Color, 1993, 93 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Fred Walton
Starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Jill Schoelen, Gene Lythgow
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Second Sight (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Goodtimes (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Though When a Stranger Calls Backthe consensus is that the made-for-TV horror film When a Stranger Calls Backpeaked in the 1970s and early ’80s, plenty of other worthwhile genre offerings have come out since that can easily rank with the best of the golden age. Case in point: When a Stranger Calls Back, a belated sequel to the beloved 1979 semi-slasher film about a babysitter (Carol Kane) terrorized by a disturbed maniac over the course of two different time periods. Featuring truly terrifying opening and closing half hours, the film has been largely faulted over the years for its more sedate, thrill-free middle portion with psycho Tony Beckley trying and failing to make a connection with single woman Colleen Dewhurst. Taking that criticism to heart, writer-director Fred Walton decided to slam the pedal to the metal with his Showtime-aired sequel, which brings back Kane and Charles Durning for a more ferocious, nightmare-inducing piece of work about the psychological toll of survival and the terrifying prospect of spending your entire life fighting off the evil that lurks within the human mind.

In what starts as an extended, white-knuckle riff on the original film, sweet babysitter Julia (The Stepfather’s Schoelen, incredibly appealing as always) shows up for an evening gig only to be repeatedly pestered by a man outside claiming he has a stalled car. Requests to call the auto club lead to her discovery that the phone is dead and someone tampering with items When a Stranger Calls Backinside the house, causing her to wonder whether the real threat is truly outside or far too close for comfort. After a traumatic revelation, we jump forward five years When a Stranger Calls Backas Julia, now a college student, finds the same assailant tormenting her again. She seeks aid from the original film’s heroine, Jill (Kane), and the officer in charge, John (Durning), who try to piece together the mystery and suggest Julia arm herself. However, it turns out their adversary may be even more deranged and cunning than they could have possibly imagined.

Revealing any more about the film’s plot would be unthinkable, but When a Stranger Calls Back is filled with startling twists and scares including a climactic moment involving a wall that belongs in the all-time TV terror hall of fame. The three leads are all used well and really give their all to their roles, with the bond between Kane and Schoelen in particular playing effectively off the idea of two generations of women dealing with a particularly insidious and aggressive form of stalking. A talented director, Walton had moved entirely to made-for-TV films by this point after his last theatrical feature, 1987’s The Rosary Murders, and he’s completely in his element here with a ruthlessly effective thriller that’s worthy not only of the original film but his earlier made-for-TV gem, a 1988 spin on William Castle’s I Saw What You Did that equals and in many ways surpasses its predecessor.

When a Stranger Calls BackWhen a Stranger Calls Back first bowed on home video on VHS from MCA Universal, with a budget DVD following later from Goodtimes; both When a Stranger Calls Backare taken from an open matte 1.33:1 transfer as originally broadcast.  Indicating that the film was composed for and intended to be a theatrical release at one point, a matted 1.78:1 version turned up later on Cinemax’s HD channels and made for a marked improvement compared to the older, worn version that had been around for years. The film then made its Blu-ray debut in 2018 from U.K. label Second Sight as part of a deluxe package with the original When a Stranger Calls (along with Walton’s short film that started it all, The Sitter). That release features what appears to be the same scan that aired on cable, albeit opened back up to 1.33:1.

In 2019, Scream Factory gave the film a standalone release on Blu-ray, inevitable since this and the original film are controlled by different studios in the United States. This edition sweetens the deal considerably by featuring a new 2K scan of the feature with both 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 aspect ratio versions together for the first time, so take your pick depending on how much of your screen you’d like to fill up. The previous HD scan was no slouch, but this one nudges forward with more convincing and consistent color timing, better flesh tones, more image info in the frame, and stronger detail including natural film grain. The DTS-HD MA English stereo audio is effective in either iteration, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. The original The Sitter short film is included here in all its skin-crawling glory along with a TV spot, while three substantial new featurettes have been added. "Directing A Stranger" (13m24s) features Walton explaining the lengthy process of getting the sequel made, the casting process, the one change Showtime insisted on that he didn't like (though Walton's original intention would have been a lot more depressing), the famous fashion model who influenced the film's biggest scare, and plans for a third film that never materialized (and would have gone in a very dark direction). Next up is Kane with "Process Is Everything" (8m20s) for a discussion of the rewarding opportunity of revisiting her character years later, the level of artistry in making a suspense film, and reuniting with Durning and Walton, and "A Stranger’s Prey" (13m46s) has Schoelen chatting about her career path in genre films leading up to this film, her adoration of the original film, the audition process, and her glee at getting to work with Kane and Durning.  

Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (1.33:1)

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Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (1.78:1)

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Second Sight (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on June 15, 2019.