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  • Writer's pictureStephen Yanni

When a Stranger Calls (1979) - Terror on the Line

Rating: ★★★½☆ (3.5/5 stars)

Released 10-26-1979

Watched 05-18-2024

Reviewed 05-26-2024

Watched on Peacock



"Have you checked the children?"


"When a Stranger Calls" (1979) is a suspenseful thriller that begins with one of the most chilling openings in cinematic history. Directed by Fred Walton, this film effectively captures the essence of fear and tension that continues to resonate with audiences even today.


The story centers around Jill Johnson, played by Carol Kane, a babysitter who receives a series of eerie phone calls one night. The calls are unnerving and persistent, with the caller asking, "Have you checked the children?" The tension escalates until it's revealed that the calls are coming from inside the house, a revelation that has since become a classic horror trope.


Kane delivers a compelling performance, portraying Jill's transformation from a carefree teenager to a terrified victim with remarkable authenticity. Her fear is palpable, and it draws the audience into the gripping atmosphere of the film. Charles Durning, who plays John Clifford, a detective obsessed with catching the psychotic caller, provides a solid counterpoint to Kane’s character. His portrayal of a man determined to stop the madness adds depth to the narrative.


The film's first 20 minutes are its most iconic, delivering a masterclass in building suspense. The combination of the eerie score, tight pacing, and the claustrophobic setting of the house creates an intense experience that leaves a lasting impression. However, after the initial high-stakes opening, the film shifts gears, focusing on the detective’s pursuit of the escaped criminal seven years later. This transition, while necessary for the plot, results in a noticeable drop in tension and pacing.


The second act of the film, which delves into the criminal’s psyche and the detective’s relentless hunt, lacks the immediate urgency of the opening scene. The change in pace and focus makes the middle portion feel like a different movie altogether, which may be jarring for some viewers. Nevertheless, the performances and direction keep the audience engaged.


The climax brings the story full circle, returning to Jill as she faces her tormentor once more. The final showdown is tense and satisfying, tying together the film's themes of fear and survival.


While "When a Stranger Calls" is not without flaws, it remains a significant entry in the horror-thriller genre. Its memorable opening sequence, strong performances, and atmospheric direction earn it a well-deserved 3.5 stars. This film is a must-watch for fans of classic horror, offering a blend of psychological terror and suspense that stands the test of time.

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