THE TURBULENT EYE w/ Director Tim Ritter Ep. 01

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Written by: Tim Ritter

HOLD THE PHONE…A MADMAN IS CALLING!

The slasher genre is among my favorite. I’m not sure exactly why, but I could write a book on how HALLOWEEN affected [and afflicted!] me when I saw it on television in October 1981. I would’ve been thirteen or fourteen years old then, and had already been making super-8 movies because…I was wired to create. There’s something about that, and every artist or creative person knows it. You can’t deny it, even from a young age. You start doing it and you can’t stop—by 1981, I was already making movies with the family super-8 camera, writing about flicks I was too young to see [DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN come immediately to mind], and authoring a whole slew of endless stories that remain…somewhere in a box, I imagine. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine for anyone who didn’t grow up in the 1970’s, but it was a strange, wild time. Parents were strict…there were no atomic bombs to be afraid of like in the 50’s for kids, but Christianity was really strong and Satanism was very much alive in American’s minds…I do recall THE SATANIC PANIC of the era quite well, and I think…more than anything, ‘forbidden’ movies like THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY’S BABY probably championed those things more than anything that was really happening… The “threat” of Devil Cults, sacrifices, and people chanting in black robes was very real back then. It even echoed into the car chase movies of the era—anyone remember the Peter Fonda classic RACE WITH THE DEVIL? Pure excellence! And adult movies were everywhere, entrancing my young mind with the titles alone…DEVIL IN MISS JONES. TABOO…Every Sunday, after church, our family would go to the flea market, held in a drive-in theater parking lot, and I’d just stare away at those posters and marquee titles in a trance, trying to figure out what ALL THAT meant…

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And of course, I was ALWAYS wanting to take part in the Forbidden Fruit. I sneaked in a view of THE EXORCIST when it ran on regular television and was properly blown away, even with all the key moments edited out. Seeing it uncut on video, many years later…THAT was another experience entirely! But HALLOWEEN, wow, about eighteen months before it hit regular broadcast TV, it was already LEGENDARY, man. I mean, you’d hear whispers of it on school bus rides home—classmates talking about how it freaked their mom’s out, that sort of thing, when it was running on HBO. How everyone was suddenly locking their front doors because…well, the bogey moan was real and he had this pasty white, featureless mask…and how he was unstoppable…even guns won’t stop him! And the stories about The Shape’s heavy breathing really freaked me out, like he was just everywhere in neighborhood…When I saw HALLOWEEN, of course, after I recovered from the adrenaline rush of making it all the way through to the end, and the genuine scariness of the way it was all presented [with John Carpenter’s stellar score propelling it all forward], including the fact that THE BAD GUY LIVED AND WAS STILL OUT THERE…the next thing I thought was…”Wow, I can emulate that with my super-8 camera…FAIRLY EASILY!” In other words, no space ship sets, blowing-up effects, and that sort of thing were needed- which is what I had been trying to do up to that point. All I needed were some VICTIMS and a guy with a rubber knife! Not to mention, well, if the ACTOR WITH THE RUBBER KNIFE wasn’t available, well, that POV shot would fill in just fine for the actor- and I could shoot the POV shot myself! So my earliest slasher film was born and created by the end of 1981, an unseen little ditty called…BITS AND PIECES…with the influence of Halloween fully intact! I scored my little homegrown effort with John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK soundtrack because at that time, HALLOWEEN’s score remained unreleased, believe it or not…until 1982. [And the first release was a Japanese vinyl import that I bought from a mom and pop record store, only years later to find out…it was A FAKED SCORE by an expert Japanese composer, believe it or not, to cash in on the demand for the music! Of course it was released many times over in ensuing years by Varese Sarabande records, and I gleefully snapped all those up…]

