The first depictions of supernatural events appear in several of the silent shorts created by the film pioneer Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, the best known being Le Manoir du diable, which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. Since the beginning of horror flicks, there has probably never been a more suspenseful and nail-biting section of film as the first half of the original When a Stranger Calls.
Released a year after John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, this thriller by longtime actor-turned-director Fred Walton has held a strong following of its own. In an exemplary piece of suspense, the film begins with a babysitter (Carol Kane) fielding threatening phone calls while on the job. She soon finds that a pair of children in her charge have been threatened; she is nearly killed herself by the homicidal maniac before police arrive.
As with Halloween, the action jumps some years ahead after this climatic beginning, when Kane’s character is herself a wife and mother–and the monster escapes from a mental institution to re-create his original carnage in the heroine’s own home. No longer a naive girl though still terrified but prepared she moves boldly to thwart the maniac’s attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion. Between these exciting bookends, the film becomes obscure, but the first half compensates by engineering numerous great horror moments worth savoring.
The film starts off with Jill (Carol Kane), a young babysitter minding two small children for the evening, the children having already been put to bed for the night by the parents before they leave. She begins to receive anonymous, frightening phone calls with the caller ominously asking, “Have you checked the children?” and “Why haven’t you checked the children?” then hanging up.
Scared, she calls the police, who at first tell her to calm down, then instruct her to try to keep the caller on the line if he calls again, so the call can be traced. When she obliges and they trace the call, the real terror starts. I remember when I first saw this film, and my reaction to this revelation was unparalleled by any film I had seen at that time.
Character to watch: Carol Kane as Jill Johnson.
Journal your answers to the following questions after you watch the movie.
- How does this particular character’s journey compare with yours?
- Did the character develop certain characteristics during the movie that you have or that you would like to have? If so, what are those characteristics?
- What obstacles did this character face? What was his or her biggest challenge?
- What would you have done differently if you had been in the same position as the character?
- Is this character the type of person you would be friends with? Why or why not?