When A Stranger Calls 40th anniversary: Why the tense thriller still works

Babysitters don’t have it easy in film. They’re a type of character consistently being harassed, or doing the terrorizing themselves. This idea has taken on many forms and evolved throughout the years. But perhaps no babysitter, with the exception of Laurie Strode has been more mentally brutalized than Carole Kane’s young, naive Jill Johnson. The When a Stranger Calls 40th anniversary just passed, reminding us that the 1979 film is a tense thriller that still works today.

Wes Craven himself was taken with the memorable first twenty minute scene. He used it as inspiration when making his own iconic opening to Scream. Not only do they both include incessant phone calls, they both feature a certain built up tension. One that is most effective by showing as little as possible but still saying a lot.

The When a Stranger calls 40th anniversary highlights the clear parallel between the two. As well as all the other movies inspired by it later. Proving that no matter how far film making has come, the film’s intense, simple opener still delivers suspense.

Jill Johnson is the babysitter for a random family for the night. The kids are already asleep which the parents mention before heading out the door. It’s easy enough. But almost immediately the silence is broken when Jill starts receiving strange phone calls. A quiet, calm voice asking her, “have you checked the children?” In a similar way to Craven’s classic, the killer initially taunts his victim, not with brutality but with mind games.

when a stranger calls 40th anniversary, horror movies, when a stranger calls CREDIT: IMDB

It’s standard play right out of the classic urban legend. Meant to function as a warning tale to nonchalant parents. Implying that forgetting to “check in” on your children could have dire consequences. Just like the legend, it’s soon discovered that the calls are coming from inside the house. This twist is nothing new. Black Christmas did it first five years earlier and with sorority girls instead of a babysitter.

Yet When a Stranger Calls accomplishes something different.

It uses that first, famous twenty minutes to unravel the stages of fear. Beginning in its earliest place of unknowing comfortability. As comfortable as you can really get spending the evening in someone else’s house. This stage quickly turns to confusion with the plaguing phone calls, and builds from there into full fledged fear. Without almost any dialogue, it tells a whole story.

Building tension through purposeful close ups and small details like a ticking clock, a doorknob or a rattling window. By the time any danger has arrived, we’re at a heightened anxiety. Wondering and waiting for the payoff. Except in this case, pay off isn’t going to come immediately. Because that was only the beginning (literally) and there’s more to unpack.

Unlike the 2006 remake which stretches that opening scene into an entire movie, the original has a lot more going on.

It actually follows its female protagonist into the future. Jill has put the traumatic events from seven years ago behind her and is now a married mother of two. Simultaneously, the child killer, in a mental institution since then, has just escaped. Though it’s unclear why, he once again fixates on terrorizing her. His motivation towards Jill is never addressed or explained. But perhaps because it’s that randomness that is most scary.

The film culminates with a sort of mirror reflection of how it began. Except this time, Jill’s the mom thanking the young sitter, instructing her about pizza and telling her where they’ll be. It then plays out in somewhat similar fashion, only Jill, not the new sitter remains the victim of the calls. The idea of an unknown, unseen stalker is again alarming. But this time, it will play out with even scarier results.

the When a Stranger Calls 40th anniversary reminds us that while this topic is nothing new, it’s premise still remains terrifying.

The When a Stranger Calls 40th anniversary was October 26th. It’s available to buy or rent on DVD Netflix now.


Part of this post is in sponsorship with DVD Netflix as a part of the DVD Nation. All ideas expressed and written are my own




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