HALLOWEEN opened the pure horror [slasher] gateway for me. Also, the trailer for THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN entranced my young creative mind and probably the movie that scared me the most up to that time—INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS [1978]. I saw that one and had nightmares for weeks. Was obsessed with it…Wrote my own story inspired by INVASION [called STUFFED PEOPLE- it was about family members being replaced with stuffing—oddly enough, a concept used in an episode of STRANGER THINGS recently!] and even bought the Fotonovel…which scared me so much I threw it away. And then…went back to the drugstore to buy another copy! I still have that one today. What’s my point in mentioning all this? Not sure, but it’s kind of my spin on what makes…or creates…a horror fan when they’re young, and what happens when they get so obsessive-compulsive over the genre. And when they’re wired to create- which is a blessing and a curse, really…I mean, I’d love to just spend my time off fishing…or hiking…but no, even when I do something like that…my mind is always wandering back to two words…”WHAT IF…” What if some CRAZIES were out there while we were hiking and they kidnapped one of us… What if there was a monstrous creature in the woods, part shark, part bear?!?! That sort of thing, which always leads me back to writing…and back to wanting to get those words on film or video in some way…you get the picture. It’s ALWAYS been like this for me, since 1974 or so, I have been completely obsessed and entranced by the movies. Checked out endless books in elementary school that covered Dracula and all the Universal and Hammer Horror films. Then there was the JAWS poster, with the monster below the naked damsel in distress…it just blew me away! I stared at that for days…weeks…hours…months…when the ads would run in grainy newspaper print…And finally, after begging my parents relentlessly to see JAWS, they finally relented and off we went, when I was seven years old, an experience that I’ve NEVER forgotten…Obsessed is an understatement. It’s a rush, a way of life, wanting to get that feeling again. That giddy adrenaline high, like getting on a rollercoaster and surviving the ordeal, the swoops and loops and whole experience. You know what I mean—you become a junkie! Eventually, you want to help show and tell stories like this as well.

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And of course, after HALLOWEEN’s universal success, the onslaught of imitators came. There were the FRIDAY THE 13th movies, which I would happily discover a little later, and one that doesn’t get a whole lot of press these days, even though it’s a highly watchable film and has been imitated endlessly throughout the decades. It’s called WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and was released theatrically in 1979 on the heels of HALLOWEEN’s success. I caught this one on regular broadcast TV as well, probably sometime in 1982 after HALLOWEEN premiered and I got so obsessed with the genre, and this one really entranced me like HALLOWEEN, especially the opening and closing acts. Watching it again on Blu Ray, I was reminded of how powerful the movie was and still is, especially the opening 20 minutes, which feature pretty much one actress [Carol Kane] in a living room with…a phone as her mortal enemy. I mean, phones and horror movies have been an inseparable duo for decades even before this [the classic movie I SAW WHAT YOU DID comes immediately to mind- an excellent Joan Crawford escapade where teens make prank calls on people—saying “I know what you did!” and hanging up, until they play this trick on a guy who happens to have just killed someone—and he comes after them!] but STRANGER took things to a whole new level…

Nearly two decades later, Wes Craven’s SCREAM would also update and redefine the “phone harassment-killing” concept…obviously highly inspired by WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, as writer Kevin Williamson would admit.

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Going in with an open mind on WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, it’s a sheer delight for the horror fan! You have to put the time and place into perspective as well, because back in those Satanic 1970’s, I don’t know why, but…the phone was NEVER to be ignored! I mean, when it rang, you DROPPED EVERYTHING to answer it. It would not…COULD NOT… be denied- SOMEONE WAS TRYING TO GET A HOLD OF YOU, after all, so…better grab it! This mindset…is so hard to get across to people today, who carry phone technology in their pockets and routinely ignore vibrating calls…I mean, in the 70’s and even early 80’s, ANSWERING MACHINES were like an expensive luxury item as well- and hard to use as well! [ Anyone remember trying to check your messages with that dumb little speaker device that made a loud whistle sound, that you had to put up to the phone mouthpiece, to remotely check your messages?!?! Yeah, I thought not!]  But seriously, that’s why STRANGER’s opening works so well- in addition to the sound, the music, the cutting and pacing of it all, the lighting…it’s that when the PHONE shrills, when the RING beckons, you answer! End of line, end of story. It took me years to realize…that I could unplug the phone and not be bothered with it when I worked third shift! But for decades, it was unfathomable to do this…and I still don’t understand why. I don’t know, I guess you never knew who was calling- there were no *69 callbacks, there were no screens telling you the number of WHO was calling, so…it might be God himself dialing in to chat, so…you better answer! This was one of my biggest thoughts while recently re-watching STRANGER– I mean, why would you keep answering the phone when this weirdo keeps calling? Well, answer: you had to be a child of the 70’s to understand. DUH! Phone ringing…phone shrieking that crazy, shrilling [now retro] RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING! sound…and you better answer it!

