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Written By:

Nick Spacek

Since its debut in the fall of 1979, director Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls has become a touchstone horror film. The opening twenty-minute sequence of a babysitter menaced by a frightening caller is absolutely iconic and justifiably famous. However, while the film’s been released on home video before, it’s never really been given the care and treatment due to something of its stature.

All of that’s changed with the upcoming Second Sight Blu-ray release. When A Stranger Calls has been restored, as has its sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back, made in 1993 for cable network Showtime. Both films look amazing, with wonderful new scans, and are the perfect way for these movies to make their UK Blu-ray debut. As an added bonus, the rarely (if ever) seen short film The Sitter – which Walton had made several years before and is essentially the film’s opening sequence with a different actress – also makes its first ever home video appearance.

It’s a glorious package, and so we were very excited to speak by phone with director Walton, who also co-wrote the film with Steve Feke. We discussed the film’s enduring legacy and how he came to be associated with the horror and thriller genres.

STARBURST: How involved were you with the restoration of When A Stranger Calls?

FRED WALTON: Is the short The Sitter part of the Blu-ray? Well, I had that. That only existed in one 35mm answer print, which I had held on to since my partner, Steve Feke, and I made it in the spring of 1977. I was able to pull it out of my garage and send in down to LA where they made a transfer of it. I was afraid that, because it had been over 40 years, and because it had been sitting in garages, attics, or basements of various houses that I’ve lived in, I didn’t know what sort of shape it would be in. I thought it might very well shred once it went through any sort of machine, but apparently not. It held up okay, so there you go.

It’s pretty amazing that people get a chance to see The Sitter, because it’s a pretty rarely-seen film.

Ever! We made it, Steve Feke and I – who was my co-writer and producer on the feature – we had been in college together, and when we made the short, the idea was that it would be a showcase for what we could do, and we would hopefully get work out of that, but we didn’t have the connections to get it seen, ultimately, by anyone who was in a position to help us.

So, we had the idea that, since that avenue isn’t working, maybe we can get it nominated – it doesn’t even have to win, if we can get it nominated for an Oscar for Live Action Short Subject, maybe that will help us to get work from it. At the time, in order for it to qualify for Oscar consideration something had to play for a week in a movie theater in LA or New York. We were actually able to pull some strings and get it shown in a theater in Los Angeles, and that was the first time I had seen it before a live audience.

At the time, short subjects were not that unusual, so it was playing before Looking For Mr. Goodbar, and so we go to this theater in LA to see it, and throughout, people are coming into the theater, and looking for their seats with their popcorn and their drinks, and they don’t know what the hell is playing. They’re up at the babysitter, and they’re saying “Is that Diane Keaton?” and we’re thinking “Oh, God, we’re just dying here”, but by the end, people get quiet and locked in, and at the end – there’s that moment where the door opens, and there’s the cop – there’s a big scream.

We thought “Wow! We’ve pulled it off”. We didn’t know until then that we’d made something that really worked. Of course, though, it didn’t get nominated, and we had to come up with something else, because we had gone into debt to make the short, so we came up with the idea to approach low-budget production companies like Roger Corman with this feature-length idea and say “Here’s the first act – it’s finished, and for a couple hundred thousand more, we can make a feature”, and eventually we got in contact with a guy named Mel Simon who had a production company, and he financed it, and he was like “We’ll just reshoot the whole thing with Carol Kane”.

It’s an amazing group of people who made When A Stranger Calls: you have Donald Peterman, who would go onto lens so many amazing films as your director of photography, Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, and cult folks like Rutanya Alda. How was the process of pulling all those people together? It seems like you captured lightning in a bottle.

Well, here’s the deal: the people who took us to Mel Simon, Barry Krost and Doug Chapin, they had a relationship with [him]. And, additionally, Krost and Chapin were talent managers, and one of their clients was Carol Kane, so they sort of insisted. “We need to remake this. Forget this business with this girl we’ve never heard of before. We’ll get Carol Kane to do it”.

I knew Carol Kane was a wonderful actress, but she would not have been my first choice, because we were looking for someone who was just like, an average babysitter, and Carol Kane is not average anything, talented as she is. But, it worked out. Then, Barry Krost knew that Mel Simon was a big fan of Charles Durning, and so we approached Durning and before he would commit to anything, he wanted to know “Who is this guy Fred Walton? He’s never directed anything”, so he had to see the short, and so we showed him the short, and he said “Oh, this is pretty good. I’ll be a part of this”.

Then he asked, “Have you filled any of the other roles?” We told him that we had Carol Kane, and he asked “What about this woman in the middle part? How about Colleen Dewhurst for it?” Colleen Dewhurst, at the time – and even now – was principally known as a Broadway actress who didn’t do movies, and we thought people would look at this as a low-budget, cheesy thing, and she’s not going to want to be involved, and Charlie said “Well, I know her, and I’ve worked with her, and I happen to know she needs to make some money right now” and so we talked to her, and we ended up with Colleen Dewhurst.

Charlie also said “Are you casting any black actors in this?” because he was very much involved in wanting to helping black actors or technicians to have a shot at making it in Hollywood, so that’s how we ended up with Ron O’Neal – Superfly! – as a cop. Tony Beckley came to us because he was a close personal friend of Barry Krost – a “look at his work” kind of thing – and he was real insistent about it, so he got hold of some film he had done, and we looked at it, and that’s how that happened.

Were you always interested in thrillers or scary movies, or was it just something you happened into after the success of When A Stranger Calls?

Happened into it. Happened into it. I have no particular love or affinity for scary movies. In fact, as a child, growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me go see scary movies. Psycho came out, and all my friends went, and I couldn’t go see it. But, when Steve Feke first told me this idea he claimed he had read about in a newspaper article n the LA Times back in 1972 as having taken place in Brentwood – an affluent suburb of Los Angeles – about this babysitter getting these phone calls, I just thought, “Wow, that’s incredible. Steve, we gotta make this”.

But, as I say, I never had an affinity for scary movies, and we made Stranger simply because I was trying to get a career going, and we came across this idea that happened to be scary that seemed – to me – to be wildly commercial, and couldn’t lose. After it came out, and was the success that it was, immediately I got pigeonholed and people wanted me to do another scary movie. I was resistant, but wasn’t able to convince anyone interested in the stories that I wanted to do, so eventually I had to make money and I was lucky enough at that time for April Fool’s Day to come along and other things.

When A Stranger Calls / When A Stranger Calls Back is out on Blu-ray on December 17th from Second Sight.

Nick Spacek

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