Odds and Dead Ends: Why we only remember the opening of ‘When A Stranger Calls’

The question posed by this article’s title, by default, raises many questions. The film, When A Stranger Calls has passed into horror legend, had a sequel and then been remade in the classic 21st century tradition, and seems to be put in with the canon of horror greats, like so many others. And yet what people remember it for occurs in the opening act, and the rest of the film bares such a lack of resemblance to the actual phone calls that one would be mistaken for thinking that there had been a mix-up in the editing room. So why is it, that when we think of When A Stranger Calls, all we think about is the babysitter being asked if she’s checked the children?

The first point I’d raise is the obvious one; the title of the film. It’s like hearing a Harry Potter title and not thinking of Harry Potter. This immediate drawing of our attention to the singular opening means that our entire connection to the film is dominated by this link of the title to the opening scene. We associate the whole film with the title, and the title with the opening act, so we’re essentially being taught to summarise the film by its relation to the first twenty minutes.

We also have the obvious call-back to Black Christmas (dir Bob Clarke, 1974), with the phone call coming from inside the house. The film wasn’t as well known then, but the influence is undeniable. Additionally, there is the fact that it’s obviously based off the fairly standard urban legend; the legend had already been worked into the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. When you also factor in that the opening is essentially a larger-budget version of a short film based off the legend that director/writer duo Fred Walton and Steve Feke made, called The Sitter, you realise that the basic premise is well known and already recognisable before the feature film. This means that the repetition of the basic storyline makes its way into our memories through an already-established pattern.

After the first twenty minutes go by, the film becomes a strange, police-procedural-cum-Giallo-cum-slasher, the kind of film you’d eventually see with films like Maniac (1980), and some of Fulci’s American films, such as The New York Ripper (1982). That the rest of the film is fairly slow and nowhere near as thrilling as its opener shows how a brilliant start doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole film can hold up. Having to find a route onwards, the filmmakers choosing to follow both the killer (as a fully reasoning and functional – to a certain extent – adult) and the police, is a bold move, but works only if the cat-and-mouse can be sustained. Even if it can (and it’s questionable as to how effective it is in the final cut), it’s so different from the opening act as to only be, from a certain point of view, tangentially linked.

This also doesn’t even mention that the first twenty minutes are, by comparison, a superbly directed piece of suspenseful filmmaking. The direction is taut, the feeling of isolation and claustrophobia wonderful, and the nihilistic ending caps it all off to create one of the most tense openers in film. That our prior knowledge (or most people’s prior knowledge) of the outcome, thanks to our knowledge of the urban legend, doesn’t change the fact that we’re looking for every shadow to move and growing more and more fearful with each frame that passes. With cinematography from an Oscar-nominated cinematographer to boot, it rightly deserves its place in the great halls of horror film canon. It’s just one of those oddities that we can turn off at the 20/21 minute mark and be perfectly happy with walking away from.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @kjudgemental

-Having mentioned Fulci in this article, if you want to read up some more on him, I wrote an article a few years ago as a brief introduction to his work: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/odds-and-dead-ends-lucio-fulci-italys-godfather-of-gore/

-And if you’re interested in learning more about Giallo, the Italian violent thrillers, that Fulci made, I’ve got you covered there as well: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/odds-and-dead-ends-an-introduction-to-the-giallo/

Odds and Dead Ends: A maze inside the mind / Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining, is my favourite horror film of all time. For those that (somehow) aren’t familiar with the film, it is the story of the new caretaker (Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson) and his family at the remote Overlook Hotel over the winter, where ghostly apparitions send him spiraling into madness. Based on the novel by Stephen King, a major feature of the movie which wasn’t in the book is the hedge maze on the hotel grounds. In this article, I’m going to look at this maze, and how it acts as a kind of middle-ground representation of Jack’s ever-twisted mind, as it is changed by the hotel.

Please bear in mind that, as with everything I write for HorrorAddicts.net, in a short article such as this, there’s no way I’m able to cover the wealth of interpretations and analysis and ideas on this film. This is a starting point, where hopefully you can springboard yourself into your own thoughts.

It has been well documented that the layout of the Overlook Hotel is deliberately impossible. Doors lead to nowhere, rooms move, furniture shifts position; everything possible is done to very subtly disorient the viewer. For example, in the first scene of Danny on his tricycle, we pass an exit stairwell leading down, and doors that would appear to go through the thin wall and open up onto the stairwell itself. It is, in fact, a maze of dead ends and double-backs.

Even furniture subtly moves between shots. Rob Ager has documented all this extensively, and his articles and analysis on the subject can be found at his site, which I’ll put a link to at the end of this article. One example is the appearing and disappearing chair behind Jack when Wendy interrupts his writing. Needless to say, with someone like Kubrick, this kind of mismatching wasn’t just sloppy but done deliberately. It is a visual representation of the chaos and insanity that it will try to bring Jack into.