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The first 20 minutes of STRANGER are remarkably suspenseful and violent- with very little to no violence being shown on-screen. There’s the babysitter, actress Carol Kane, doing her homework, and the kids sleeping upstairs she’s looking after [they are never shown], and then…there’s this crazy guy on the phone…asking over and over…”Have you checked the children yet?” The calls just escalate, things get creepier and creepier, and poor Carol, she ends up totally freaked out, trying to check on the kids upstairs but never making it, and she calls the police,  who end up tracing the calls…and wow, that moment that STILL sends chills up my spine, when the maniac on the other ends says…”There’s blood…all over me…” in this shaky, insane, surreal voice… Watch [and hear] this in a dark room and feel the fun house rush- and the relief that YOU’RE not the one receiving this info via phone… As Dana Kaproff’s music score builds and shrills and builds…and we come to the punchline of the piece, the grande twist…SPOILER HERE- SKIP THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE- The trace reveals that...THE CALLS ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE and that means…the killer is in the home already with the babysitter and the music just slams it home, screaming in one of the best, most chaotic twists in freakshow phone cinematic history as we see the SHADOW OF THE KILLER LURKING OUT OF THE BEDROOM as poor Carol realizes that she may be a goner…But she makes it, although in one of the bleakest of storylines, the kids upstairs do not–they had been BRUTALLY offed by the murderer hours and hours before, and he was calling from one of those “second phone lines” in the house—again, kind of a rarity for that era, who had money for THAT? What reason would you have to need TWO phone numbers? This whole concept is based on an urban legend, of course, one where “the killer is already in the house” and was also played out quite brilliantly in the similar yet different Bob Clark classic BLACK CHRISTMAS [1974], a film which I really enjoy each holiday season—but I saw STRANGER first, so it has that nostalgic hold on me…

The opening of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is so good…and so hard to beat…that from there, the movie admittedly struggles to maintain intensity and credibility for the rest of its running time, although it still is a mighty fun watch and has a moody, bang-up ending I enjoy. An interesting tidbit on all this is…director Fred Walton actually made the original opening 20 minutes of the movie as a $12,000.00 short film called THE SITTER a year or so before this film was made, and it was only after the success of HALLOWEEN that he was inspired to expand his short into a feature length movie and get it out there on the coattails of HALLOWEEN’s slasherdom success…Ironically, this was also a formula that I myself closely followed, making a short film called “Truth Or Dare” in 1985, part of a little video anthology movie called TWISTED ILLUSIONS—and based on the success and encouragement that I got from that—I expanded my short script into a feature length movie and got funding for it. It was when I was re-watching STRANGER that I remembered this- and I’m sure, back in the day, as I obsessively read everything I could on my favorite new movies, that the seeds were definitely planted…and terror and inspiration grew! I also think that my TRUTH OR DARE movie, just like WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, probably suffers somewhat in its middle act because it was derived in much the same way- as an excellent short with a punchline that worked so well…but expanded, something not necessarily MEANT to be…well…sometimes it’s really hard to follow those glorious one act plays… Also of note in my TRUTH OR DARE movie is the PHONE CALL HOMAGE sequence mid-way through the film, when lead maniac MIKE STRAUBER heads to a pay phone to harass his ex-wife Sharon…Nice salute to WHEN A STRANGER CALLS there!

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STRANGER kind of plods on with the murderer of the kids being institutionalized… breaking out of the asylum… and the cop that was on the original case that night, played by a kind of unappealing and out of shape Charles Durning, trying to track him down again, this time to KILL him. [Very much echoing HALLOWEEN– psycho escapes, good guy Loomis on his heels…] The middle of STRANGERS is very bizarre and kind of hard to get into—it was even when I first saw it on TV–with the killer being revealed as just an ordinary bloke [from the U.K. to boot] and not much is explained about him…though what motivation that could be revealed would HELP anything, I don’t know. Still, unlike Michael Myers, this murderer didn’t even have a cool, disfigured William Shatner mask, and the middle of the movie has this…very freaky but MEEK seeming killer…trying to befriend aging actress Colleen Dewhurst, who was a rather famous thespian in dramatic pieces in the earlier days of cinema-especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s—including loads of TV work in the 1970’s. I’m not sure WHY Dalton chose her for this part, it almost serves no purpose in the second act, and Dewhurst is kind of difficult to watch for too long in this part, clearly chewing up the scenery and relishing every moment, in a role that should have [in my humble opinion] been written for a young scream queen starlet where exploitation elements could’ve been added in to the mix…It’s also very odd that NOTHING happens to Dewhurst’s character…at the very least she should’ve become a victim of this maniac…as our resident maniac begins a stalking fixation with her and then Durning uses her as bait to zero in on him…But this middle section of the film, with Dewhurst, really goes absolutely NOWHERE, there seems to be no point to it at all other than padding the running time! It’s definitely an odd choice, but perhaps that’s the point? Casting against types to mix it up, keep it original? Maybe there’s something to learn here. There’s also a good ten, fifteen minutes of extended foot chases between the cop and the killer throughout the city here, with Durning barely able to keep up due to his weight…and it’s kind of amusing…but…odd…and intentional? I’m not sure on the middle portion of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, it keeps your attention but really, for all the wrong reasons…

