Saturday, September 20, 2008

Psychological Phone Murder Part 2

A terrified young baby-sitter...and incessantly ringing phone...and whispered threats set the stage for one of the best twenty minutes in horror cinema history! Carol Kane stars as the baby-sitter who is tormented by a series of disturbing phone calls until a compulsive cop (Charles Durning) is brought on the scene to apprehend the psychotic killer. Seven years later, however, the nightmare begins all over again when the mad man returns to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and a mother. No longer a naive girl - though still terrified, but prepared - she moves boldly to thwart the maniac's attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion.
When A Stranger Calls (1979) can definitely boast at having what some consider the most chilling opening in cinema history. The killer taunts and terrorizes the babysitter even though he's not even in the same room with her. The killer however, was in the same house all along, walking hand in hand with its older Canadian cousin Black Christmas. The telephone had slowly become a cliche' - starting off as a way to lure the victims somewhere else, or to simply cut them off from the outside world by cutting the phone lines. Having the killer in the same house as the victims was an early take on the internet stalking age which, in its own right, has spawned a few horror films from our current age of internet anonymity. The phone went from a simple tool in aiding and embedding, to an all out psychological weapon - to wilt and destroy the psyche of the victims until they were easier to manipulate and do away with.

WASC is somewhat of a character study on a sick man who harnesses rage and ultimately takes it out on two young children in the same house in which the babysitter is supposed to be watching the children. The killer relentlessly calls, speaking in a very clean and low toned voice that doesn't seem too threatening, if maybe a little eerie. "Have you checked the children?", the killer asks - The babysitter shifting her eyes towards upstairs where the children are safe and asleep. With every call, the killer becomes more aggressive, his voice becoming more shaky and unnerving with every second of manipulated conversation. In the first act's final reveal, we realize that the creepy caller is in the same house and that he has incidentally murdered the children he so nonchalantly kept inquiring about.

On down the road, the killer eventually escapes the mental facility and takes up residence alongside the homeless people of the city. The cop is hot on his trail, but the small Englishman seems to weave through every nook and cranny and goes virtually untouched. Finally, during the final climactic scene, the babysitter (now seven years down the road with her own children) is at a restaurant with her husband when she receives a phone call from the same man who terrorized her years earlier. Fearing for the life of her own children, she breaks down and takes the phone threats seriously, thinking the worst.

The telephone isn't the huge star in When a Stranger Calls as it was in its Canadian cousin Black Christmas, but it is the main antagonist in the film. The killer is almost secondary in his tangible/visible form. He's much more scary and creepy on the other end of the phone line. Not being able to see the killer, the victims (or viewer) could turn the caller into any archetype their 'fear of the day' coincided with. Not knowing that the killer is actually a 120 lb - 5ft2 Englishman is much more terrifying when placing the calm, almost soothing voice on the frame of some kind of demon. The phone was an amplification of his character. It was an outlet for him to condone what he had done - asking the babysitter to 'check the children'. In his demented mind, if she had checked the children, even if he had killed her also, he was somehow less responsible than her for their murder.

Just like in modern times, when we chat in chat rooms or post on message boards, we really have no idea who we're talking to. They may tell us that they're a dentist from Virginia, but in reality, they may be a meat slicer at the local grocery store. We can place any face we want to on the people in whom we digitally associate with, turning them from the average Joe Schmoe, into a monster , if indeed we mentally associated something awful with their screen name. Or, if they repeatedly harassed us with repeated IM's or sent us grizzly images or our own personal information via email. Psychological Phone Murder is basically a primitive form of the Internet Stalking phase set on by Hollywood in the waxing days of the internet. Just as a naive user of the web would become terrified of someone who seemed to know all about them, or constantly harassed them online, so would the naive babysitter of the 70's whose main purpose of the telephone was to chat about friends and school with their pals. The phone (to most teenagers) was/is a welcomed site, probably even more so in the 70's. Distort a popular, sophisticated tool of leisure into a demonic device for mental torture, and you're on to something. Too bad that other forms of Psychological Phone Murder are less elaborate than the menacing voice on the other end of the line.

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