Monday, 10 December 2018

BLU-RAY REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (1979) Limited Edition

Although writer-director Fred Walton often cites as inspiration for the opening segment of his seminal suspense thriller When a Stanger Calls (1979) an infamous true crime murder case that took place in Columbia, Missouri during the 1950s, it’s actually the 1960s urban legend the story later spawned that is being so skilfully wrung for maximum scare potential in those tense first twenty minutes of the movie. Dubbed ‘the babysitter and the man upstairs,' this is a legend with many varied permutations based around old newspaper reports of the discovery of the body of thirteen-year-old Janett Christman, who was brutally slain at the home of the family whose three-year-old son she had been babysitting. Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke zeroed in on the essential dread elements of the tale to identify why it continues to resonate so powerfully. It’s probably fair to say that the movie’s opening act – a re-staging of the material that Walton and Feke first wrote in 1977 for a short film called The Sitter – has been largely responsible for the currency When a Stanger Calls still enjoys to this day for cementing the popularity of the slasher movie, particularly for horror fans who are interested in the roots of the sub-genre. 

Everybody knows the scenario the movie so brilliantly enacts: a young babysitter, left alone in a house late at night and charged with looking after two young children for the evening (both asleep upstairs), is plagued by  a series of creepy nuisance calls from a stranger who repeatedly asks her the same question: “have you checked the children?” Eventually, she rings the police, who tell her they’ll put a trace on the line. After the next interruption, when she is explicitly threatened by the same mysterious voice, the police immediately phone right back to inform her that the call has now been traced to the very house she is currently in! They urgently advise her to leave the residency as calmly as she can while a patrol car is sent out to meet her. Later, it emerges that the killer had indeed been upstairs in the house all along and that the two children have both been murdered in their room. They had already been dead for hours before the police discovered their bodies.

A new Limited Edition Blu-ray and download on demand release of When a Stranger Calls from the UK’s Second Sight label brings together Walton’s original twenty minute short film The Sitter (1977) with the hit feature-length movie it later gave rise to in 1979, and pairs them both on the same disc with a 1993 TV Movie sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back (also written and directed by Walton as a co-production for Universal TV and the premium cable channel Showtime). All three are presented in full HD alongside all the usual Limited Edition bells and whistles (40-page booklet, a reversible double-sided poster and a soundtrack CD), with a compliment of featurettes looking back on the film and its legacy. Watching all three works back-to-back is an enlightening and sometimes surprising experience: on the one hand the film has been remarkably influential (the opening act of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is essentially a knowing recapitulation cum pastiche for the cell phone age of the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, that assumes at least a passing familiarity with it while adding ramped-up gore and a large dollop of patented 1990s ‘postmodern’ ironic distance). On the other hand, most of the influence it has generated comes from the pre-existing urban legend material already distilled down to its essence in the short film version. The features themselves veer off in all sorts of strange directions that have little connection to the slasher genre per se and encourage comparisons with other kinds of works one wouldn’t normally think to mention in the discussion of them.

The Sitter is actually extremely effective in its own right as a stand-alone short feature, and in some ways manages to imbue its content with far more subtext and ambiguity than is allowed for when the same scenes are reshot and appear again with different sets, different performers and a new score in the full movie version. 

It begins as a music box nursery rhyme lullaby plays over exteriors of the house at night while the (in this version) unnamed babysitter arrives during the opening shots. A caption identifying the time as being 8 pm on March 21st, 1972, and the location as Santa Monica, California immediately counterpoints the dreamy nocturnal atmosphere with an implied authenticity, suggesting, in true urban legend fashion, the film to be an account of something that really took place, but without actually saying that. The babysitter (Lucia Stralser) is left in charge of a large mansion-like house owned by a well-to-do doctor and his wife, and the short quickly establishes her as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is dealing with a degree of uncertainty in her relations with others. The clothes she wears emphasise her youth but also hint at a developing sexuality; her phone calls from the house to her best friend reveal that she is a privately educated grade A student (considered a bit of a swot by her peers) who is also diffidently beginning  to experiment with rites of passage associated with entry into adulthood, such as smoking and drinking (gialli fans will be amused to note that when the babysitter raids her hosts’  drinks cabinet she emerges with a bottle of J&B whisky), which she indulges in alongside the task of conscientiously studying the college textbooks on sociology spread across the coffee table in the spacious living room.

