Rewind: 1993 – When a Stranger Calls Back

This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.

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For decades, horror sequels have provided the scarred heroines of the original films a platform to channel their trauma in order to guide others. By A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), Nancy Thompson is a psychiatrist specializing in adolescent dreams. In Scream 3 (2000), Sidney Prescott works for a women’s crisis hotline.

Between those films, When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) turns the mousy Jill Johnson into a powerful avenger. “Have you checked the children?” the cold voice of psycho killer Curt Duncan asks Jill over the phone in When a Stranger Calls (1979) – almost two decades before Ghostface will dial Casey Becker to ask, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

First shot as a short entitled The Sitter in 1977, director Fred Walton adapted his own story into a feature-length script after the runaway success of another babysitter-in-peril flick – John Carpenter’s Halloween, the eighth highest grossing film of 1978. Walton cast 27-year-old rising star Carol Kane as Jill. Kane had made a name through small but memorable roles in films directed by Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, and Sidney Lumet. Not to mention she had earned an Academy Award nomination for Hester Street (1975).

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I had forgotten, until my recent rewatch, that Jill is actually in very little of When a Stranger Calls. I was disappointed, to be honest. After having watched her transcendent performance in Hester Street for my podcast Academy Queens, I was eager to see Carol Kane take on a homicidal maniac! But, sadly, she’s only in the first and last twenty minutes of the film. And she’s hardly the hero, more of a damsel in distress. It’s Charles Durning’s detective John Clifford who leads the bulk of the story.

The iconic opening, though – the sequence Wes Craven paid homage to in Scream – is practically all Carol Kane. Jill arrives at the Mandrakis residence as the Mr. and Mrs. are on their way out; the kids are already in bed. Soon after, Jill receives a series of disturbing phone calls. She initially disregards them as a childish antics, but when the caller confesses his desire to be covered in her blood, Jill decides it’s time to rope in the authorities, who inform her that they can discern the caller’s location if she can keep him on the line long enough. Sure, dude.

This leads to the film’s classic line, “We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house!” Then, before Jill gets a chance to vanquish her tormentor, Clifford swoops in to save the day. Well, sort of. Turns out the kids were dead the whole time, torn to pieces and unrecognizable.

Cut to seven years later. Duncan has escaped from the insane asylum (a la Michael Myers), and Mr. Mandrakis hires Clifford, now a PI, to catch him. Clifford and Duncan’s tired cat-and-mouse game takes up the entire grueling second act.

Then in act three, we reunite with Jill (finally), now married with two children. She and her husband are out at a nice restaurant while the kids remain at home with a sitter. The maitre d’ informs her that she has a call. She answers it only to hear, “Have you checked the children?” Carol Kane lets out a bloodcurdling scream and goes into full-on panic mode. Her pain is palpable as she fears that Duncan has butchered her children as revenge. Reduced to a babbling mess, Jill’s husband has to handle the situation. They speed home with a posse of police officers, but nothing appears to be wrong, and the kids are fine.

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Later that night, though, Duncan emerges to kill Jill. (Evidently, the police were not very thorough.) And just when you think the movie is going to at last give Jill her badass hero moment, Clifford materializes out of nowhere (again) to defeat Duncan for her. Lame.

When a Stranger Calls Back, however, does Carol Kane justice. Produced fourteen years later for Showtime as a TV-movie, this sequel makes Jill the warrior she deserves to be. Now a self-defense instructor and the director of women’s services on a college campus, Jill specializes in trauma and the men who cause it. She serves as a counselor for female survivors, like Julia Jenz, whom she quickly discovers she has a lot in common with.

Five years earlier, Julia experienced a hellish night at the mercy of a crazed lunatic while babysitting, too. Echoing the first film, When a Stranger Calls Backstarts in a similar fashion. Alone, save for the sleeping kids upstairs, Julia’s studying and MTV-watching gets interrupted by a telephone call. But it’s only to upend our expectations. Because the real terror stems from a voice coming from outdoors. A seemingly harmless man, whom Julia wisely refuses to open the door for, claims that his car has broken down, and she agrees to ring his auto club. But now the phone is dead.

Unwilling to admit that she has no connection to the outside world, Julia pretends to help the stranger – even goes through the motions of dialing someone. But he, presumably the one that killed the line, guilts her and toys with her until manifesting inside the house (when he was just outside) with outstretched Nosferatu hands.

She gets away, but he vanishes – along with the children, gone without a trace, never to be seen again, alive or dead. And now, in the present, someone is stalking her. But not just following her – breaking into her triple-bolted third floor apartment and rearranging her things. Julia doesn’t think anything of it until she finds a shirt belonging to one of the missing children on a hanger in her closet. Julia runs to the cops, who label her a “hysterical coed” and call Jill.

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Knowing firsthand that men’s actions escalate until they get what they want, Jill mentors Julia for a possible confrontation with this feng shui-bent madman by arming her with a gun and showing her how to shoot. All the while, Jill works to track the man down, to catch him before it can come to that. Jill recognizes all-too-well the world women occupy. “You cannot say that you don’t believe in violence,” she tells her hand-to-hand combat students, “unless you also say you don’t believe in living.” Yeah, it’s a shitty notion, but it’s hard to say she’s wrong.

And the climax of When a Stranger Calls Back certainly gives Jill the opportunity to kick crazy-guy-ass. Because Julia’s stalker has invaded Jill’s home, naked and covered in body paint. You know, for camouflage reasons. Just go with it.

When he leaps out to attack her, she does not hesitate to fight back – with a midair martial arts move that would make Chuck Norris tremble. And although she does not single-handedly slay the villain, she definitely does more than scream and weep, as she did at the original film’s climax, since Jill used the time between movies to become a feminist warrior.

When a Stranger Calls Back is without a doubt a much better and more cohesive film than its predecessor, largely due to its empowerment of Jill Johnson. Because Carol Kane is a queen who deserves character development.

Brandon Stanwyck