12 July 2016



'The calls are coming from inside the house...'

The first twenty minutes or so of this film make for pure, perfect cinematic horror. Pretty American babysitter Jill Johnson has no more on her mind when she goes to babysit for a doctor and his wife than whether or not her crush, some guy named Bobby, will give her a tinkle on the old dog and bone. That's cockney rhyming slang for phone, me old china plate. That's slang for mate, by the way. Oh, never mind. Let's get to the film.

Jill does get a call while she's babysitting, as it happens. In fact, she gets several, but none of them are from Bobby. They're from a sick and twisted psychopathic killer who phones every few minutes to ask Jill:

'Have you checked the children...?' 

Jill is such a bad babysitter, however, that not once in the whole time she's there has she so much as peeped in on the two little cherubs. They could've gone off clubbing for all she knows. I wouldn't hire her to watch my precious rugrats, that's for sure.

Any-hoo, while Jill has been creeping nervously around the darkened house- the best darned darkened house I've ever seen on film, by the way- the killer has been doing away with the doctor's two little sproglets in a particularly gruesome way which we definitely don't need to go into here.

Jill is saved by a cop named John Clifford and the killer, Curt Duncan, who's a dead ringer for Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, is incarcerated in a mental asylum. I wonder if Hugh Cornwell has ever seen this film and, if so, what he thinks about being a doppelganger for a murderer in a 'Seventies horror film...! Anyway, that's the end of that chapter. Or is it...?

Well, no, it's not, because we're only twenty minutes into the film at that point. It's these opening twenty minutes that have garnered this superb film its cult following, by the way. Also, these same twenty minutes are considered by many horror fans to contain some of the scariest, most nerve-wracking scenes ever to be committed to celluloid. I absolutely agree. There's no ghost, but then there doesn't need to be.

What could be more frightening than the thought that there's someone in your house, an alien being, someone who's not supposed to be there? Even if you're only the babysitter and it's not your own house, that doesn't make the idea any less chilling. If anything, maybe it's even more scary to have this happen to you in a strange gaff.

Some years later, the evil Duncan escapes from the mental asylum in which he'd been incarcerated after his grisly deeds. The lovely cuddly John Clifford, now retired from the police force and working as a private detective, is hired to recapture him by the doctor whose kids were killed by Duncan.

John Clifford, by the way, is played by Charles Durning who a few short years later falls heavily for Dustin Hoffman dressed as a middle-aged feminist in the comedy movie TOOTSIE. Boy, was he red-faced when he found out what that feisty little 'popsy' was packing in her pantyhose...!

We get to follow Curt Duncan around for a bit then as he kips in hostels for homeless men and tries to pick up embittered, lonely, middle-aged women in bars. Well, one middle-aged woman, anyway. I love the scenes in which he's following the aforementioned lonely single woman home through deserted streets and tunnels and into her crappy apartment in the dead of night. They're just so seedy. This part of the film is really quite sleazy and even sad. There are a lot of lonely, dysfunctional people out there, and that's one of the saddest facts of life there are.

We catch up with Jill the babysitter then who, in the seven years since the murder of the children in her care, has gotten married and and acquired two sproglets of her own and also quite a decent life for herself. Nice posh house, charity work and prospects of advancement in her hubby's job. Huh. Well, let's just hope she takes better care of her own kids than she did of the doctor's. Snigger.

Anyway, all-grown-up Jill and her husband Steven go out to dinner in a fancy restaurant to celebrate Steven's getting a raise at work. I got the most terrible feeling of déja vu when they headed off in their fancy duds leaving the teenaged babysitter in charge of their napping nippers...

You guessed it. Duncan's tracked Jill down through a newspaper cutting and so poor hysterical Jill gets a call at the posh restaurant from a male caller who says: 

'Have you checked the children...?' Well, as you can imagine, the s**t really hits the fan then.

I won't tell you the ending so as not to spoil it for you, but I will say that there are plenty of shocks and tension along the way and lots of lovely spooky shots of the interior of Jill's darkened house.

This director does bloody brilliant shots of darkened houses at night. I honestly think that they're among the best I've ever seen and I've seen... well, a few, anyway. However, I did keep wanting to scream at the screen: 'Why don't you turn on some feckin' lights, you brainless bimbo...?'

I enjoyed every second of this horror film, especially the legendary first twenty minutes. It was a great ninety-minute romp through some of the best horror movie clichés ever. The babysitter being scared half to death by the anonymous caller. The calls are coming from inside the house.

The retired cop who could never quite get that one horrible murder- and murderer- out of his mind and who won't retire easily until he's settled old scores and avenged the innocent. You should watch this film. Alone. In the dark. While babysitting. Oh, hang on, listen, is that the phone...? Can you get that? I've just done my nails...


'The calls are coming from inside the house...'