In other words, she is the archetypal Final Girl slasher movie heroine. The menacing phone calls asking her if she has checked the children only emphasise the fact that, thus far, the thought hadn’t occurred to her -- which suggests an implicit underlying urge or wish on her part to cast aside the mantle of responsibility and abandon the course her studies are leading her towards despite earlier having emphatically refused her friend’s suggestion on the phone that she should come and join her for a party at the house, bringing a boy that the sitter had been hesitantly asking about throughout their conversation. The repetitive phone calls of the stranger to the babysitter hype up the tension as the camera prowls the increasingly threatening corridors of the house, but she notably only really becomes truly terrified when the caller specifically asks her “WHY haven’t you checked the children?” This, of course, reveals that he must have been watching her the whole time. But the threat is at first still perceived as coming from the outside: a notion Walton drums home with lots of distance exterior shots of the house, its large bay window lit up against the backdrop of the night, the isolated girl left with all her vulnerability on display like a museum exhibit caught under a spotlight. But it also re-emphasises this question of why the babysitter had not looked in on the children even before the calls gave her any cause for alarm. In When a Stranger Calls, a line of dialogue is added to the script so that, as she and her doctor husband leave the house, Mrs Mandrakis specifically asks the sitter NOT to wake the children because they are both getting over "really bad colds". This, at a stroke, decisively removes all the subtext about desires, fears and secret motivations that the sitter’s inaction encourages the viewer to ponder during the short. Although this is understandable, since such concerns serve no function in the feature version as it goes off in a completely different direction after the first act is complete, the earlier version seems to linger in the imagination more as a result of these extra sub-textual considerations.

Walton and Feke shot the short in three days after raising $12,000 from friends and family. The film’s superb mounting and exemplary execution belies its lowly origins as, essentially, a student film. Walton was able to bring in a fine French cinematographer, Willy Kurant, who had worked with Jean-Luc Godard (Masculine Feminine [1966]) and 'Agnès Varda, and had shot Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968), so the film looks extremely accomplished and has a memorable and immediate visual style despite featuring only one character on screen for most of its runtime. The little-known actress playing the babysitter is extremely compelling to watch and convincing in the role of an innocent under threat, and the tension is built up then released as expertly as it is during the better-known movie version. Even the score by Jane McNealy – a mixture of woodwind instrumentation, odd percussion and increasingly discordant synth sounds – makes an effective addition to the action despite exemplifying a completely different approach to the nerve-shredding orchestrated cues written for the movie by Dana Kaproff.  

The Sitter was conceived as a means of breaking into the business at a time when short films still regularly played as support features for the main attraction in theatres. The plan was to make something that was both professional enough and commercial enough to attract an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short. Although The Sitter qualified for such a consideration by securing a week-long residency at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles (supporting Looking For Mr Goodbar), it failed to earn either the hoped-for Oscar nomination or the attention of industry professionals who might’ve promoted Walton and Feke’s careers. However, the short film still works incredibly well years later and historically can be seen to be an unnerving, suspenseful ignition point for the slasher phenomena that was about to explode the following year with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), prompting businessman Mel Simon to invest in turning Walton’s short into a fully-fledged feature film so as to fully capitalise on the growing trend for such material.