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Eventually, the killer escapes the Durning’s pursuit and ends up going after lovely Carol Kane again, and being that it’s SEVEN YEARS LATER, she’s no longer a babysitter but an adult woman, married, and with two young kids of her own….who are with a BABYSITTER when we catch up with her, of course! It’s an awesome moment when the killer calls her at an important dinner and says…”Have you checked the children yet?”  And she KNOWS, of course she’s never gotten over what happened to her as a teenager…she knows the maniac is back! And zeroing in on her offspring! From there, the movie is suspenseful and employs a few new twists of interest, but generally follows the HALLOWEEN formula right through to the ending…but it’s shot well and very suspenseful, keeping you glued to the screen. Plot holes abound, though- which we ALWAYS have to overlook in slasher movies, but…it all still works well enough that it redeems the movie from its murky middle section… I will say that in the area where BLACK CHRISTMAS beats WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is by NOT SHOWING the killer at all, when it’s just this sickening, devious, possessed voice on the phone…and our imaginations run wild with what this maniac is saying and doing…it works a heckuva lot better than when we finally put a face to the murderer mid-way in…I’m not sure why, but this really does work in the film’s detriment…I guess the fear of the UNKNOWN, of what’s built up in that first act…is so much more than what is casually revealed with kind of this “Ordinary Joe” revelation. The unmasked madman is kind of hit and miss in the movies anyway, until characters like Henry in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and the many incarnations of Hannibal Lecter came along. Of course, Norman Bates worked very well, so…again, I’m not sure why, but this particular killer…when you finally see the poor sap…a lot of what your mind has painted him has being vaporizes, at least within the context of this movie, so that’s something to ponder as filmmakers, creative artists, and the like…What to show, what NOT to show, how to reveal things…Whether to reveal the killer at all…In this case, for me, it didn’t work as well as it should have…

Again, plenty of food for thought comes with this movie, whether you’re just a casual fan looking to revisit a classic oldie or see it for the first time for a thrill, or a filmmaker looking for retro inspiration for new slasher style projects…Give WHEN A STRANGER CALLS a look, IF YOU DARE! It was followed by an excellent cable sequel called WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK in 1993, featuring much of the same cast and director and the addition of scream hottie of the era JILL SCHOELEN [THE STEPFATHER], and kind of a lukewarm remake that made it out in 2006, which sadly didn’t seem too inspired by the original film…But how could it, with such an excellent sequel already made and technology changing so drastically by then?

All right, everyone, until the next time, keep those discs spinning and that data streaming! And if your phone rings…REMEMBER TO ANSWER IT, NO MATTER WHAT! It might be good news…bad news…or a MADMAN calling!!!

When A Stranger Calls (1979) Trailer:

Author: Tim Ritter

Tim Ritter is an independent moviemaker, obscure writer, soundtrack fanatic, and heavy metal enthusiast who has gotten notoriety for writing and directing such films as KILLING SPREE, CREEP, WICKED GAMES SNUFF and TRUTH OR DARE? A CRITICAL MADNESS, which remains a fan favorite to this day, championed by Hollywood staples like Elijah Wood. His novels include THE HAMMER WILL FALL and the semi-autobiographical UNREEL. His most recent productions are DEADLY DARES-TRUTH OR DARE 4 [starring scream queen Jessica Cameron], Hi-8, Hi-Death, and a collaboration with Scott [GHOST HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL] Tepperman on I DARED YOU! TRUTH OR DARE 5. There seems to be no end in sight for the TRUTH OR DARE franchise. www.TimRitter.com

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