Very rarely does a horror film have such emotional and visual drive behind it that it can actually scare an entire audience world-wide. Many have tried and with the exception of a few, many have failed. But in When a Stranger Calls is something quite unique and genuinely chilling, as individual fears shared by majority groups - fears such as isolation, complete helplessness and a sense of no escape, among others - are brought vividly to life on-screen in what is a true masterpiece of cinema.
With a now-famous opening twenty-minute scene, When a Stranger Calls never skimps on the suspense. With Fred Walton behind both the script and direction, every ounce of tension is squeezed into a scenario, leaving the viewer breathless and scared witless. The opening scene is a small work of genius in itself, with the suspense almost unbearable as Jill Johnson receives phone call after phone call from a whispering stranger demanding 'Why haven't you checked the children?' The phone voice itself is far scarier than that heard in Scream, with its hissing demands. In truth, the opening scene of When a Stranger Calls seems to be the inspiration for Scream itself, although nothing in Scream quite matches the raw horror of When a Stranger Calls.
With its suggestive and subtle approach, When a Stranger Calls lets the audience use its own imagination in situations that could have been either gory or over-the-top. Fred Walton gets top marks for his imaginative directing, with many shots giving a very warped view of objects or surroundings, adding a sense of style and ambience to the film. The settings are all dark and scantilly lit, giving the film a powerful precense where it feels that at any moment something could come leaping out from the shadows. This technique continually keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, which is something that modern-day horror seems to have forgotten how to do.
One of the film's strongest aspects is its musical score, which no doubt inspired Harry Manfredini's work in Friday the th, with ominous cello chords and whining violins that give a sense of impending doom throughout. When things start to become intense, the music helps to give a completely out-of-control atmosphere, and heightens the tension incredibly.
After its brilliant opening scene, however, When a Stranger Calls seems to slump slightly, as a pointless and rather dull cat-and-mouse chase through New York ensues. Although the lead detective proves an interesting hero at first, the lack of character development leaves his role feeling flat and boring. For an entire fifty minutes, the 'action' takes place in New York, and one can't help but wonder how this all connects to the first twenty minutes of the film... When a Stranger Calls seems to have a sudden identity crisis as the audience is seemingly expected to feel sympathy for the cold-blooded killer from the opening, before he reverts back to his butchering ways for the last twenty minutes.
There is an explanation for this seeming identity crisis however, as research into When a Stranger Calls shows that it began life as a short film, lasting a mere forty minutes - incidentally, these forty minutes are the opening and closing scenes of the film, starring Carol Kane as Jill, and are the strongest scenes of the production. The entire center fifty minutes of the film - seeing Carol Kane absent as we follow the detective around New York - serve only as 'padding' to lengthen the movie for a more universal theatrical release, and do nothing but give When a Stranger Calls a very disjointed and confusing ambience. This begs the question, Why did the film company feel the need to lengthen When a Stranger Calls? Perhaps we will never know.
That said, When a Stranger Calls still manages to retain its unique sense of style throughout, and the final scare of the film provides one of the greatest shocks ever witnessed in a horror film. In truth, the first and final twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls are two of the greatest scenes ever orchestrated in a horror movie, with their cleverness (especially for such an old film) almost as shocking as the revelations themselves. The movie can't help but leave a lasting impression on the viewer - even as I write this I am forced to look over my shoulder just in case Curt Duncan is creeping up behind me - and this is a sign that When a Stranger Calls has done its job well.
A true chiller in the same vein as Black Christmas and Halloween, When a Stranger Calls is a genuinely scary film with one of the most famously eerie opening scenes ever. While the middle sags a little with a pointless cat-and-mouse plot-thread, it builds up to a strong climax with a great ending jolt to boot.