The Sitter was by no means the first short form adaptation of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs legend: in 1971 a 14 minute film called Foster’s Release had essentially told the same tale (directed by Terence H. Winkless, whose varied career encompasses playing Bingo the Gorilla in The Banana Splits and writing an early unused draft for Joe Dante’s The Howling). Elements of the imperilled-babysitter-beset-by-a-maniac motif appear again and again in numerous films and anthology TV episodes such as, for instance, Peter Collinson’s Fright (1971), in which Susan George plays the babysitter role. However, the most obvious precursor is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which probably makes the most chilling use of the trope of any movie that has ever been made, although in this case it’s a sorority house that is under threat and the victims are college girls being harassed by obscene phone calls after one of them has disappeared during the Christmas holidays. Unlike The Sitter, Black Christmas doesn’t use the killer-is-already-in-the-house revelation as a punchline but makes the viewer aware of it from the start, and the tension comes from waiting for the characters to understand the danger in their midst as the killer stashes the mangled bodies of his victims in the attic and occasionally emerges between crank phone calls to claim another.

 It seems likely Walton was well aware of Clark’s film and included a knowing wink towards it in The Sitter by having the boyfriend that the babysitter discusses with her friend on the phone be called Billy -- which immediately brings to mind the Black Christmas killer’s crazy roleplay phone calls in which he acts out the bizarre psychosis of someone who is also known as ‘Billy’. In the full feature version, the boy being discussed has his name unaccountably changed in the script from Billy to Robert, perhaps to obscure the original debt. 

Whether or not Walton and Feke had ever been aware of Black Christmas and all the other little-remembered precursors utilising similar material, the 1979 full-length movie eclipsed them all in the public memory when it became a huge commercial hit off the back of the success of Halloween. Audiences flocked to When a Stranger Calls in expectation of similar thrills, when what they ended up getting was a film that made the inconspicuous domestic telephone a sinister harbinger of doom, even more so than had the Italian maestro Mario Bava’s creepy short film The Telephone, which had been the opening segment of his 1963 Boris Karloff-starring anthology picture Black Sabbath. It’s ironic, then, that the opening act makes so strong an impression on audiences that it often obscures the fact in people’s memories that much of the rest of the movie really doesn’t conform to the slasher template at all, which is probably why it often gets a mixed reaction from modern genre fans who have a more fixed idea than audiences in 1979 might have had, of what does and does not count as a slasher movie.

The opening act of When a Stranger Calls fine-tunes the fright dynamics and sombre tone of the original short with Dana Kaproff’s newly orchestrated score, which skilfully underscores musically the sense of dread, fear and emotional turmoil felt by babysitter Jill Johnson (yes, she now has a name) as her situation becomes more and more macabre and threatening. Even the house itself and objects within it such as umbrella stands, etc., are made to feel, with skilful direction, like a malevolent participant in the action. Events culminate at the moment Jill has to attempt to keep the caller talking on the line so that the Police can trace the call, whereupon she asks him “what do you want?” To which the anonymous voice chillingly replies, “your blood … all over me!” The distinctive looking Carol Kane, best known at the time for her recent appearance in Woody Allen’s Anne Hall (1977), brings a completely unique quality to the role of the nervous babysitter. In a way, the character she plays is far more diffident and hard to read than her short film predecessor, although Kane’s confidently understated delivery helps sell the irony of her character’s later change in circumstances -- which we will learn about when we return to her seven years later in the final act. 

With a much bigger budget in play, the film has a more confident flow and the narrower, confined spaces of this version of the Mandrakis household bring a claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings which is completely opposite to the approach taken by Walton in the short, where the house and its interiors seemed vast and the babysitter was often made to look tiny -- isolated in the frame by a frequent use of wide angle lenses. Nevertheless, despite minor differences, Walton reproduces here all the main beats and many of the more effective shots from The Sitter. The cinematographer this time out was Donald Peterman, and although this was his first feature -- and he actually tried to quit the job at one stage because he found providing consistent lighting for the glaring white walls of the house interiors very hard to accomplish on the timescale allocated for filming the opening portion of the movie -- his work comes across as assured and brings an extra sheen of professionalism to what was still a relatively low budget picture. In fact, Peterman, who died in 2011, ended up being the most successful person involved in the making of When a Stranger Calls, becoming a frequent collaborator later in his career on many of Ron Howard’s movies.

