“…Have you checked the children?”
Before I skewer this film, I do have to admit that the first 20 minutes of it are undeniably scary. Jill (Carol Kane) is babysitting for a wealthy couple when she starts to get creepy phone calls from a man asking her, “Have you checked the children?” Jill has not checked the little ones. As the phone calls’ frequency builds, so does Jill’s terror. She finally phones the police, who inform her that the calls are coming from…inside the house! Though Jill escapes, the children are not so fortunate.
Fast-forward seven years to the cop originally on the scene, John Clifford (Charles Durning). He finds out that the man who tormented Jill all those years ago has escaped himself, from an insane asylum. Unleashed maniac Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) manages to terrorize another woman before circling back to his original prey, Jill. Now married and with two kiddos herself, Jill is out to dinner with her husband when she gets a call asking her again, “Have you checked the children…?”
For your viewing pleasure, here is that first scene of the film (the undeniably scary bit, and frankly the only bit worth watching).
In the case of When a Stranger Calls, we are the storytellers! This legend has gotten more campfire time than The Girl Scouts of America – or The Boy Scouts, for that matter. A neurotic-as-fuck kid, I heard it and refused to babysit when I was a teenager. Many babysitters I knew admitted anxiety over this well-known tale when they would watch children.
Other than being the subject of a mediocre film, Curt is misunderstood by everyone, including the viewers. Part of this is due to vague, disjointed storytelling. You connect with Jill at the beginning, then are supposed to connect with John Clifford, but you spend a lot of time with Curt Duncan instead, a man you already dislike because of what he did to those poor children…
How can an audience find an anti-hero in someone they hardly know? While it is clear that he escaped from the insane asylum, mental health was not as precise in the 1970s and treatments, if you can imagine, were actually worse than they are now. All we have is a crazy person who murdered children that was probably abused at an asylum. It leaves us asking, “Can we check on Jill…?”
Do You Know Where Your Children Are?
Ultimately, When a Stranger Calls is about us, the storytellers, and serves as a cautionary tale. It brings up a deep-rooted fear that we never really know the people we leave in charge – of major companies, of teaching us math, of making our food, of watching our children…
It is strange to live in a society that warns us all the time about the dangers facing children while at the same time shaming parents for everything they do incorrectly to raise them. Meanwhile, children are left at the hands of teachers for most of their day (and more often, we are hearing about said teachers being pedophiles) and left at the hands of teenage babysitters at night (who also sometimes turn out to be pedophiles). As if that weren’t enough, guilt abounds regarding childhood diagnoses of autism, ADD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and a whole boatload of other horrors. When a Stranger Calls, as posited by Killer Legends, is really about guilt. The urban legend refuses to die as long as parents and guardians feel culpable for the potential and realized dangers faced by children.
On that note, now might be a good time to get check on your kiddos.