Though usually classified as a slasher film since its release in 1979, this white-knuckle suspenser is far more difficult to pin down thanks to its low level of (mostly bloodless and offscreen) violence and unusual structure that recalls an anthology. Released in theaters just in time for the Halloween season in 1979, When a Stranger Calls was sandwiched between two other October titles from Columbia Pictures, …And Justice for All and Skatetown, U.S.A., in one of the studio’s rare bids to capture the horror market that had proven elusive earlier that year with its killer bat film, Nightwing.
The opening half hour of this film is a very close remake of director Fred Walton’s chilling 1977 short film, The Sitter, itself a hybrid of sorts between two earlier thrillers, Fright (1971) and Black Christmas (1974). Of course, the babysitter-in-peril concept was also easy to market after the record-breaking success of the prior year’s Halloween (1978), whose influence wouldn’t be fully felt until the early 1980s. Oscar nominated as Best Actress for the earlier Hester Street (1975), Carol Kane anchors the opening and closing segments as Jill, a young woman terrorized by a psychopath played by Tony Beckley (who passed away before the film’s release). The most divisive portion of the film is its midsection with single barfly Colleen Dewhurst and dogged cop Charles Durning both crossing paths with the maniac, a detour into crime psychodrama that sets this film apart from its ilk.
Thanks to its chilling “Have you checked the children?” curtain raiser, the film became a substantial cult hit on TV and home video and is now the most famous incarnation of a common urban legend about a babysitter being harassed with phone calls from a killer inside the house. Dating back at least to the early ‘60s and tweaked in various forms over the years, the tale proved to be the perfect basis for Walton and college friend Steve Feke’s short film format. As a result, The Sitter was submitted for Oscar consideration in the Live Action Short category and ran for one week in Los Angeles playing before initial engagements of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
A fortuitous screening attended by executive producers Barry Krost and Douglas Chapin led to the recruiting of Walton to expand the short, and the resulting feature became a box-office success. Surprisingly, Columbia held off for over a year on future horror releases, finally going all-in on the slasher craze with one of its best-loved entries in 1981 with Happy Birthday to Me before sitting out the rest of the trend entirely. All too happy to keep toying with the conventions of the thriller and horror genres, Walton would cheekily upend audience expectations with the semi-slasher dark comedy April Fool’s Day (1986) and a clever made-for-TV remake of William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1988).
Long before the fad of rebooting and remaking any commercial property available, Kane and Durning would reteam with Walton for the excellent made-for-cable sequel When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), which is considered by many fans to be equal to or even superior to its predecessor. The split three-part structure is retained in that sequel but given several new twists, with Jill now grown into a tough survivor determined to prevent women from falling prey to a situation like hers ever again. The original film’s opening segment was later awkwardly expanded into a drastically inferior 2006 remake, and its cinematic DNA can also be found in such later films as The House of the Devil (2009), Amusement (2008) and most famously, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and its progeny.