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/