Back when I was a kid, part of the excitement of renting and watching movies was watching the previews. Of course, that was back before the interwebs, so pretty much everything was fresh. Most of the time, when you saw previews on a VHS, this was the first time you had maybe even heard of the movie. There was always a sense of discovery with this. Now, you can go into a theater and watch a movie and you know everything there is to know about every trailer that's shown. But back then, you'd see previews of movies you had no idea existed, and as a bonus, this was back when trailers didn't reveal every single twist, turn, and plot point in the movie (I'm looking at you "Prometheus"). You seen just enough to pique your interest and you'd try to find it next time you went to the video store.
So I was watching a movie when I was, oh, about 10, and in my mind I know the movie but I can't spit it out. Anyway, there was a preview for a movie called "When A Stranger Calls Back", and looking back on it, I feel like that preview had a crazy impact on me. I don't remember the preview frame by frame, but I remember that it gave me this feeling that I HAD to see this movie, like my life depended on it. I think it took me the better part of a year or two to find it, having the resources of a 10 year old and all, and keep in mind, there was no IMDB or Amazon, so you were left at the mercy of what any single video store had. Suffice it to say, when I finally found it, it lived up to the hype that I had created in my mind. It absolutely terrified me to the core, to the point to where I remember very distinctly being afraid to even be alone in a room. I'd say that's a pretty effective movie.
Come to find out, this was a sequel to "When A Stranger Calls", a movie from the 70's that I had honestly never heard of. It was a product of that whole "Black Christmas" stalker-type fad of the late 70's and of course having seen it since, the sequel is far superior. So what in the world could have been so earth shatteringly scary to a 10 year old Tyler? It wasn't a movie about any monsters or demons, it wasn't filled with blood and gore, it was a movie about a guy stalking a babysitter. It's true. The first 20-30 minutes of this film are some of the most tension-filled scenes I've ever seen. We're introduced to Julia, the girl next door, who is going to a family's home to babysit their two little children. The night starts off very assuming, with Julia reading, being very quiet. In the midst of the silence, we get a knock at the door. It's a man's voice, who asks to come in and use the phone. His car has broken down (doesn't it always?), and he needs to call a tow. Naturally, she feels very uneasy about the situation and won't allow him to come in. After a little bit of a back and forth, she takes his information and tells him that she'll call them for him. She doesn't actually do it, and he returns, expressing how he knows she didn't do it. There are many red herrings in this scene, as she goes through the house, she finds windows open, etc. This was seemingly the blueprint for the 'Scream' intro scene.
So she discovers the phone has been cut off, and she's scared to death. He asks her if she has checked on the children recently, and again, after some more tension, he actually kidnaps the two children, and is about to get her, when right at the nick of time, she gets out. Think about the very essence of this terror. I think a home intruder really is one of the worst of our most primal fears, such an invasion of privacy and personal space. What if you were sitting at home, you get a knock on the door, and the mysterious voice on the outside says "I know you're home alone. I'm going to get you." It's so scary because with all the horrible things in the world, a situation like that is way too easy to imagine. One of the things about this guy is the niceness and kind tone to his voice. He doesn't sound like anyone scary, he sounds like your neighbor asking to borrow a cup of sugar, if that actually really ever happened. He didn't have an evil, angry attitude in his voice, and to me, that's way more horrible.
Fast forward I think 5 years or so, and Julia is a college student. She's obviously been damaged by what happened to her, and rightfully so. In her apartment, she starts to notice things. She notices things that are being moved randomly. Has our stalker found her again? We're introduced to Jill, who is from the original, played by Carol Kane. In the original, she went through the same trauma, and now she works at a support center to help girls like this. After Julia speaks to her, Jill calls her friend John, a retired cop, to help her investigate the situation and to hopefully find this maniac. Oddly enough, pretty early in the film, they solve the mystery fairly quickly and easily. Usually in a movie like this, most of the movie is played out in a "whodunnit" way, and we don't really learn about the stranger until the end. So come to find out, our man's name is Landis, and yes, he has returned to stalking poor Julia. Julia ends up shooting herself in the head (or did he do it?), leading to another very disturbing scene where Julia is unconscious in the hospital, Landis is in her room, and just stands there at her bed, looking down on her. Disturbingly, he just starts hitting and punching her. It gives you a very uneasy feeling, and Jill and John set out to find our guy. They investigate the house of the intro, and through some magic detective work, discover that Landis is a pretty multi-talented guy, including being a ventriloquist. He was able to manipulate his voice, and was actually inside the house the whole time. That's creepy.
John finds Landis performing ventriloquism at a nightclub, creepy, faceless doll and all. They really go through the effort to humanize Landis here, but I'm not sure to what effect. We're never really given a motive, a reason for him doing any of this. He's booed by the crowd at the club, and even manhandled and thrown out on the street, so it's not like he's built up to be this super evil tough guy. It's almost played for sympathy. He's looked at as quite pathetic. John comes *this* close to catching him, but he gets away, naturally. The epic finale takes place with Jill in her apartment. She gets home, and while standing in the dark, a voice begins talking to her, and argh, it gives me the creeps. This guy is somewhere inside her apartment, talking to her, and she has no idea where he is. Is he in the shadows? Is he in a closet somewhere? He's actually standing there right beside her, having painted his body in the same brick pattern in the wall. There's a scene that will stick with me for all my days, where she's walking through and we see him painted into the wall, and he opens and closes his eyes. Jeez. Naturally, he jumps out and attacks her, and he ends up getting shot and killed. The end.
Come to find out, this was apparently possibly a made-for-tv movie, if I understand correctly. I don't make it a regular habit to catch the Lifetime movie of the week. My biggest, and really only gripe with the movie is that we're never given any reason whatsoever as to why Landis does what he does. Maybe he's just a psychopath, but his character is played in a way where we're supposed to have sympathy for him. Why would we, as an audience, for any reason, sympathize or feel sorry for a guy that does horrible things? Best case, he's a mentally disturbed individual, but he's smart enough to stalk, pick locks, manipulate his voice, easily kidnap children, etc. In hindsight, I think it would've been more effective if we'd never really been shown the guy, and kept him a complete mystery and in the dark, no pun intended. The way they decided to divulge his identity so easily, show him talk and interact with people, it's an odd choice. But it doesn't change the effectiveness of the creepiness. Some of the scenes in this movie have stuck with me for 20 years now. Unfortunately, this movie is out of print, and very hard to find. You can't find a used copy for under $50 bucks, which is a shame because this film deserves a much bigger audience, and I hope it isn't ever tarnished by the stain of the POS remake of the original that came out a few years ago. I'd rather pay the $50 bucks and watch this.
"When A Stranger Calls Back" gets 8 psychopathic ventriloquists out of 10