Checking the children

Why haven’t you checked the children?

The babysitter immediately hangs up the phone and turns to close the shutters on the large living room window. But first she pauses, gazing anxiously at the outside world, and the moment is ripe with vulnerability. The terrifying truth is dawning on her: suburban houses, even this wholesome edifice owned by Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis, are not impregnable. In fact, they’re rather easily infiltrated, if a homicidal madman is so inclined. All that stands between the babysitter and the scary, unknown world is a single pane of glass and a shutter.

I love how the first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls (1979) hides this subtext right under the surface. It’s such a perfect adaptation of the classic “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend, distilling the story to its essentials and telling it with icy, tension-escalating style. Carol Kane could not be better as the babysitter, either—her wide eyes get across her growing fear even in the long shot pictured above. It’s just a tragedy that the film can’t sustain itself beyond this note-perfect opening and degenerates into momentumless (albeit still beautiful and chilling) detective story territory.

But nonetheless, wow: those 20 minutes make up a deeply scary, economical, insightful short film that’s a damn sight better than most features.

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