The hotel slowly ratchets up its presence and ghostly manifestations in order to slowly drive Jack mad. This is helped by subtly-suggested alcohol issues (a carry-over from the novel which isn’t nearly as prevalent but still present), and flares of temper. Aided by the claustrophobia of the hotel (‘“what the old-timers used to call ‘cabin fever’”’), and the irritations at being unable to write (‘“Lots of ideas, no good ones though,”’) it all provides the perfect platform for the Overlook Hotel to begin to exert its influence on Jack. The reasons for the Overlook’s attempt to drive Jack to madness are as heavily disputed and debated as almost anything else in the history of fan-theories, and they won’t be discussed here, purely for length reasons.

With the Overlook trying to get a hold on its caretaker, Kubrick wants to give us a middle-ground, to understand that the links between Jack and the hotel go beyond the surface level. Here he presents us with the iconic hedge maze. As I’ve already said, the hotel is a maze in itself, full of twists and turns, and what’s interesting is that almost no two shots of the maze are the same. The map outside the entrance doesn’t match the way Wendy and Danny walk, and the model Jack looks down on doesn’t correspond with either of these. Even the entrance Ullman takes them to in the film’s beginning is on a completely different side of the maze to when Danny runs into at the finale.

There seem to be strong indicators, then, that just like the hotel, the maze changes shape and form. Wendy even says in the kitchen with Halloran that ‘“This place is such an enormous maze I feel like I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in,”’ so if you’re wanting verbal confirmation of this connection, then there it is. But how do we link the maze to Jack?

Firstly, the exterior shots of the Overlook at the beginning of the film don’t show a maze at all. It isn’t present until the whole family are exploring the grounds; when Jack has arrived. Additionally, when Wendy and Danny are exploring it on their own, Jack walks over to the model version in the foyer. We then switch to a top-down view showing a miniature Danny and Wendy walking around the central section. Because, as discussed before, the model and the actual maze don’t add up, we have to assume that this isn’t actually a top-down view of the real maze, but a subjective view of Jack imagining his wife and son in the maze.

By switching to a subjective viewpoint, Kubrick suggests a linking between Jack’s mind (his imagination), and the hedge maze. This doesn’t mean very much throughout the film as, for a large portion of the film, the maze fades into the background. However, right at the very end, it makes a reappearance as Jack chases Danny inside. Surely, as the maze is intrinsically linked with Jack’s mind, this makes sense for the finale to play out there. This is the point where everything combines, hallucination and reality, the Overlook and Jack. In a way, this is almost a proving ground, an arena that the Overlook has provided for their caretaker to show that he can follow out their wishes; that he ‘has the belly for it.’

Ironically, Jack eventually ends up following Danny’s footsteps, just like the trail of breadcrumbs Wendy mentioned at the beginning of the film. He follows Danny in the same way as he followed them through the model before. He has descended into a manifestation of his chaotic mind, distressed by all the factors that enabled the Overlook to push him into pliable madness.

In the end, however, Jack is eventually outsmarted by Danny and stumbles around blindly inside. Whether you believe the ghosts are real or all just a hallucination is irrelevant, because everyone can see that Jack has slipped into madness at this point. Jack is unable to find his way out of the maze, out of his mind. He never recovers, even for a moment as King’s original character does in the novel, and so he freezes to death unredeemed and forever trapped inside the Overlook’s testing ground.

In the end, there really is a simple formula to understand this discussion: Jack Torrance + Overlook Hotel = Hedge Maze. It’s a simple concept, but one probably overlooked by many people watching for the first time, especially by those who aren’t accustomed to looking out for these kinds of interpretations in popular cinema. The Shining is a deeply layered text, and the idea presented is very much a theory, which probably disagrees with 50% of fan theories and analysis of the film, but that’s the way it works with The Shining; everyone has their own idea. In any case, I hope it piques your interest in re-examining the film, and re-watching it, of course. You could do worse things than re-watching one of the greatest films the genre has ever produced; just don’t let it get into your head too much.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

-A link to Rob Ager’s site, which I highly encourage anyone interested in film analysis to check out: http://www.collativelearning.com/

-check out my other articles at HorrorAddicts.net if you like this kind of analysis; I’m sure there’ll be something for you to enjoy: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/author/kjudgeimaginarium/

 

Live Action Reviews! by Crystal Connor: What Keeps You Alive

 

Master Imaginationist and Instagram photographer Crystal Connor is the Chief Imagineer working for the Department of Sleep Prevention’s Nightmare Division. A Washington State native she loves anything to do with monsters, bad guys (as in evil-geniuses & super-villains.  Not ‘those’ kind her mother warned her about), rogue scientific experiments, jewelry, sky-high high-heeled shoes & unreasonably priced handbags.