When a Stranger Calls (1979)

R | 97 mins | Horror | 28 September 1979

Director:

Fred Walton

Producers:

Doug Chapin, Steve Feke

Cinematographer:

Don Peterman

Editor:

Sam Vitale

Production Designer:

Elayne Barbara Ceder

Production Company:

Melvin Simon Productions
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HISTORY

When a Stranger Calls represented the feature film debut for writer-director Fred Walton and writer-producer Steve Feke. The picture also marked the initial producing venture for Barry Krost and Doug Chapin, who were working as personal managers in the entertainment industry when they became involved with the story as executive producer and producer, respectively.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, the origins of the project began in 1977 when Walton and Feke wrote and directed a twenty-minute short titled, The Sitter, based on a newspaper article about an actual babysitter in Santa Monica, CA, who received frightening telephone calls from a stranger hiding inside the house. As explained in a 26 Oct 1979 LAT article, Feke and Walton gambled approximately $12,000 of their own money on the 35mm short as a showcase for their filmmaking talents. While Walton was a newcomer in Hollywood, Feke had established himself as a game show writer and was represented by an agent. Initially, The Sitter failed to garner any interest, until Feke’s agent arranged a booking at a Los Angeles, CA, theater on the same bill with the feature, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977, see entry). The one-week engagement proved to be pivotal. Krost and Chapin attended a screening one night on behalf of their client at the time, Richard Gere, an up and coming cast member of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. They were not only impressed by the The Sitter, but noticed that the suspenseful short appeared to make a stronger impact on the audience than the ... More Less

