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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Finding Friends, Family and Closure in ‘When a Stranger Calls Back’ [Formative Fears]

Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.

The opening of 1979’s When a Stranger Calls features twenty of the most potent minutes in horror. From an unassuming heroine whose tenable performance lingers, to the attentive buildup of suspense ahead of a nightmarish climax, the movie begins on the best note possible. Replicating what feels like lightning in a bottle seemed impossible at the time, but as it happens, Fred Walton’s less familiar sequel When a Stranger Calls Back is a remarkable successor in more ways than one. Walton redefined the same story rather than repeat it. Instead of shifting the focus away from the babysitter like in the first movie, the sequel follows her trauma and never loses sight of it.

Julia (Jill Schoelen) is babysitting a couple’s two children one evening when she receives an unexpected visitor. An unknown man comes to the front door and asks to use the phone because his car has broken down nearby. Rather than letting him come inside, Julia takes his information so she can make the call for him. Yet when she finds the phone is suddenly dead, the teenager lies about calling. It’s not long before the agitated man returns and Julia feels threatened. Adding to her paranoia is the suspicion that someone has been moving in and out of the house all this time. The unseen stranger then confirms Julia’s misgivings, as well as alerts her to the fact someone is upstairs in the children’s room. At last, Julia barely escapes with her own life once the intruder makes himself seen.

Although the sequel’s first act is similar to that of the original, the differences from here on out are significant. Five years later, Julia is in college. The emotional scars of what all happened at the Schifrin house reemerge when she discovers a child’s shirt hanging in her closet. At the police station, Julia shares her concerns – she believes the man from before, who fled that night with the children in tow, is breaking into her apartment to toy with her – and meets Jill (Carol Kane), the 1979 movie’s babysitter who is now a university counselor. The police aren’t able to do much without substantial evidence, so Jill takes the shaken woman under her wing. In the meantime, Jill calls the detective-turned-P.I. who saved her all those years ago; John Clifford (Charles Durning) arrives in town to make sense of Julia’s unsolved case.

As iconic as the first movie’s bravura opening is, the ensuing narrative change-up can be startling; Jill isn’t seen again until the third act, and until then, Clifford spends almost an hour chasing down the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), after he’s escaped from a psychiatric hospital. The lead men’s performances are masterly, no doubt. Jill unfortunately becomes a low priority in the story; she springs up at the end only to once again be menaced and robbed of her security. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert targeted When a Stranger Calls upon its release, going so far as to call it “cruel, violent trash.” At that point, critics were experiencing a deluge of films where women were terrorized and maimed by madmen, so their vitriol is a reflection of that. In the same breath, many of those movies prominently display the remaining female characters, or “final girls,” as their own empowered saviors. Meanwhile, Walton’s debut ends with Clifford coming to Jill’s rescue when Duncan breaks into her house to finish what he started.

Jill comes from an earlier stock of the final girl trope where these characters are more like damsels in distress. In time, the genre saw an uptick in female characters surviving solely due to their own skills, latent or learned, and often without the aid of a man. Be that as it may, Jill’s nonviolent reactions to Duncan’s verbal and physical assaults are still valid even if they don’t meet the expectations modern audiences have about female leads in horror movies. Where When a Stranger Calls stumbles, though, is how it treats Jill as a character. Kane counterbalances her role’s underdevelopment with relatability, rawness, and conviction despite being brushed aside when the spotlight moves to her male co-stars. This is where the sequel improves on Jill. Not necessarily because she’s become a more contemporary final girl, but because she now has agency.

