Tuesday, February 23, 2021

have you checked the children?

When a Stranger Calls
(1979, directed by Fred Walton)
In praise of a cinema without qualities. That classic seventies sleaze film found in a room full of of normality, glorious moments within horror films guilty of unremarkableness.

Trying to fill in gaps in my horror knowledge, attempting to find those moments worth spending time with in a genre plagued with mediocrity. Films either too kitschy, with an actorshippe that is beyond deplorable, structural elements assembled with no thought, absurdist plots or simply no plot at all. Many qualities that in all likelihood attract many viewers, but which are difficult to take after spending time with the masters like Robert Bresson, Chantal Akerman, or John Ford. Perhaps one has to to draw a line somewhere.

Fred Walton's When a Stranger Calls initially attractive because of the poster, then seeing the cast included Carol Kane and Charles Durning I was in. This is the fourth film I have watched this week with a bit about babysitter encounters with darkness: Alan Clarke's 1987 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too where 2 young women have sex with and then an affair with the father that drives them home.  Donald Petrie's 1988 film Mystic Pizza where Annabeth Gish has a sexual encounter with the father, and George Roy Hill's 1982 film The World According to Garp where Robin Williams drives home the babysitter and pulls over for a bit of lustful liaisons. And finally here with Carol Kane getting repeated calls from an old Englishman saying "have you checked the children?" almost as a statement than a question, before the chaos ensues. When she calls the police she gets this advice from Seventh Precinct, Sergeant Sacker: "An anonymous caller? Has he threatened you? Has he been using obscene language? It's probably just some weirdo. The city's full of them. Believe it or not, we get reports like this every night. It's nothing to worry about".

The somewhat ordinary horror beginnings, although creepy and with an admirable atmosphere, shift quite surprisingly at 21 minutes in beginning with a freeze frame of Charles During's face (image above) as the door opens and the madness is revealed. We then fast forward seven years and the film enters into this late 70s mood, a mood any lover of the decade craves. Dirty bars, private detectives as assassins, psychopaths, urban decay, dipsomaniac lovers, ambiguous narratives, hotel rooms and apartments so stained and covered in grit, light has nowhere to illuminate.

We are then as viewers privileged to recordings of the psychopath Curt Duncan (played by Tony Beckley from The Italian Job, Get Carter) which sound to my ears like Donald Pleasence from Harold Pinter's The Caretaker... rough talk, almost drunken, full of absurdity, coming from the nowhere and going back without having brought us anywhere. For lovers of Pinter this world is perhaps bliss.

Hospital "To give you medication will calm you down. We are not putting anything in your food either"
Curt "No?..... I've got to eat the food?.... it doesn't taste right..... "
Hospital "Curt, why are you fidgeting? Can't you get comfortable?"
Curt "No!.... I'm not comfortable! Don't look at me. Don't you talk to me. Don't you touch me. Stay away. Stay away".

Toward the end of the film we get this small glimpse into the serial killer's mind, pondering his nonexistence and place in the big nowhere: "Nobody can see me anymore.... nobody can hear me... no one touches me.... I'm not here... I don't exist... I was never born... no one can see me anymore".

The film should have stopped here but sadly goes into another 15 minutes of awfulness that sadly leaves you feeling a bit like you too have entered the great nothingness. Perhaps worth it though for the many great moments found within this film. They can't all end as perfectly as they begin.