When a Stranger Calls represented the feature film debut for writer-director Fred Walton and writer-producer Steve Feke. The picture also marked the initial producing venture for Barry Krost and Doug Chapin, who were working as personal managers in the entertainment industry when they became involved with the story as executive producer and producer, respectively.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, the origins of the project began in 1977 when Walton and Feke wrote and directed a twenty-minute short titled, The Sitter, based on a newspaper article about an actual babysitter in Santa Monica, CA, who received frightening telephone calls from a stranger hiding inside the house. As explained in a 26 Oct 1979 LAT article, Feke and Walton gambled approximately $12,000 of their own money on the 35mm short as a showcase for their filmmaking talents. While Walton was a newcomer in Hollywood, Feke had established himself as a game show writer and was represented by an agent. Initially, The Sitter failed to garner any interest, until Feke’s agent arranged a booking at a Los Angeles, CA, theater on the same bill with the feature, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977, see entry). The one-week engagement proved to be pivotal. Krost and Chapin attended a screening one night on behalf of their client at the time, Richard Gere, an up and coming cast member of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. They were not only impressed by the The Sitter, but noticed that the suspenseful short appeared to make a stronger impact on the audience than the main feature. Subsequently, Krost and Chapin acquired the rights and commissioned Walton and Feke for a feature-length version of the story.
       Through his organization, The Movie Co. (TMC), Krost had recently entered into a development arrangement with executive producer Melvin Simon, a successful Indiana-based shopping mall entrepreneur with an interest in financing motion pictures. As described in an 18 Oct 1978 Var article, Simon’s production company had the initial option on TMC projects in development, and When a Stranger Calls became the first project that resulted from that agreement.
       According to a 20 Nov 1978 Box news item, principal photography started 9 Oct 1978 in Los Angeles, CA. A 17 Nov 1978 HR column reported that the production shot in downtown Los Angeles during the 1978-79 Skid Row stabbing murders and coincidently used some of the same sites where actual victims were found, such as the steps of the Los Angeles Public Library. Location work also took place in the Brentwood neighborhood. Filming completed in mid-Nov 1978, as noted in a 17 Nov 1978 HR brief.
       Walton mentioned in the 26 Oct 1979 LAT article that the film cost $1.5 million. Print and publicity expenses were listed as $4 million in a 21 Feb 1980 DV item.
       A 1 Feb 1980 HR article reported that the domestic gross had reached $25 million, making When a Stranger Calls one of the top box-office hits of 1979 for distributor Columbia Pictures. A 17 Sep 1980 HR item revealed that the film would be re-issued 19 Sep 1980 in several engagements around the country.
       A 25 Jan 1980 HR item announced that the picture received the “Prix de la Critique” and the “Prix Special du Jury” at the Avoriaz Film Festival, an event recognizing science fiction and horror genres. The honor represented the first time a film had won both prizes.
       The picture marked the final screen performance for actor Tony Beckley, in the role of the killer, “Curt Duncan.” He died of cancer 19 Apr 1980 in Los Angeles, according to his 28 Apr 1980 LAT obituary.
       In 1993, a telefilm sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, written and directed by Walton, aired on the Showtime cable network, and featured Carol Kane and Charles Durning in a reprisal of their roles. Later, as stated in a 29 Oct 1997 HR article, Walton signed a deal with Dimension Films to write and direct a feature film sequel When a Stranger Calls III, but no further information was available in AMPAS production files regarding the outcome of the project.
       Sony Pictures released a remake under the original title in 2006 (see entry). Walton and Feke, however, were not involved in this production, and a 21 Jun 2006 DV article reported that they filed a lawsuit against Sony and Melvin Simon, asking for over $1 million in damages. Citing a 1978 contract with Simon, Walton and Feke alleged that they were entitled to “compensation for any sequel, prequel or remake,” and further accused Simon of violating the contract by selling the rights to Sony without their input. Additional information about the litigation has not been determined. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
20 Nov 1978.
---
Daily Variety
21 Feb 1980.
---
Daily Variety
21 Jun 2006
p. 4, 6.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Nov 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Sep 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jan 1980.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Feb 1980.
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Sep 1980.
---
Hollywood Reporter
29 Oct 1997
p. 3, 31.
Los Angeles Times
28 Sep 1979
Section F, p. 17.
Los Angeles Times
26 Oct 1979
Section G, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times
28 Apr 1980
Section B, p. 16.
New York Times
12 Oct 1979
p. 14.
Variety
18 Oct 1978.
---
Variety
5 Sep 1979
p. 20.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Melvin Simon Productions presents
A Barry Krost Production
A TMC Development
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st cam asst
2d cam asst
Key grip
2nd grip
Dolly grip
Gaffer
Best boy
Elec
Still photog
ART DIRECTOR
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
Ed consultant
Apprentice ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Leadman
Prop master
Asst prop master
COSTUMES
Cost supv
Set costumer
MUSIC
Mus ed
SOUND
Prod sd mixer
Boom op
Re-rec mixer
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles and opticals
MAKEUP
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Makeup artist
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Asst to the prods
Prod coord
Prod asst
Transportation capt
Transportation cocapt
Craft service
Unit pub
Loc auditor
Casting
Addl casting
STAND INS
Stunt coord
DETAILS
Release Date:
28 September 1979
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 28 September 1979
New York opening: 12 October 1979
Production Date:
9 October -- mid November 1978 in Los Angeles, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Simon Film Productions, Inc.
Copyright Date:
8 November 1979
Copyright Number:
PA49131
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses/Prints
Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
97
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25468
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Los Angeles, California, Jill Johnson arrives to babysit at the Mandrakis residence. Before leaving for the evening, Mrs. Mandrakis informs Jill that she and her husband, Dr. Mandrakis, might see a movie after dinner, which means they could be gone until midnight. She also requests that Jill not disturb the children, who are asleep and recovering from a cold. During the evening, Jill remains downstairs and studies in the living room. After awhile, the telephone rings. When Jill answers, a man with a British accent asks, “Have you checked the children?” then hangs up. He calls back, repeating the question. As the same voice telephones several more times, Jill wonders if her friend, Bobby, is playing a practical joke. Rattled, she pours herself a glass of whiskey, then tries to reach Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis at the restaurant, but they already left. Next, she contacts the police, but the officer says he is unable to offer much help unless the caller threatens her. When Jill answers another time, the anonymous caller poises the question more emphatically. Sensing that the man is outside watching her, she closes the curtains and bolts the front door. She does not pick up as the phone rings again, then redials the police. Sgt. Sacker reassures her that he will attempt to trace the call, and Jill manages to keep the stranger on the line for longer next time. As soon as he hangs up, the sergeant telephones and states that the call is coming from inside the house. He orders Jill to leave immediately. Looking ... +


