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When a Stranger Calls

Year: 1979
Studio: Columbia
Director: Fred Walton
Producer: Fred Walton/Steve Feke
Writer: Steve Feke
Cast: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Collen Dewhurst

You've probably heard the iconic sentences talked about in popular culture even if you don't know the movie – 'have you checked the children?' and the real kicker 'we've traced the call, it's coming from inside the house'.

When teenager babysitter Jill (Carol Kane, who I recognized as the kooky ghost of Christmas present from years later in Scrooged) settles in one night to look after the kids of a wealthy suburban couple, the first few phone calls just irritate her when the caller hangs up.

Then he starts to ask the creepy pivotal question. Far less well known is the most chilling line in the film, where Jill asks what the creep wants. 'Your blood,' the soft-spoken psycho almost whispers, as if in the throes of sexual ecstasy, '...all over me.'

Those first 20 minutes make a brilliant short story in themselves. Long, slow tracking shots of the darkened house and the pendulum of the grandfather clock swinging patiently back and forth are punctuated by deep, terrifying orchestral crescendos as things get scarier. It's an exercise in filmed tension plenty of Tarantino and Bay generation directors would do well to study.

Then, when the sequence ends (shockingly and tragically, and I won't spoil it for you if you don't know the film), all the tension evaporates. The entire midsection, set seven years later, is superfluous as the rotund ex cop John (Durning, first on the scene that night) tracks the psycho down with the help of barfly Tracy (Dewhurst). It turns into a generic and very unexciting chase thriller where the proceedings are still treacle-slow but there's nothing scary left to hold your interest.

Things pick up a little as we meet Jill as a young married mother of two. Out celebrating her husband's impending promotion at a restaurant, she's interrupted by the waiter telling them there's a phone call. If you don't guess it's going to be a creepy British voice saying 'have you checked the children?' before it happens you need to watch more movies, but the climax brings some of the fear and tension back and wraps things up.

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