HALLOWEEN OF HORROR REVIEW: WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)

 

CAST

Carol Kane (Gotham)
Rutanya Alda (Amityville 2)
Carmen Argenziano (Stargate SG.1)
Kirsten Larkin (Young Joe)
William Boyett (The Hidden)
Charles Durning (Tootsie)
Ron O’Neal (Super Fly)

1979’s When A Stranger Calls starts off in a simple enough manner – a young woman named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) shows up at the home of a wealthy doctor and his wife to watch their kids for the evening as they go out for dinner and a movie. As they’re on their way out the door the mother tells Jill that the kids are asleep and that they’ve just gotten over bad colds and were a bit problematic, but that they shouldn’t be hard to deal with as long as they don’t wake up. Jill gets comfortable, talks to her friend on the phone about a boy named Bobby that she’s interested in, and everything seems to be going just fine until the phone starts ringing.129c7fdff7da2aa39b10950af5da1aadAt first Jill doesn’t pay the calls much mind, as they’re just hang ups, but when someone asks her ‘Did you check on the children?’ and then calls back a few minutes later only to ask her the same thing, she starts to get concerned. She calls the cops and after some pleading they agree to trace the call for her, only to report back to her with the news that whoever is harassing her is doing so from inside the same house. She runs outside, the cops show up, and in addition to a terrified babysitter they find a madman covered in blood and the corpses of two dead children.Seven years later, we find out that the man who killed the children, Kirk Duncan (Tony Beckley), wasn’t imprisoned because he was found insane. Instead, he was locked away in a mental hospital where he was subjected to electroshock therapy and a strict regiment of pills. His brain more or less friend, Duncan manages to escape the hospital and heads back into the city he once called home where he finds a place among the transient population of the town and becomes obsessed with a woman he meets at a bar. A former policeman named John Clifford (Charles Durning) who was involved with the case originally is now working as a private investigator, and when the parents of the children that Duncan murdered find out he’s free, they hire him to catch him. With the help of some of his old friends on the police department (one of whom is played by Ron Superfly O’Neal) he sets out to stop Duncan permanently, but Duncan isn’t going to be an easy man to catch, and he hasn’t completely forgotten about Jill Johnson either…The first half hour of When A Stranger Calls is tense, edge of your seat suspense. Director Fred Walton, in his directorial debut, keeps us guessing and makes us care just enough about Jill’s plight in the house that we can’t help but want to know more. While the movie takes a very different turn once the police show up and the story flashes seven years into the future, Walton still manages to keep us interested in what’s happening even if he can’t really keep up with his own amazing beginning. The movie makes an about face and flips from a straight out horror movie to more of a police drama/detective story but rest assured, it all builds to a very nice and satisfactory conclusion and throws in a few nice twists along the way.whenastrangercallsAt the heart of the film’s success are four strong performances. First and foremost is Carol Kane as the babysitter. She looks innocent and naïve and is the perfect counterpart to the maniac on the other end of the line. As she gets scared, so too does the audience grow scared with her. While a lot of people are familiar with her from her more popular comedic roles, she’s fine in the serious tone of this film and her unusual speaking voice just adds to her character’s naïve qualities. What would an innocent victim be without a malicious maniac to terrorize her? Tony Beckley, in his last performance (he would die from cancer less than a year after the film was made), is superb as Kurt Duncan. Not only do we fear him, but we even sympathize with him. Despite the fact that he’s the lowest of the low – a child murderer – he is truly alone and a very literal castaway lost at sea in the big city. He’s completely out of his element and because of this we’re able to feel for him a little bit, which makes what he does all the more horrifying. Rounding out the strong cast are Charles Durning as the man on the case chasing down Duncan through the ghettos and back alleys, and Colleen Dewhurst as Tracy, the current object of Duncan’s affection. There’s some interesting interplay between the last two performers that adds some world weary authenticity to their performances. A tense and well made thriller that relies not on cheap effects or jump scares but on purely psychological suspense and effectively build tension.

