Have You Checked the Children?: What’s So Frightening About WHEN A STRANGER CALLS?
16 October 2011
A teenage girl, Jill (Carol Kane), goes to the Mandrakis’ home one evening to babysit the couple’s two small children. Within an hour, she begins receiving a series of alarming phone calls from an unidentified man who cryptically asks her, “Have you checked the children?” Neither she, nor the audience ever see the person making these calls, so the mystery, compounded with the caller’s monotone, deep voice, instills fear. Terrified, Jill phones the police, who put a trace on the Mandrakis’ phone line, preparing to pinpoint the stalker’s location the next time he rings. As expected, the unidentified man calls again, and this time Jill must keep him on the line long enough for the police to run their trace. When Jill asks the man what wants with her, the voice slowly replies, “Your blood…all over me.” In a bone-chilling twist, the police alert Jill the mysterious calls are coming from inside the house. Jill escapes without (physical) harm; however, the children are brutally murdered in their beds by the madman.
Put that way, this sounds like a truly frightening feature; yet, in Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls the frightful moments are minimal. In fact, this terrifying synopsis only accounts for the first 20 minutes of the film. After this introduction, the film jumps several years to when Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), the madman who murdered the children, escapes from the mental asylum where he was committed. Instead of returning to the suburbs he once terrorized, Duncan wanders into the city, where the audience gets their first look at the killer.
From the moment the audience meets Duncan, face to face, viewers are instantly reassured there is nothing terrifying about Duncan. Sitting at a bar and trying to befriend the woman next to him, Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), Duncan is awkward, frail, and timid; Duncan is effeminate. At best, he is mildly creepy as he attempts to make small talk. Unlike Duncan, Tracy, who offsets Duncan’s feminized qualities with her own blend of masculinity, has a self-assured bravado, and repeatedly tells Duncan to leave her alone. When he does not, another patron at the bar beats Duncan, badly. Duncan does not even fight back; he sobs as he helplessly takes the punishing blows. In the few minutes this scene takes, the audience, who were fearful of Duncan upon encountering him, debate whether there is anything frightening about this defeated antagonist?
Over the next 45 minutes, the audience watches the feeble Duncan panhandle to get enough money for a cup of coffee at a diner and sleep humbly in a homeless shelter. Yet, throughout his struggle to survive, Duncan never displays a bought of violence or a loss of temper; he never robs or hurts anyone to get his basic human needs of food or shelter. Again, his gauche behavior is certainly creepy, particularly his fascination with Tracy, but, as the audience watches this man foolishly fumble around the city, the fear once held for this child-killer turns into annoyance.
At one point, Duncan stands naked in front of a mirror in a vacant public bathroom. Significantly, the bathroom is primarily white, making Duncan, and his crimes, the stain in the pure environment. By this time in the film, Duncan is completely isolated. Even Tracy, the woman he so desperately wanted to befriend, is gone. Duncan stares at himself and slowly lifts his left arm up to touch his own reflection in the glass. As he does, flashbacks of the children’s murder, his time in the asylum, and the rejection he feels from society since he escaped flash across the screen in a series of rapid cuts. For the first time, the audience sees Duncan standing in the children’s room covered in blood. Like the audience, Duncan himself is confronting what actually happened that night, and that action’s subsequent effects. Overwhelmed, Duncan removes his hand from the glass. Consumed with what is seemingly self-hatred, Duncan begins to hyperventilate and falls to his knees. Naked and alone on the bathroom floor, Duncan sobs once more.
The man, once ominous and horrifying, who then became annoying and desperate, is now pitiful, and perhaps even tragic. Duncan is completely emasculated.
Typical horror films that have a “madman” terrorizing unsuspecting victims do not emphasize the frailty of the antagonist, until, usually, the end, just as good conquers all. Keeping the antagonist’s weaknesses guised heightens the audience’s anxiety and creates palpable tension throughout the duration of the film. Theoretically, in the dreamscape of cinema, if the audience does not know how to stop the antagonist, they, like the other characters in the film, are in danger. Revolting against tradition, When a Stranger Calls focuses on the frailty of its antagonist. Although the film opens up with a standard horror introduction, When a Stranger Calls abandons its horror genre entirely, turning into a psychological drama about Duncan’s disassociated life.
Although the film attempts to earn back its horror genre in what feels like a forced conclusion, when Duncan comes back, years later, for Jill and her own children, it is unsuccessful in the attempt. The horror genre was abandoned, and audience cannot be redirected back. By the end, the audience knows Duncan too well; he is certainly disturbed, but, more importantly, he is feeble. Thus, after the opening sequence, When a Stranger Calls falls apart.
Yet, although most of the film is ineffective, When a Stranger Calls should not be completely disregarded; that first 20 minute sequence is terrifying. There are few horror films in which the protagonist is completely unconnected to the antagonist; in nearly every horror film, there is generally a reason the innocent victim(s) gets targeted. And, in the average horror film, children are spared. The opening of When a Stranger Calls has no rules. There is no connection between Jill or the Mandrakis family and Duncan, and the innocent Mandrakis children are savagely slaughtered while sleeping in their own beds.
According to the film, unconscionable and unpredictable antagonists like Duncan exist; if it can happen in the film, it can happen in the real world, and perhaps that is why the film moves away from the horror genre and completely emasculates (literally and figuratively) Duncan, killing him in body and mind by the end. Had Duncan actually been as monstrous as the opening alluded, might When a Stranger Calls have been too forbidding for audiences? Perhaps the opening’s suggestion of uninvited, unrestrained evil forces the film to sacrifice itself (in its transition away from the horror genre), distracting audiences from the possibility that such terror actually exists?