When I recently revisited When a Stranger Calls for the first time in years, I was floored. It was not the film that I remembered.
Carol Kane’s performance as Jill, the babysitter who endures a horrific ordeal, had so overshadowed everything else in my movie memory that I was shocked when she disappeared from screen after the first twenty minutes, not to re-appear until the 75-minute mark.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but the remake had it right.
The 1979 classic is a bit of a strange movie in that the intro is a solid slasher set up. It begins with Jill receiving strange phone calls as she is babysitting, and soon culminates in the slaughter of the children upstairs. The build up in that first twenty minutes is so intense that the remake was able to stretch it out into a 90-minute film. After that horror cold open that could rival Scream, we are plunked back into slower police procedural territory. Rather than the genre mashup it sets itself up as, it feels like two separate films. We are set up to believe that this story will be about the babysitter, because she is still alive at the end of her ordeal and we are invested in her. But other than a passing mention of Jill being “shaken up” (yeah, no shit!), she doesn’t pop up again until the end of the film, seemingly well-adjusted and moved on with her life.
It was inspiring to see, but it feels too neat, a convenience for the sake of a smooth story. It also bothered me that she was totally fine with having her picture in the paper…. does she not know that the killer has escaped? It makes me sad and scared that in the ‘70s, it was plausible that a woman who was stalked and mentally tortured by a man who murdered the children that she was watching was not given a head’s up that he had vanished from prison.
Thankfully, there is a sequel that rectifies this.
When a Stranger Calls Back seems to be considered generally cheesy. It was a made for television production in 1993, so already has some points against it from a critical perspective. There are definite lapses in logic, but story-wise…my God, this is the story that the original was meant to tell!
The film opens with a premise familiar to fans of the original. Julia (Jill Schoelen) is babysitting in a house that she is not all that familiar with. Later that night, she hears a knock at the door. She can’t see who it is, but it is a man’s voice. He claims that his car broke down, and that he would like to come in and use the phone to call a tow.
To her credit, the girl does not open the door. She instead calmly takes the information provided to her, and agrees to call for him. When the phone predictably doesn’t work, she has more quick-thinking reflexes and stages a phone call. She tells him she has called and he goes on his merry way. An hour or so later he is back, complaining that the tow has not arrived in a timely fashion. He is sneaky, appealing to her better nature. He wants her to call his wife, she’ll be so worried. He wants her to try the tow company again. Throughout his repeat visits, strange things are happening within the house. Objects are being moved around. Doors and windows are opening mysteriously. And when the stranger comes around again, he claims that he sees someone moving around upstairs.
Rushing upstairs, she finds that the children are missing. She is all set to run, and as she fumbles with the lock, a man comes out of the shadows of the living room and attacks her. The children are never found.
Again, this movie nails the cold open. It is a surprisingly intense scene, one that I think is made particularly scary if you’ve been there. In both movies, every second of the babysitter experience will come rushing back. That time you heard a sound in the shrubs. That time you thought you saw something in the backyard. That time your brother knocked and ran. Every single time you felt that adrenaline rush and checked all the locks before cracking the kid’s bedroom door will flash before your eyes. You remember how truly helpless you were in many respects as a teen babysitter, and it will feel as fresh as when it happened.
Post-cold open is where this sequel really shines. Unlike its predecessor, this one puts the focus on the babysitter. She has moved and is living alone in an apartment. She comes home, checking all of the rooms before getting comfortable. As she takes a peek into her closet, she is horrified to find a child’s shirt hanging there.
She goes to the police, who are frustratingly skeptical. She tells them that she has felt something off lately; things moved slightly, alarms going off at night that she didn’t set, and now the shirt. She is basically given the brush off; she must have set the alarm by mistake, and who notices a book that is moved just a few inches?
Enter Carol Kane, here to answer those questions as someone who has been there.
Jill is working for women’s services at the university, helping girls like Julia who aren’t believed. She knows about Julia’s past, and very obviously can relate.
Jill is a badass advocate for Julia, sight unseen. She calmly and clinically explains to the officers that Julia is likely very aware of her surroundings. She lives in a sparsely furnished apartment, with very little clutter. She picked somewhere to live that doesn’t have a lot of nooks and crannies. She compulsively checks things are in order, including her alarm. In short, Julia is traumatized, so her explanations make sense.
How could one bad night ruin someone’s life, right? It puts a bad taste in your mouth how easy it is for the police to disregard Julia’s story, and write her off as “crazy.” The cops here are not willfully ignorant – as products of the time they are not open to a discussion of trauma and how it reverberates and touches every aspect of Julia’s day. The vibe is that she should just get over it, and it is frightening how this parallels conversations that we are only now starting to have about abuse and sexual assault. It is incomprehensible to them, and this lack of comprehension rings sadly true to today. Jill believes Julia, because she knows firsthand that just because someone wasn’t there to see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
When a Stranger Calls Back is where Jill gets to tell her story. She gets to help someone who went through the same trauma as her, but it’s more than that. On the surface, Jill seems put together. But that is just external. Underneath, she is a clear example of what it is to survive a trauma. It never goes away. It might get better over time, and it can be managed, but it will always be there.
Jill struggles against this part of her past. She calls her police officer friend (Charles Durning, reprising his role here as John Clifford). He seems to be the only one who understands how horrifying this experience is. He is aware of Julia’s struggles, and he understands it. Whatever is happening to her, she believes it, and that is enough for him.
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What is great about his role in this film is that he is the one who can see through Jill’s tough exterior. He knew her when she was a frightened kid and a hopeful young woman, and he knows how much she was impacted by this event. He is the midpoint of Jill’s and Julia’s extremes; the woman who has come through it, for better or worse, and the girl who is still living her worst nightmare every day. Rather than diminish the depth of these character’s feelings, his presence actually enhances them. He doesn’t fight against them, but instead let’s them play out. He calls Jill out when he feels that she is acting in a way that could be harmful, but he doesn’t ever invalidate what she is feeling. He becomes an important supporting character, allowing Jill’s character to develop in a way that she wasn’t able to in the 1979 film.
Overall, these two films are an intriguing set to watch back to back. The second definitely has a few leaps that are probably a bit too much, but the idea is solid. A maniac who can throw his voice and is a pro at body paint makes for a story that is absolutely ridiculous, but simultaneously a special kind of creepy. The invasion of privacy and the violations that Julia endures are enough to make you sleep with the lights on and watch every shadow when you’re alone. It is an eerily relevant storyline today, as Julia struggles within a system that is unwilling to help her because there is a denial that there is anything wrong. This is mirrored as well in Jill, who has come through it, but not demon-free. Despite its flaws, When a Stranger Calls Back lets Jill shine as the badass she is, while still being vulnerable. Carol Kane’s portrayal of Jill as a survivor is a refreshingly honest one, and one that deserves a second look.