One of the scariest things about the urban legend on which this opening segment is based is the unfathomable, motiveless, taunting malevolence demonstrated by the anonymous killer’s actions, with two defenceless children dead upstairs in the house before the campaign of terror against the unsuspecting innocent charged with their care is even underway. He is, essentially, the bogeyman of fable and lore: a bringer of violence and chaos to the presumed stability of a domestic space normally cast as a haven of nurture and peace, which is here depicted as vulnerable to catastrophic disruption from within. But after starting off in that distinctive manner, the film then chooses to proceed in a markedly different direction during the middle act. Both the short film version and the first part of When a Stranger Calls end with the patrol officer who became the first person to arrive at the scene, explaining to the recently arrived lead detective on the investigation that the babysitter escaped unharmed but that the children upstairs were not so lucky -- as the parents, now finally home after their night out, are consoled in the background (the film adds the almost comically macabre detail of having the children’s bodies glimpsed being removed from the house by grim-looking officers carrying their remains in what look like bin bags).

In the movie, though, Patrol Officer Garber (70s Blaxploitation star Ron O'Neal) also informs detective John Clifford (Charles Durning - a Hollywood mainstay with a string of roles in well-loved movies to his name which include three early efforts directed by Brian De Palma) that they now know the actual identity and occupation of the killer: he's an English merchant seaman by the name of Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). We then cut to seven years later and discover that Duncan has somehow escaped the psychiatric facility he has been treated in since his capture and is, once again, on the loose in New York City. This is where the film now departs from normal slasher convention. Rather than the tense claustrophobic thriller of the first twenty minutes, it takes on something of the form of a procedural investigation reminiscent of many a TV cop show of the same period. Clifford is now an ex-cop working in a private capacity for the murdered children’s father (Carmen Argenziano), who sets out not to bring Duncan to justice but to execute him before he can strike again. The truly unusual and bold move Walton’s screenplay then makes is to spend the majority of the rest of the picture exploring in detail and with some sympathy the nature of Duncan’s warped psyche, but without backtracking at all on the grisliness of his crimes as he drifts, rootless and alone among the denizens of squalid all-night bars and homeless shelters. 

Rather than a terrifying figure of dread, he suddenly seems, here, to be so small and unassuming, even pitiable. We witness Duncan cast out and totally adrift, lost in the unforgiving sprawl of big city life and unable to make even the most superficial connections with other people; begging on the streets for small change among assorted derelicts and street life, but attracting little attention unless it’s of the hostile variety. In his very first scene of the picture, he’s viciously beaten up by a bar patron for harassing Colleen Dewhurst’s jaded, middle-aged barfly character – who eventually feels guilty for rejecting Duncan’s advances after witnessing what happens to him afterwards, even though she was well within her rights to resist his clumsy, persistent pestering. This is not an imposing bogyman figure who strikes immediate fear into the hearts of all who encounter him, then, but rather a person we end up feeling strangely sorry for. Indeed, he’s only able to inveigle his way into the life of Dewhurst’s Tracy Fuller at all because he seems so unassuming and non-threatening that she’s not instantly spooked when he later follows her home and casually wanders into her apartment. The tension for much of this portion of the movie comes through wondering if and when Duncan is finally going to lose it again, with Tracy being caught between the demands of two psychologically damaged men: Duncan and Clifford.  

The rundown urban locations through which an increasingly shabby Duncan is often pictured stumbling purposelessly, and the film’s constant focus on his disintegrating mental health bring to mind several films from the same period, namely Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979) and Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), which also focus on the inner lives of fragile male killers within the concrete anonymity of a tumbledown city environment. But both these are much more nihilistic in tone than Walton’s film, which operates at the more respectable, mainstream end of a disreputable spectrum. Despite our fears for Tracy and her well-being, we are still made to feel conflicted about Clifford’s drastic form of vigilante justice and we even feel scared for Duncan at times, despite hearing Clifford persuade Tracy to help him lure the escaped asylum patient into a trap by telling her how Duncan used his bare hands to literally tear apart the Mandrakis children in their beds (“their bodies couldn’t be reconstructed for burial without six days of steady work”), a feat he managed to accomplish in complete silence, without alerting babysitter Jill Johnson at any point! 

