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Film / When a Stranger Calls

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Poster for the 1979 film.

"Have you checked the children?"

When a Stranger Calls is a horror movie that uses The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House as a plot. It plays with the Urban Legend of "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs".

There are two versions: the 1979 original, directed by Fred Walton and starring Carol Kane, Tony Beckley, and Charles Durning (which was followed by a 1993 made-for-television sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back), and a 2006 remake, directed by Simon West and starring Camilla Belle and Lance Henriksen. The 2006 remake uses handheld phones (both home and cell phones) instead of the technical impossibility of a rotary-dial phone calling itself, and is no less effective for it. Also worth mentioning is that the remake is more of an extended re-imagining of the original's opening sequence, rather than a straight remake.

Both movies follow Jill Johnson, who is working as a babysitter for the children of a wealthy doctor and his wife. Not long into her job, however, she is plagued by persistent, creepy phone calls from someone who is watching her every move...

Tropes present in both films:

  • Being Watched: The Stranger makes it clear that he's spying on Jill.
  • Big Fancy House: The home where Jill is babysitting is a nice upper class house with a lot of room throughout it, making it harder to be everywhere at the right time.
  • Break the Cutie: Jill is a bright and nice person slowly but thoroughly left terrified and haunted by the Stranger's presence. Indeed, the ending of the remake implies that she's going to be psychologically damaged for a long time.
  • The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House: Said almost word-for-word (though this movie isn't the Trope Namer). The police trace the Stranger's phone calls and its revealed he's in the house with Jill.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Stranger talks in a very calm and smooth voice during his calls, and speaks with mock polite dialect.
  • For the Evulz: There's really no purpose to the Stranger's phone calls, except to freak out Jill and the audience. His entire M.O. can basically be described as "stalk and harass these women for hours, drive them into a paranoid terror, then murder them and anyone else who gets in the way for fun".
  • Harassing Phone Call: Many, from the Stranger, who makes scores of aggressive and threatening phone calls before making his presence known.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A lot of horror comes from the idea of the Stranger while he's remaining off-screen.
  • Oh, Crap!: Several times, but the most notable display of fear comes when Jill finds out just where the calls are coming from...
  • Police Are Useless: Averted. They do show up to combat the Stranger at the end, and try to provide Jill good advice over the phone when she calls them.
  • Serial Killer: The Stranger breaks into houses to stalk and kill babysitters (and depending on the version maybe the kids with them).
  • Stalker Without A Crush: The Stranger seems to be stalking Jill just to enjoy her fear rather than out of intent to sexually assault anyone.

Tropes present in the 1979 original and 1993 sequel:

  • Distant Prologue: After the opening sequence, the film skips forward seven years, following Curt's continuing psychopathic exploits after his escape from a psychiatric institution.
  • Evil Brit: The Stranger, aka Curt Duncan, is a British-accented serial killer.
  • Friend on the Force: Garber to Clifford after the time skip.
  • Spiteful Spit: When another customer at Torchy's Bar confronts Duncan for pestering Tracy and demands he apologize to her, Duncan spits in his face, prompting the man to beat the shit out of him.
  • That One Case: The murder of the Mandrakis children becomes this for John Clifford, leading him to leave the police department and become a Private Detective, and then — after Duncan escapes and Mandrakis hires Clifford to find him — to resolve to kill Duncan once he does.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Tracy Fuller plays a prominent role in the original film's second act, becoming Duncan's next stalking victim and agreeing to be The Bait for Clifford to capture him, but disappears from the film completely after Clifford chases Duncan from her apartment.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Stranger has no problem murdering a child.

Tropes present in the 2006 remake:

  • Abandoned Hospital: Jill's nightmare at the end features her waking up in one and being attacked by the Stranger.
  • Action Survivor: Jill, particularly during the last half-hour or so of her ordeal when she finds out the Stranger is in the house and tries to escape him.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The premise of Jill in her babysitting job as she is terrorized was just the brief beginning of the 1979 film before it did a Time Skip and followed the Stranger trying to target Jill, who is now a wife and mother. The remake, from beginning to end, made the opening of the original film the main premise overall.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the original film, Dr. Mandrakis's first name is Alexander; in the remake, his first name is Tim.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: The Stranger in the original was given moments of pity, since he was shown to be genuinely mentally ill and unable to help himself. This Stranger receives no such humanizing moments and is portrayed as more evil than insane.
  • Adapted Out: The original film's second and third acts' Time Skip, which happened after the incident when Jill was terrorized while babysitting, is completely removed in the remake.
  • Alpha Bitch: Tiffany has shades of this, although it's played with. She outright says that she knows she's kind of a bitch and her friends know it, too, and she's an underage drinker who kissed Jill's boyfriend and expects to be forgiven over it. She does genuinely seem to want to make up with Jill, though, and claims she only kissed her boyfriend due to being drunk and having liked him since before he started dating Jill, and that she wasn't trying to steal him, just to get one kiss.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jill and her charges survive and the Stranger is taken into custody, but she has been left severely traumatized by everything she's gone through and is plagued by nightmares of him.
  • Break the Cutie: Jill gets terrorized for hours on end, discovers two corpses — one of which is her best friend — and nearly gets killed by the Stranger. After he's finally taken into custody, she's left severely traumatized and her nightmares force her to relive it.
  • Brick Joke: When Jill is being given a tour of the house, Chester the cat is first seen eagerly watching the birds in the aviary. Come the end of the film, he finally gets to eat at least one of them.
  • Caretaking is Feminine: The titular "Stranger" is a Serial Killer who likes targeting babysitters. Stacey is the introductory kill and the only one we see, but it's clear that he's likely preyed on other babysitters that we just didn't get to see. Jill is his next victim, and the movie follows her trying to survive against him and protect the children.
  • Cat Scare: Constantly, mainly during the first half of the film. There's a cat in the house which keeps surprising Jill.
  • Catapult Nightmare: It happens to Jill at the end after her ordeal.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The fireplace, the sharp fire poker, and the tequila bottle all get used as weapons. Subverted with the creepy statue on the first floor; the camera focuses on it frequently, but it never gets used.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Jill's sprinting abilities are addressed early on and help her to avoid being killed.
  • Dangerous Key Fumble: Tiffany fumbles with her keys while leaving as the Stranger is lurking nearby.
  • Demoted to Extra: The Stranger's own viewpoint and development, which were shown in the original movie, are omitted in this remake.
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo: Unlike the original, this Stranger gets no identity. He's just there. We never learn anything about him.
  • Dies Wide Open: Tiffany and Rosa have their eyes open when Jill finds their bodies..
  • Expy: David Denman's character is one for Charles Durning's character in the original film, right down to their heavyset physiques.
  • The Faceless: When the Stranger is finally revealed, his face is partially hidden by shadows. It isn't until he is being driven away in the police car that his face is clearly seen.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: In the opening scene, the murdered babysitter's body is never shown, just the police chief's horrified reaction to it. Then, instead of one body bag being carried out of the house, several small bags, misshapen and bloody, are carried out instead.
  • I Can See You: The Stranger asking, "How were the children?" shows Jill is Being Watched.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: The kids survive, but it's implied the Stranger intended to kill them after bumping off Jill. A deleted scene subverts this, heavily implying that the murder at the beginning of the movie wasn't limited to the babysitter.
  • Impaled Palm: Jill pins the Stranger's hand to the floor with a sharp fire poker during their final struggle.
  • Kill It with Fire: Jill utilizes a bottle of tequila and the fireplace to overpower the Stranger.
  • Mirror Scare: During Jill's nightmare, she sees the Stranger in a mirror just before he attacks her.
  • My Car Hates Me: Tiffany, when she tries to leave the house and her car won't start.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the original film, the names of Mrs. Mandrakis and her children are unknown; in the remake, Mrs. Mandrakis's first name is given as Kelly and the children, while their names aren’t mentioned in the film, are named in the credits as Will and Allison.
  • Nice Girl: Jill is shown to be a kind, normal teen girl who goes to great lengths to protect the children she’s babysitting from the Stranger.
  • Nightmare Sequence: After surviving her ordeal, Jill has a nightmare of waking up in an Abandoned Hospital and being attacked by the Stranger.
  • No Name Given: The Stranger is unnamed, in contrast to the original film.
  • Race Lift: The Stranger is not British here unlike the original, despite being portrayed by Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan, while American veteran actor Lance Henriksen is Cast as a Mask.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The red popsicle starts to melt and resembles a bloody mess as Tiffany gets menaced and killed.
  • Short-Distance Phone Call: Tiffany does this to Jill as a joke when coming by the house to try and make amends with her. Later played more seriously given how the Stranger is in fact in the house.
  • Sickening "Crunch!": Several are heard in the opening when the police chief is shown the remains of Stacey the babysitter.
  • Sinister Silhouettes: The Stranger, combined with Face Framed in Shadow, when he's first revealed. Given his Serial Killer status, "sinister" is a pretty appropriate word.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: The kids and the Stranger live, with Jill saving the former and the latter only being wounded and arrested.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The Reveal that the Stranger is inside the house was completely spoiled by the marketing when it takes most of the movie for it to be shown..
  • Vader Breath: Many of the phone calls made by the titular Stranger consist of his creepy, heavy breathing rather than any dialogue, which only freaks Jill out further.
  • Wham Line:

"Have you checked the children?"