The twenty-fifth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), a direct sequel to Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979). The film starts with Julia (Jill Schoelen) babysitting, much like Carol Kane’s Jill in the original film. Instead of a creepy phone call, however, Julia is greeted by a mysterious man knocking on the door. He claims to have been in a car accident and asks her to use the phone. She says she’ll call the auto club for him if he waits outside. The phone is not working when she picks it up, but she tells him that she called. Hoping he’ll go away, she continues lying to him saying that she called the auto club. She then starts to notice that things around the house have been moved. Julia goes upstairs to check on the children to find that they’ve been abducted and is lucky to escape when she realizes the killer is still in the house. Shockingly, the children are never seen or heard from again. Five years later, she’s in college. Jill from the original film is now a counselor at Julia’s school and becomes very invested in her story, as it is so similar to her own. Julia tells her that she thinks she has a stalker and that it’s the same mysterious man. They team up with private detective John (Charles Durning), who had stopped the intruder in the original film. Will Julia and Jill be able to stop the murderous stalker or will they fall prey to his violence?
When a Stranger Calls Back is an odd little phenomenon. Walton’s made-for-TV thriller was originally produced for Showtime. While it is easy to think that the quality of an early 1990s TV film would be far below a classic horror film, that is most certainly not the case here. This film is a rare exception where the sequel is far superior to the original. This film finds Jill, nearly twenty years later, still dealing with the trauma from the original film and using that as a tool to assist young women in similar situations. There is just a level of power to Jill in the film that really elevates it beyond the other slasher films of the early 1990s. Carol Kane delivers a fantastic performance here and is a continuous joy to watch.
Once again, Jill Schoelen turns in another fantastic lead performance. This was her last film in the horror genre and she does not disappoint. I’ve always really loved her performances in her brief stay in the genre, and When a Stranger Calls Back is no exception. It’s fun to see two generations of women team up to fight the creepy killer in this film, and it’s always a treat to see Charles Durning as a bitter and moody cop-figure. While clearly channeling Danny Glover’s “I’m getting too old for this shit!” energy from Lethal Weapon, Durning is still a very engaging presence in the film and it is interesting to see how his character has developed since the original film.
When a Stranger Calls Back also greatly advances the creepy factor with this entry in the film duo. The killer is a ventriloquist who is very skilled at camouflage make-up that makes him disappear into his surroundings (as the pictures above and below demonstrate). While the phone caller in the original film does have the eerie voice that is somewhat chilling, the killer in this film is truly quite terrifying. Watson has also greatly raised the stakes by putting an older John (Charles Durning) in contention with this young and agile killer.
With it’s incredibly creepy killer, its empowering narrative, and its excellent performances from Kane, Schoelen, and Durning, When a Stranger Calls Back proves to be a perfect candidate for your horror viewing this month. While it is necessary to watch the first film to fully appreciate the sequel, knowing that this film is far more engaging and well-acted leaves you something to look forward to.
When a Stranger Calls Back is currently free to stream on the Tubi app. The Shout! Factory blu-ray, which features a great restoration and special features, might be available at your local library and can be purchased HERE.
I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!