The implication that Clifford could be thought to be in his own way just as dubious as the killer is suggested in Adam Rockoff’s chapter on the film for his book Going to Pieces, which is about slasher movies made between the years 1978 and 1986, where the author tells of Charles Durning rereading the script the night before a scene and approaching Warton during filming to confirm, “I’m the bad guy, aren’t I?” Everybody in When a Stranger Calls is damaged or made to seem vulnerable in some way: Clifford because of his failure to prevent the deaths of two children and his need to find a means to make up for it; Tracy, who is trying to live her life as a single woman in a big city but finds succour at the bottom of a bottle in sleazy bars; and even Duncan himself, a mentally unhinged man who was  the victim of an abusive institutional regime of excessive drugs and electroshock therapy overseen by the formidable  Dr Monk (played by Rachel Roberts: a former star of British ‘kitchen sink’ drama in the 1960s, who at around this time had become known for her role in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) where she played Mrs Appleyard). At one point, Duncan is pictured curled up naked on the floor of a men’s public washroom in a foetal position while he has a total breakdown. Few other such thrillers would depict their chief antagonist in such an abject state as this. At one stage, Walton explicitly connects Duncan’s vulnerability in this situation to Jill Johnson’s earlier plight: when Duncan takes refuge in an abandoned warehouse Walton shows him cowering in the dark using a shot filmed from outside the building so that he is framed by the window just as Jill had been to emphasise her isolation. “No one can see me,” he mutters to himself. “No one hears me. No one talks to me. I don’t exist. I was never born!”   

The role of Curt Duncan was played by British character actor Tony Beckley in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a similar character he’d essayed for Robert Hartford-Davis in the offbeat 1972 shocker The Fiend (Beware my Brethren). Here, Beckley played a lonely psychologically underdeveloped part-time security guard turned sex killer living with his repressed Christian fundamentalist mother. She works as a home-based church organist for an abusive preacher upstairs while he makes tapes of his victims’ death throes in the basement, surrounded by items of their stolen underwear! The film resides very much at the exploitation end of the British horror market, but some of the mannerisms of the awkward Norman Bates-like character Beckley played in that film appear again in Curt Duncan, leading one to speculate about whether or not The Fiend could have been the inspiration for Walton’s casting of Beckley in the lead role here. The actor, star of some of British cinema’s best-loved classics such as The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971), was apparently very insecure about appearing alongside the likes of Carol Kane and Charles Durning, and he died not long after the completion of the film from a terminal illness he was suffering from during the shooting. But these facts only highlight the quality of vulnerability his character places centre stage in a move where that is completely at odds with expectations for this genre of film, especially given the opening.

The final act is slightly problematic motivation-wise, though, given all that has just transpired. It’s basically another urban legend-style suspense sequence which brings back Kane as Jill Johnson. But now, seven years later, roles have changed and she has become the upwardly mobile married mother of two children employing a babysitter while she and her husband go out to celebrate his recent promotion. The twist is that while she’s at the restaurant Jill is informed that there is a phone call waiting for her. When she takes the call at the reception desk, to her horror the voice on the other end of the line turns out to be the very same one that terrorised her all those years ago. Once again it utters only one sentence: “have you checked the children?” Curt Duncan has finally tracked Jill down, and there follows a skilfully orchestrated, nail-bitingly nightmarish finale that places her in mortal fear for the lives of her offspring, and concludes with a classic jump shock sequence when she climbs back into bed alongside her husband, only to find that it’s now actually Duncan who’s beside her, turning over to manically leer into her eyes. Although equally as effective as the first twenty minutes, this ending does require Beckley to revert to type in his portrayal of Duncan as a generic, cackling mental patient on the loose, all the subtle grace notes and ambiguities of his former performance sacrificed in the name of traditional scare tactics. It does rather confirm the sense that the opening and concluding acts belong in different films from the middle one.