In Los Angeles, California, Jill Johnson arrives to babysit at the Mandrakis residence. Before leaving for the evening, Mrs. Mandrakis informs Jill that she and her husband, Dr. Mandrakis, might see a movie after dinner, which means they could be gone until midnight. She also requests that Jill not disturb the children, who are asleep and recovering from a cold. During the evening, Jill remains downstairs and studies in the living room. After awhile, the telephone rings. When Jill answers, a man with a British accent asks, “Have you checked the children?” then hangs up. He calls back, repeating the question. As the same voice telephones several more times, Jill wonders if her friend, Bobby, is playing a practical joke. Rattled, she pours herself a glass of whiskey, then tries to reach Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis at the restaurant, but they already left. Next, she contacts the police, but the officer says he is unable to offer much help unless the caller threatens her. When Jill answers another time, the anonymous caller poises the question more emphatically. Sensing that the man is outside watching her, she closes the curtains and bolts the front door. She does not pick up as the phone rings again, then redials the police. Sgt. Sacker reassures her that he will attempt to trace the call, and Jill manages to keep the stranger on the line for longer next time. As soon as he hangs up, the sergeant telephones and states that the call is coming from inside the house. He orders Jill to leave immediately. Looking up, she sees a man’s shadow at the top of the stairs. She frantically opens the front door as the police arrive. The intruder upstairs is apprehended, but he is covered in the blood of the two Mandrakis children, whom he killed several hours earlier. By the time detective John Clifford appears on the scene, the parents have returned home and are trying to comprehend the tragedy. Officer Charlie Garber informs Clifford that the killer, a British citizen named Curt Duncan, used a second telephone line inside the house to call the babysitter, who was not hurt. Seven years later, Clifford has retired from the police force and works as a private investigator. Dr. Mandrakis hires him to find Duncan, who has recently escaped from the state mental hospital. Clifford questions Duncan’s supervising physician, Dr. Monk, who believes the patient is no longer a threat to children and feels confident that the intensive therapy, including electric shock treatment, was helpful, but Clifford would prefer clues as to the whereabouts of the psychopath. Meanwhile, at a bar downtown called Torchy’s, Duncan tries to converse with a single, middle-aged woman named Tracy Fuller, but she ignores him. When Duncan remains persistent, another bar patron assaults him. Tracy suddenly feels sympathy for the British man as he is dragged into the alley. Walking home alone that night, she is unaware that Duncan follows her. He appears outside her apartment door and apologizes for his behavior at the bar. Tracy is initially considerate until Duncan insists on staying and having coffee. After finally persuading him to leave, she feels unnerved by the stranger. At police headquarters, Clifford receives cooperation from his former colleague, Garber, who is now a lieutenant, and combs through recent crime reports. He also questions vagrants on the street and shows them a photograph of Duncan. After inquiring about the fight at Torchy’s, Clifford tracks down Tracy and enlists her help in trapping the child murderer. Clifford then confides to Garber that he plans to kill Duncan and requests that the police do not get involved. Reluctantly, Garber agrees. As instructed, Tracy leaves Torchy’s and walks back to her apartment alone at night, while Clifford watches for anyone following her. Duncan, however, does not appear. Nevertheless, Clifford assures Tracy that he will keep patrol outside her building. As Tracy settles in for the evening, Duncan, who has been hiding inside the apartment, surprises her and pleads with her for friendship. Hearing Tracy scream, Clifford storms into the apartment, but is unable to catch the killer as he flees. With a tip from a vagrant, Clifford locates Duncan at a homeless shelter, and the two men confront each other. Clifford aims a lethal lock needle towards the murderer, but Duncan dodges the weapon and escapes. Meanwhile, Jill Johnson still lives in Los Angeles, but is now married to Stephen Lockhart and has two young children. As she prepares to cook dinner for the family, her husband telephones and announces that he is taking her to a restaurant. Jill then arranges for Sharon to babysit the children. While Jill and Stephen are enjoying dinner, the maître d’ at the restaurant interrupts and informs the couple that they have a telephone call. When Jill picks up the receiver, the familiar voice with the British accent says, “Have you checked the children?” Jill screams that Curt Duncan is back, and Stephen immediately calls the babysitter, who assures the parents that everything is fine at home. Accompanied by a police officer, Stephen and Jill return to the house, and are relieved to find that the children are okay. Nevertheless, Stephen places a rifle by his bedside. Meanwhile, at police headquarters, Garber hears about the incident with Mrs. Lockart and alerts Clifford. When Clifford telephones the Lockhart home and receives a constant busy signal, the operator notifies him that the line appears to have been recently disconnected. Meanwhile, Jill cannot sleep. Checking on her son, she notices a piece of candy in his room that she did not give him. Frightened, she goes back to her bedroom. There, she hears Duncan’s voice and assumes he is hiding in the closet. She shakes her husband in the bed, but instead, Duncan jumps out from underneath the covers. As the killer tries to strangle Jill, Clifford suddenly arrives and shoots Duncan dead. The private investigator comforts Jill and assures her that Stephen, who was knocked unconscious and placed in a closet, is fine. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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