When a Stranger Calls Back

(Fred Walton, USA, 1993)


A telefilm of great, minimalistic complexity, Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls Back is the little-known sequel to his immensely successful When a Stranger Calls (1979), which was remade (minus the auteur and his artistry) in 2006. Walton’s ingenious postscript to his original work finds a convincing way to re-introduce both the traumatised Jill (Carol Kane) and private detective John (Charles Durning) into proceedings.


A virtuosic opening sequence depicts the “stranger” of the title talking to a babysitter, Julia (Jill Schoelen), through the front door of the house. But the man is never seen in this sequence; he is only ever an off-screen voice for some twenty minutes.


The sequence plays, on a rising graph of tension and dread, upon ambiguities of spatial location (when is this mysterious guy standing outside the door and when isn’t he?); and, eventually, on the question of whether there is someone else (or the same stranger) inside the house already – and if so, how and when did he get in?


The sequence uses all the dependable devices of aural shock and unease: long patches of silence, suddenly ringing phones at top volume, and single held synthesizer notes cued by loud staccato sounds within the scene (like an object falling to the floor).


Everything that happens in this long opening sequence becomes all the more remarkable in retrospect, when we learn at a much later point in the narrative that the mad genius killer of the piece, William (Gene Lythgow), is in fact a professional (if somewhat perverse!) ventriloquist – and thus able to expertly throw his voice across space to create such confusions and deceptions as we saw in the opening set-piece.


Therefore, what makes the killer in this story so terrifying is his indistinctness on all levels – visually he is able to appear and disappear in any space, through an ingenious use of bodily camouflage; and aurally he can project himself anywhere.


So this guy is truly a cinema villain, a kind of cinematic apparatus in and of himself: he seems to sneak in and do his dirty work between the frames, and in that all-pervasive, ambiguous zone beyond the frame where an unplaced voice speaks and acts.

MORE Walton: Homewrecker

© Adrian Martin 1998/2007/2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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