When a Stranger Calls performed extremely well at the box office for its budget. It has now earned its place in the annals of horror history as an important addition to the ranks of the movies that heralded the slasher boom of the 1980s. However, its director struggled thereafter to turn this unexpected success into a consistent directorial career, at least on the big screen. Fred Walton did helm post ‘golden era’ slasher April Fool’s Day in 1986, but otherwise, his work has mainly been restricted to episodes of network TV series and cable sponsored television movies. In 1983, though, the latter platform did produce an extremely strange but worthwhile sequel to the original babysitter peril classic made for Universal’s TV division, which Walton wrote as well as directed. When a Stranger Calls Back also features the characters of retired detective John Clifford and former babysitter Jill Johnson, both played by the same actors as in the original: Charles Durning and Carol Kane. 

The film opens just like the first movie, reprising the motif of the young babysitter who is put in charge of two children while they are left to sleep upstairs. Played this time by a fixture of the period’s horror scene, Jill Schoelen, Julia’s ordeal begins when there is a knock at the door and a stranger asks to use her phone because his car has broken down outside and he needs to contact his auto club. Unwilling to let him in, Julia eventually agrees to take down the phone number he shouts out to her and call the organisation herself. However, the phone line has mysteriously gone dead and no external calls can be made. In this film, the phone is the source of the scenario’s suspense because of its malfunction rather than the focus of the main threat as in the original. Julia does not want a stranger to know that the house phone is not in working order because she is alone and otherwise defenceless, so she pretends to have made the call anyway in the hope that the man outside will just go away. When he persists in trying to wrangle his way into the house at the same time as objects in the house also start to go missing or get moved about, a tense twenty minutes of baffling mystery begins that end with the discovery that the children upstairs have somehow disappeared from their room -- meaning that there must have been someone inside the house with her all along! A menacing figure eventually does reveal himself to Julia but, just in time, she manages to unbolt the front door and get away – only to meet the parents coming up the driveway as she exits the house screaming.

 Five years later and Julia is now a college student, trying to put the past behind her but failing. The intruder was never discovered, but neither of the two children she was babysitting that night was ever seen or heard from again. When she notices items being moved about in her apartment once more, Julia becomes convinced that the stranger who tormented her that night five years previously has returned, and is somehow gaining entry to her third floor, triple-locked room in order to continue his campaign against her. 

Once again Walton handles the suspense and mystery aspects of the film with a great degree of confidence to produce a taut, sometimes disturbing thriller that belies the apparent blandness of the 90s TV movie aesthetic embodied in much of its imagery. Watched today, the opening act is even more evocative of the first Scream movie, which was to appear only three years later. But with the re-introduction of Carol Kane as Jill Johnson -- now a college counsellor who runs ‘Take Back the Night’ self-defence courses for young female students on campus -- the film looks at first like it might be content to settle into a routine afternoon mystery thriller format, but with a high concept villain who has an exotic psychological profile reminiscent of the type found in Robert Harris's Hannibal Lector novels. When disbelieving police officers bring Jill in on the case, she soon becomes the only person to believe Julia’s story. The experience the young student had closely mirrored Jill’s own run-in with Curt Duncan a few years previously (by the way, there is no mention of the executive husband Jill had acquired in the last act of When a Stranger Calls, or even her two kids). Jill contacts her old friend John Clifford (Durning), who seems considerably less damaged than in the original movie -- having apparently overcome his murderous vigilante urges in the intervening years -- and together they set out to help the vulnerable student, whose mental stability looks to be crumbling fast as the daily torments she’s experiencing in her apartment pick up in intensity. 

