who killed Laura Palmer, she compensates by watching as many David Lynch films as possible.

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