The original film of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), directed by Fred Walton, has one of the best opening sequences of any horror film I've ever seen. The first twenty minutes, with the babysitter alone in the house getting increasingly frightening phone calls from an anonymous psychopath, is pure cinematic perfection. The rest of the film is good too, but it's those first twenty minutes that really grab you by the throat and scare you witless.

I was surprised to find out that such a great film had been remade. But hey, unnecessary remakes of brilliant films are seemingly where it's at these days. This time round, Camilla Belle- what a pretty name!- plays Jill Johnson, the high school student who has to babysit for the super-rich doctor and his wife as punishment for running up a massive bill on her cellphone gabbing to her boyfriend.

Jill isn't too keen on the prospect as all her friends are at the school bonfire party and she would much rather be with them, obviously. She's also fed-up because her so-called boyfriend has recently been caught snogging her bezzie mate, the slutty blonde alcoholic Tiffany. Ouch. Dontcha just hate it when that happens...!

Her dad drives her to the doctor's fantastic big house, with a lake and tons of polished decking and a little forest and a posh guesthouse and everything. He drops her off without even checking that it's the right house. He could have been dropping her off at the Manson compound or even Ted Bundy's gaff for all the attention he pays, the self-involved git. It's not like he was even keen to get to that chamber music concert his wife's making him go to, haha.

The filthy-rich doctor and his glamorous missus toddle off to their swanky soirée and Jill is left all alone in the huge, remote house in the middle of nowhere. Then the phone starts ringing and the anonymous caller starts asking:

'Have you checked the children...?'

They've done a few things differently this time round. They've added in a live-in maid, a son who may conceivably return from school at any time to the guesthouse where he lodges, and a completely implausible visit from a school friend, incidentally the one who got off with Jill's boyfriend.

I mean, this chum (the slutty blonde alcoholic Tiffany) is apparently able to find this out-of-the-way house in the arse-end of nowhere in the dark without any difficulty and get herself inside the doctor's fortress of a house without setting off the alarm. A bit far-fetched, if you ask me. They've also gotten the children up and about and running around the place like mad things, something which didn't happen in the original film.

Mind you, in this re-make the killer isn't remotely interested in the children, thanks be to God. They've changed him into your average sex-killer this time round. Young women are his focus and he's concentrating his energies on tormenting, terrifying and tracking down the vulnerable Jill with a view to doing (presumably) you-know-what to her when he gets her in his clutches.

God love her, though. She's a nice enough girl but she's sooooo dumb. She says every stupid wrong thing imaginable to the anonymous phone-caller.

'Who are you? How do you know my name? Why are you doing this to me? Are you trying to scare me? Can you see me? How do you know I'm here? Why won't you leave me alone?' And of course, the classic 'victim' line:

'Why are you doing this to me...?' And so on and so forth. 

That's right, love. Keep saying the stuff he wants to hear. Keep reacting to him and feeding his ego and letting him know how scared you are. That way, he's bound to stop. He'll probably be all contrite and all like: 

'Oh, I'm sorry, I totally didn't know I was scaring you! I am sooooo sorry, I'll just toddle off right away to the nearest cop-shop and turn myself in. Goodnight now and, once again, a thousand apologies for the misunderstanding...!'

That reminds me of that funny post that's doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment. You hear an intruder in the darkened house at night (or whenever) and you call out:

'Who's there? Who is it?'

The joke is, of course, that the killer or intruder is hardly like to call back:

'Oh hi, it's only me, I'm just in the kitchen making a sandwich! Would you like me to fix you one...?'

The film-makers have basically expanded the first twenty minutes of the original film and made an entire movie out of it, which I suppose is good because after all those were the best twenty minutes of the whole thing. There's plenty of scope for a good horror flick in a scenario like that. You could come up with probably a million variations on 'The calls are coming from inside the house' and some of them could actually be quite effective. Remember the horror movie BLACK CHRISTMAS? Such a good film.

They've left out the killer's back story, though, and the bit where Jill's a grown woman with kids of her own and a husband. They've also left out the sub-plot which sees the detective searching for the killer on the orders of the bereaved Dr. Mandrakis. They've literally just concentrated on the babysitter's night of horror alone in the house with the killer and the sleeping children. Fair enough, I suppose.

The ending is good and the atmosphere throughout is actually pretty spooky, thanks to the amazing house with all its creepy little nooks and crannies, so this is by no means a bad remake. It's really more a question, I feel, of whether the remake was strictly necessary in the first place. Some might say it wasn't. Others probably feel that anything that's out there is fair game for a remake.

And me...? I love 'em both, but the original edges it for me a bit because of the era in which it was made. That was a great era for horror. You can make up your own minds, though. There's a lot to be said for both films. Let me know what you think. Don't phone me, though. For the love of God don't phone me. I've been scared off phones for life thanks to these two films. Send me an e-mail instead. Or write me a letter. No harm ever came from reading a letter, did it? Did it...?


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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