The older Jill Johnson has developed into a tough and resourceful heroine in later life and Walton’s willingness to spend a considerable portion of the movie highlighting the multiple issues around women’s safety and how to deal with the trauma of the aftermath of being attacked by a man is a neat way not only to bring some authenticity to the plot but of connecting the present circumstances of this character with her history regarding what happened to her during the first film -- although one doesn’t need to be aware of, or to have seen, When a Stranger Calls to understand and appreciate the movie. This sequel differs from its predecessor, though, in allowing the plot to spiral out into the outer stratospheres of unlikelihood, so much so that it ends up feeling more like an episode of The X-Files than it does an ordinary suspense thriller. Once again, the antagonist has a similar mental affliction to Curt Duncan. In his case, it’s rooted in an existential hopelessness which has nurtured in him a bizarre zen-like disbelief in the reality of his own (or anybody else’s) identity. The events of the opening sequence are investigated by John Clifford, who rejects the accepted idea that there were two people involved – one to terrorise Julia from outside the house and the other to break in and kidnap the children. Instead, he hypothesises that they are looking for a ventriloquist who specialises in throwing his voice!

Actually, the truth turns out to be even more bizarre than that: the man who has been tormenting Julia (Gene Lythgow) also has the ability to make himself unnoticeable, a trick of effectively rendering himself invisible to the human eye. He accomplishes this by using elaborate body paint to merge himself into the shadows of his victims’ apartments. He can throw his voice to make them think he’s in one part of the room, then quickly dash from his real location while they're distracted to move stuff about and freak them out! There’s one scene where this ‘knack’ is effectively illustrated in Jill’s house when the intruder merges in with the pattern of the brickwork that's part of a sidewall. The film does indeed appear to play fair when you watch this sequence back a second time: the intruder is positioned right in front of the viewer for some time, yet remains unnoticed until a pair of eyes suddenly appears and blinks in the centre of the screen. You will realise then that he has been stood there all along: naked, apart from a G-string, and painted in the same shade of brown defining the wall behind him -- with the same patterning. It’s clever and spooky, but it’s probably also best not to dwell too long on the amount of time it would take and the logistics it would involve to achieve such a feat!

This film was made in conjunction with the cable channel Showtime, so though in a lot of respects it has the tone of a 90s Hallmark TV movie it also features copious amounts of female nudity and one or two quite unpleasant scenes. One in particular, in which the child killer visits a comatose victim in her hospital bed and, after having stared at her unmoving form for what seems like an age, starts karate chopping the unconscious patient in the stomach -- lightly at first, but then with increasing and sickening severity -- is particularly unnerving. The villain this time out, although similarly mentally unstable, remains much more threatening and sinister and has a strange ventriloquism club act involving a creepy faceless puppet (we see him performing it in a burlesque club that has a topless bar), which looks like something David Lynch might easily have conjured up for the red room scenes in Twin Peaks. Ultimately, When a Stranger Calls Back makes for an inessential but entertaining twist on the original: a fitting tribute to a classic that honours its returning characters whilst also being unafraid to push plausibility as far as it can possibly go in the name of excitement. Its inclusion makes a nice addition to the new special edition disc and, when you also factor in the 1977 short film that kicked off this entire mini-franchise, brings considerable clout to a release that effectively constitutes a complete picture of Fred Walton’s work in this sub-genre. Therefore, it is easy to pronounce it an essential purchase.

Aside from the films The Sitter, When a Stranger Calls and When a Stranger Calls Back -- all newly scanned in HD, this limited edition also comes with a number of retrospective interview featurettes about the film, featuring director Fred Walton, actors Carol Kane & Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff -- all of whom have plenty of anecdotal information to relate about the shooting of the film while also providing overviews of their varied careers in the industry. First pressings also include an Original Soundtrack CD; a 40-page bound booklet with a new essay by Kevin Lyons; a reversible poster with new and original artwork; and rigid slipcase packaging.