REVIEW: DICK TRACY (1990)

CAST

Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde)
Al Pacino (The Godfather)
Madonna (Evita)
Glenne Headly (Sgt. Bilko)
Charlie Korsmo (Hook)
Seymour Cassel (Boiling Point)
Michael J. Pollard (Scrooged)
Charles Durning (Attica)
Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins)
Frank Campanella (Capone)
Kathy Bates (Misery)
Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man)
William Forsythe  (The Devil’s Rejects)
Ed O’Ross (Another 48 hrs)
James Tolkan (Masters of The Universe)
Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride)
R. G. Armstrong (Predator)
Henry Silva (Ocean’s 11)
Paul Sorvino (The Gambler)
James Caan (Elf)
Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone)
Robert Costanzo (Batman: TAS)
Stig Eldred (King Kong 2005)
Chuck Hicks (Star Trek II)
Colm Meaney (Star Trek: DS9)
Neil Ross (Batman: TAS)

war-of-the-worlds-1953-martian-hand-on-shoulder-sylvia-van-buren-ann-robinsonAt an illegal card game, a young street urchin witnesses the massacre of a group of mobsters at the hands of Flattop and Itchy, two of the hoods on the payroll of Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. Big Boy’s crime syndicate is aggressively taking over small businesses in the city. Detective Dick Tracy catches the urchin (who calls himself “Kid”) in an act of petty theft. After rescuing him from a ruthless host, Tracy temporarily adopts him with the help of his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart.
ww-53Meanwhile, Big Boy coerces club owner Lips Manlis into signing over the deed to Club Ritz. He then kills Lips with a cement overcoat (referred to onscreen as “The Bath”) and steals his girlfriend, the seductive and sultry singer, Breathless Mahoney. After Lips is reported missing, Tracy interrogates his three hired guns Flattop, Itchy, and Mumbles, then goes to the club to arrest Big Boy for Lips’ murder. Breathless is the only witness. Instead of providing testimony, she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Tracy. Big Boy cannot be indicted and he is released from jail. Big Boy’s next move is to try to bring other criminals, including Spud Spaldoni, Pruneface, Influence, Texie Garcia, Ribs Mocca, and Numbers, together under his leadership. Spaldoni refuses and is intentionally killed, leaving Dick Tracy, who discovered the meeting and was attempting to spy on it, wondering what is going on. The next day, Big Boy and his henchmen kidnap Tracy and attempt to bribe him; Tracy refuses, prompting the criminals to attempt to kill him. However, Tracy is saved by Kid, who gets prized by the police with a Honorary Detective Certificate, which will remain temporary until he decides a name for himself.
16-215041_0x420Breathless shows up at Tracy’s apartment, once again in an attempt to seduce him. Tracy shows he is only human by allowing her to kiss him. Tess witnesses this and eventually leaves town. Tracy leads a seemingly unsuccessful raid on Club Ritz, but it is actually a diversion so officer “Bug” Bailey can enter the building to operate a secretly installed listening device so the police can hear in on Big Boy’s criminal activities. The resultant raids all but wipe out Big Boy’s criminal empire. However, Big Boy discovers Bug and captures him for a trap planned by Influence and Pruneface to kill Tracy in the warehouse. In the resulting gun battle, a stranger with no face called “The Blank” steps out of the shadows to save Tracy after he is cornered and kills Pruneface. Influence escapes as Tracy rescues Bug from the same fate given to Lips Manlis, and Big Boy is enraged upon hearing that The Blank foiled the hit. Tracy tries again to get the testimony from Breathless he needs to put Big Boy away. She agrees to testify only if Tracy agrees to give in to her advances. Tess eventually has a change of heart, but before she can tell Tracy, she is kidnapped by The Blank, with the help of Big Boy’s club piano player, 88 Keys. Tracy is drugged and rendered unconscious by The Blank, framed for murdering the corrupt District Attorney John Fletcher, and is detained. The Kid, meanwhile, adopts the name “Dick Tracy, Jr.”
war-of-the-worlds-1953-martians-attack-humansBig Boy’s business thrives until the Blank frames him for Tess’ kidnapping. Released by his colleagues on New Year’s Eve, Tracy interrogates Mumbles and arrives at a shootout outside Big Boy’s club where his men are killed by the police and Tracy. Abandoning his crew, Big Boy flees to a drawbridge and ties Tess to the gears before he is confronted by Tracy. Their fight is halted when the Blank appears and holds both men at gunpoint, offering to share the city with Tracy after Big Boy is dead. Big Boy takes advantage of a distraction and opens fire before Tracy sends him falling to his death in the bridge gears. Mortally wounded, the Blank is revealed to be Breathless Mahoney, who kisses Tracy before dying. All charges against Tracy are dropped. Later, Tracy proposes to Tess when he is interrupted by the report of a robbery in progress. He leaves her with a ring before heading away with Dick Tracy, Jr.dicktracy_727Overall, a really fine movie that has become misunderstood over the years since its release and is incredibly underrated. This is a perfect example of capturing the essence of a comic book, from style to eccentricity.