The throughline in When a Stranger Calls Back appears to be family. Whether it be a kidnapper who abducts two children to raise as his own, or a woman struggling to find familial connections again, every character plays or stands in for a traditional domestic role. For Julia, she was the private-school girl entrusted with the lives of someone else’s children. Her ability to parent in the biological mother’s absence is put to the test by the intruder, who eventually punishes her for not acting accordingly. Later, it’s revealed the stranger, William Landis (Gene Lythgow), didn’t immediately kill the children as suspected; he’s “cared” for them in some capacity. The reason he seeks out Julia again is because, as Landis’ neighbor tells John Clifford, he wanted to “find [the children’s] mother [and] tell her about [their deaths].” His logic can’t be scrutinized too much given everything he’s done, but his brutal long-game form of stalking and torment is perhaps him shifting the blame on the children’s proxy mother rather than accepting his own failure as a surrogate parent.

Landis, like Duncan, is soft-spoken and wimpy-looking in spite of how dangerous he truly is. When a Stranger Calls follows Duncan upon his jailbreak and gives a gritty glimpse into his miserable, damaged psyche without ever fully explaining why he murdered the Mandrakis kids with his bare hands. That mystery is what haunts fans of the movie. In the matter of Landis, there is moderate insight into his motivation. The inclusion of children begs the question if something devastating happened to him in his younger years. Yet it’s his unnerving nightclub act that sets off alarms; his routine consists of a featureless dummy and a monologue conveying his self-loathing and crushing loneliness. Landis’ affinity for ventriloquy and full-body camouflage à la Veruschka von Lehndorff then begs the question, how much does this man not want to see or be himself. As the once-fearsome child killer Duncan became nothing but an overlooked stain on society, Landis chose to be invisible upon seeing his own reflection.

The only nuclear family present in the film is in fact the Schifrins, and that’s dismantled early on. Jill temporarily found some semblance of normalcy in the first movie after getting married and having two kids; where that family is now is never explained. As for Julia, her own trauma has alienated her from family, including recently divorced parents and a brother never mentioned again after the opening scene. On top of this, she has no friends to speak of. So Julia’s chance meeting with Jill is beneficial for the both of them. It’s unimaginable how either of these women’s ordeals have shaped their lives; Jill’s recovery was extensive, whereas Julia has barely started to heal before the past resurfaced. As much as their history and pain isolates them from others, those things ultimately bring them together. 

Julia sees parental figures in Jill and John, who both fight tooth and nail to protect her and provide unconditional support. The way the adults occasionally disagree – John worries Jill is pushing Julia too hard; Jill is upset when John doubts Julia – certainly sounds a lot like parents arguing over how to raise a kid. Looking closer, Jill seeing Julia as a daughter has to do with her need to care for others in place of the children apparently no longer in her daily life. Fred Walton intended for Landis to kill Julia in the hospital, but at the request of Showtime, the director reluctantly kept her alive to the very end. The decision was all for the best as the final shot of Jill and Julia together evokes hope. That scene of them in the hospital, their beds side by side, reaffirms not all strangers are bad and trauma, while difficult to see through, is surmountable.

The original movie is a cautionary tale with an unsettling and extensive character study sandwiched in. The sequel is a penetrating examination of long-term trauma’s effects set firmly in an era where abuse and violence towards women was becoming more publicized. The ‘79 movie steered away from its victim, and doing so elicited a discomforting level of incidental compassion for the killer. When a Stranger Calls Back doesn’t neglect its own villain, but first and foremost, Julia and Jill’s stories are underscored. Walton especially stresses Jill’s return; when she’s not helping other women in trouble, she battles her demons in a way she couldn’t in the first film. This sort of narrative atonement makes Jill finally feel more like a well-rounded character.

Fred Walton took a classic urban legend and turned it into one of the most terrifying scenarios in horror cinema. He then looked beyond the mere campfire story and probed both sides of the situation; the man always upstairs and the babysitter waiting below in anticipation. His first movie fixates on the unwell criminal whose heinous crime can’t be forgotten by anyone, much less himself. Then in the continuation, the victims’ journeys are the focus. Relief is found in both films, but as a whole, When a Stranger Calls Back‘s depiction of it is more cathartic.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3662512/finding-friends-family-closure-stranger-calls-back-formative-fears/

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