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When A Stranger Calls

The recently remade 1979 chiller When A Stranger Calls is essentially over after 20 minutes: Babysitter arrives at house where kids are already in bed. Babysitter gets calls from a British creep who asks, "Have you checked the children?" Cops are summoned. Oh God, the calls are coming from inside the house! Babysitter survives, kids have long since been slaughtered, end of movie. Okay, so what to do with the next 75 minutes? To the filmmakers' credit, they do bring back a jolt of déjà vu in the closing section—seven years later, the babysitter has children, and they may or may not need to be checked—but there's an arid desert of empty space in between, and only the ample-framed Charles Durning is left to fill it. Audiences expecting another Halloween must have been surprised to find themselves stuck in the middle of an urban police procedural.

Comparisons to Halloween are inevitable, because the story elements are more or less the same, except that When A Stranger Calls introduces a lopsided structure and incompetent direction into the mix. In the Jamie Lee Curtis role, Carol Kane stars as a college student hired for what seems like a pretty easy babysitting job, since the two kids are asleep when she arrives. Then come the phone calls. (And were it not for a music cue that sounds like the pre-movie THX demonstration, the phone routine would be as thrilling as a film about switchboard operators.) Kane escapes into the arms of a cop (Durning), and psycho Tony Beckley is caught, but seven years later, Beckley escapes from an insane asylum, and it's up to Durning to exact a little vigilante justice.

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From there, When A Stranger Calls morphs into a Death Wish-style reactionary thriller, venting about a crappy justice system that coddles the insane rather than putting them to death. But the middle section is mostly notable for turning Beckley into one of the more pathetic slashers in movie history: When he isn't fruitlessly trying to seduce an alcoholic barfly (Colleen Dewhurst), he's out on the streets begging passersby for change. When it comes time for him to kill again, it's clear that the children could probably fend for themselves.

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