"When a Stranger Calls" arrives with a build-up echoing last year's exaggerated enthusiasm for "Halloween."
Fred Walton, who directed "Stranger," seems more skillful at orchestrating creepy atmospherics than John Carpenter was in "Halloween." At the same time, he's scarcely clever or stylish enough to make "Stranger" a thriller worth going out of your way for.
Walton and his partner, Steve Feke, who co-produced and collaborated on the scenario, expanded "Stranger" from a two-year-old dramatic short called "The Sitter," spinning out the remake with a "seven years later" continuity that tends to kill more time than it exploits advantageously.
Looking a trifle over-age and over-made-up for the job, Carol Kane appears as a teen-age babysitter for a doctor and his wife. The sitter is told that the children are snug in bed upstairs, and for the sake of her skin and the plot, she never bothers to verify this information.
Setting down in the living room with her homework, the sitter is interrupted by a series of calls escalating in terror. At first the caller says nothing. Then he keeps repeating, "Have you checked the children?" Finally, he confides that he'd like to bathe in her blood.
The sitter tries to contact the parents, does contact the police, sneaks a little whiskey to settle her nerves. Meanwhile, Walton is doing everything he can to make the rooms and furnishings evoke irrational apprehension, resorting repeatedly to visual cliches (a clock's pendulum swings ominously at an oblique camera angle).
Nevertheless, it's an exploitable primal-fear situation, worked up fairly well and resolved as the sitter escapes death -- although her tormentor has been bathing in other blood earlier that evening. At this point, the film-makers begin to extend the orginal short: Years later, the killer is at large again, having escaped from a state asylum.
Charles Durning, the policeman assigned to the orginal case, has gone into the private-eye racket. Learning of the escape, he resolves to find the killer and execute him, a gratuitously nasty idea that turns out to be a tease anyway.
The killer now appears, in the person of Tony Beckley, and tries to force his crazed attentions on a woman he meets in a bar. Since the woman is played by Colleen Dewhurst, who looks and sounds as if she could wipe up the floor with Beckley in about two seconds flat, this threat never quite gets off the ground.
Nevertheless, while Beckley persists in stalking Dewhurst, Durning begins stalking Beckley. Despite his prominent gut, Durning is even obliged to make like a TV shamus and run, run, run after his elusive quarry. The stalking moon must hand high over downtown Los Angeles.
Belatedly, Carol Kane reenters the picture. Now an affluent suburban housewife and mother, she knows nothing of the renewed menace -- a considerable oversight by avenger Durning. Leaving her two cute kids in the care of a teen-age babysitter, Kane goes out with her husband to celebrate his promotion. At the restaurant she answers a telephone call that brings back horrible memories, drives her into hysterics and shoves the dawdling plot in the general direction of a denouement.
Kane's impersonation of a doting young mother is so twittery that in retrospect I was inclined to buy her elderly teen-ager. She is basically a comic presence, more likely to inspire titters than shivers. Walton might also swear off snares as obvious as the scene in which Kane's kiddies say their prayers, theoretically increasing our anxiety about their safety.
When her little boy begins blessing everyone in the family, you want to add an appropriate benediction like "And-God-bless-everyone-except-the-escaped-psycho-who's-gonna-try-to-kill-us -tonight-amen." Although Walton contrives to keep most of his contrivances on the safe side of absurdity, "Stranger" is at best a close call.