The October Diaries: When A Stranger Calls Back

Illustration by Max Brown
Blurbs by Sean & Christof

October 11th, 2015:
When A Stranger Calls Back

Year: 1993
Director: Fred Walton
Format: HBO
From IMDB: A young babysitter, all alone in the house with two children asleep above, is bothered by a stranger. Unfortunately, the phone’s dead…
Tagline: Before there was “Scream,” there was… the stranger.

Christof’s Take:

What I Liked:

My only notes taken during this film were:


feels scary

And that’s all, folks. Apparently I thought “scary” didn’t quite do the film justice, so I revised with the far more emphatic: feels scary.

Any movie that scares and engages me enough to only put down three words (and only two distinct words) in my notes is a winner in my book.

There’s a specific texture of relief that occurs when you are watching the first few minutes of a sequel and you realize it is likely the film will not let you or the first movie down. When A Stranger Calls Back flooded me with such relief not long after hitting Play.

I truly respect its ability to introduce new-yet-similar characters and situations while also bringing back certain characters from the first film. Carol Kane’s return was very welcome. There was another relief when I realized she wasn’t wedged or shoehorned into a movie that didn’t really have room for her. They were able to introduce her into this situation with logic and poise.

Like When A Stranger Calls, I enjoyed the film’s ability to introduce a tension realistically, and then let it sit and brew in me until half the time I’m getting startled equally by the movie and my own anticipation of what could happen next.

In the first act, there is maybe the most frightening and simple bit of psychological horror ever carried out with a notepad. 

This first act is my favorite — as is the case with the original — but I also quite enjoyed getting to know the super-creep we are dealing with this time around.

What I Didn’t Like:

(Mild Spoilers — highlight to see text or skip to Final Thoughts)

While I appreciated Charles Durning’s return and his presence throughout the second and third acts, I wanted to see Carol Kane be the one to get the creep in the end. She contributed sure, but I wanted her to be the one to pull the trigger. In a film dealing with such present themes of the way men are capable of terrorizing women, she deserved to be the ultimate hero. It would have offered a more powerful sense of closure to this film, as well as the original.

Finals Thoughts:

IMDB lists this as a “TV Movie” movie. For the last two years we’ve been a little skittish at the notion of watching a TV-friendly sequel to When A Stranger Calls, but upon further investigation we learned it was a Showtime movie, which changed our attitudes drastically. After John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me!, I have a little more respect for made-for-TV movies. But when you watch one, there is an uncomfortable element: as always, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have a long list of things you know can’t happen because of the restrictions.

The first movie is not gore-centric or anything like that, but it was truly frightening — of the the heavy-hitters in the fear department. This sequel came out 14 years later, and with the freedom of a Cable Television release, the returning director, Fred Walton, was able to match the tone and structure of the first film quite well, while also bringing enough renewed zest, charm, and eeriness to not feel like it’s a complete facsimile of the original.

If you liked the first, you will probably enjoy this addition. If you’ve never seen the first, you should really take care of that immediately.


Sean’s Take:

What I liked:

If you’ve seen the original When A Stranger Calls then you’ve already experienced the kind of rigorous tension the sequel somehow manages to recapture. If you haven’t seen the first, both films open with extended scenes of mounting tension. Then, in both films, we deal with the repercussions of that initial scene throughout the remainder (while, naturally, dealing with new creepshow hysterics).

It’s impressive that the sequel’s intro manages to feel both reminiscent of the original’s opener (which made “The call is coming from inside the house” famous) and uniquely it’s own scene, with it’s own intricacies and terrifying dynamics. This franchise did a lot of the grunt work in establishing the modern babysitter-getting-creepy-phone-calls scenario.

Carol Kane reprises her role from the original, but her character is now the mentor to the newest victim of phone-terror. She dominates the role with effortless confidence and was, as always, an amazing and singular presence to behold. Charles Durning and director Fred Walton also return. All these returning creative players really lends itself well to franchise tonal continuity.

This one wins the prize for the most sustained terror I’ve felt. It rarely offered much in the way of humor to lighten the mood, instead it forced us to to sit and let the tension stagnate in our stomachs like a frothing horror-ache. It was great.

The villain was also worth noting. He was unique enough to differentiate himself from the original’s antagonist and his character’s abilities as a ventriloquist were used as a clever way to up the ante on a very similar premise (babysitter phone tag death games).

What I didn’t like:

Charles Durning seemed underused, I suppose. Other than that, no real complaints.  This was competent, tidy and effective.

Final thoughts:

Very underrated franchise. Both films should get more credit for establishing some genre tropes that have been recycled to death by now. It’s not just Scream that borrows heavily from the conflict mechanics on display between these two movies. Beyond that, both films should really garner more attention based on how effective they crank the tension and manage to hold it for sustained periods of time. These are no small feats. 



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