When a Stranger Calls Back
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