FANGO Flashback: “WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
For whatever reason, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS always seems to be given an underwhelming reception by fright fans, many of whom understand its legacy but perhaps haven’t seen it or misled by the fact that it never became as “essential” as other horror offerings of its era. Nevertheless, the film is incredibly intense, creepy as hell and impeccably acted, and the film’s leap from claustrophobic horror film to brooding thriller following the first act is a ballsy move that’s worth celebrating, especially in this day and age. However, as guilty as some may be with their ignorance towards the first film, this writer must admit that the same caution was taken personally with the film’s 15-year-late sequel, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK.
Yet upon finally seeing WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK, the film not only is effective in its own right, but with the return of stars Carol Kane, Charles Durning and director Fred Walton, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is in essence the prototypical reboot: a sequel that not only passes the baton to a new character but ties it to- and wraps up- the story that begun years beforehand. Now, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK isn’t all bells and whistles; in fact, the film’s third act does occasionally dip into ridiculousness with a definitive lack of self-awareness. However, in the moments where WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK fires on all cylinders, it not only rivals the frights of its predecessor but that of any suspense-driven horror film, period.
For those unfamiliar, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK follows Julia Jenz, a young babysitter who experiences a frightening, traumatic experience at the hands of a mysterious kidnapper whilst watching a pair of children who are never seen again. Five years later, an anxious Julia seeks help when it appears that the kidnapper has returned and sets his sadistic sights on her fragile psyche. However, Julia is not alone; Jill Johnson (from the original WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) works as a counselor at Julia’s college, and with the help of officer John Clifford, the trio attempt to find and stop this violent stalker once and for all.
Structurally speaking, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is very similar to WHEN A STRANGER CALLS: the first third of the film is the inciting incident, both films dig into the lives of the stalker and survivor, and both films close out with a tense, climactic confrontation. But even if there’s an air of familiarity running through both projects, there also runs a continuity in the gripping suspense and cinematic flair between the two. In fact, for a made-for-TV film, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is an incredibly impressive affair; no corners feel cut, and the performances and technical skills all seem to be akin to that major studio scare fare.
Speaking of performances, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK works largely due to the performers on display, especially as the newcomers work in tandem with the returning players in a way that doesn’t wink or nod too much at the original property. Jill Schoelen is absolutely fantastic in the film; in fact, her work in the first third of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is revelatory and truly believable throughout; sadly, Schoelen is a bit underused later on in the film due to a plot twist that ultimately works in the bigger picture. Meanwhile, Carol Kane and Charles Durning are both great in their previous roles; while Durning slips back into the old role easily, Kane returns with an evolved take on her character and really commands the screen when need be. And Gene Lythgow is effortlessly creepy as the stalker in question; his nearly divorced vocal and physical performance is unsettling both in concept and execution.
Overall, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is a genuinely solid horror offering, and while there are some absurd elements in the third act that keep the film from reaching exceptional status, it’s absolutely worth checking out. With spine-tingling suspense, great performances and Fred Walton’s expert direction, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK is certainly a sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor but is possibly just as underrated, which is a damn shame.