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When a Stranger Calls (1979) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • A psychopathic killer terrorizes a babysitter, then returns seven years later to menace her again.

  • During an evening of babysitting, high-school student Jill Johnson is terrorized by a caller who keeps asking "Have you checked the children lately?" When she calls the police, they inform her that the calls are coming from inside the house.

  • Teenager Jill Johnson is babysitting one night for a physician and his wife. During the evening, a mysterious phone caller starts taunting her: sometimes he says nothing; other times he asks, "Have you checked the children?" Jill eventually fears for her safety and calls the police, who successfully trace his next call and discover something horrifying: the calls are being made from INSIDE THE HOUSE. Police are immediately dispatched and Jill narrowly escapes into the arms of Lt. Clifford. Officers soon discover that the caller had savagely murdered the children hours before and made the calls on a phone the parents had never disconnected. Seven years later the murderer escapes from a psychiatric hospital and resumes his demented mission, this time pursuing Jill's husband Steven and their children. Clifford, now a P.I. hired by the murdered children's father, is also hunting the murderer.

  • High-schooler Jill Johnson agrees to babysit while a doctor and his wife enjoy a night on the town. After she tucks the children snugly into bed upstairs, phone calls from a stranger start to disrupt her quiet evening of study. At first the unidentified caller says nothing and Jill thinks an acquaintance is playing a prank. Several similar calls have her unnerved enough to call the police when the silent stranger still offers no clue to his identity. The phone calls continue - Finally, an eerie voice on the other end of the line asks ominously "Have you checked the children lately?" Apparently the stranger can see her and follow her movements. She closes all the curtains and turns out the lights believing that the darkness is her only hiding place. By now the police are tracing the origin of the calls and they tell Jill she must stall for time the next time he calls so they can complete the trace. More calls - "Why haven't you checked the children?" Jill, by now frightened nearly out of her wits, screams into the receiver "Leave me alone!" and slams the phone down into its cradle. The next time the phone rings it's the police: "We've traced the calls...they're coming from inside the house!"


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • In Los Angeles, California, teenager Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arrives to babysit at the Mandrakis residence. Before leaving for the evening, Mrs. Mandrakis (Rutayna Alda) informs Jill that she and her husband, Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano), might see a movie after dinner, which means they could be gone until midnight. She also requests that Jill not disturb the two children, who are asleep and recovering from a cold. During the evening, Jill remains downstairs and studies in the living room. After awhile, the telephone rings. When Jill answers, a man with a British accent asks, "Have you checked the children?" then hangs up. He calls back, repeating the question. As the same voice telephones several more times, Jill wonders if her friend, Bobby, is playing a practical joke. Rattled, she pours herself a glass of whiskey, then tries to reach Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis at the restaurant, but they already left. Next, she contacts the police, but the officer says he is unable to offer much help unless the caller threatens her. When Jill answers another time, the anonymous caller poises the question more emphatically.

    Sensing that the man is outside watching her, she closes the curtains and bolts the front door. She does not pick up as the phone rings again, then redials the police. Sgt. Sacker (Bill Boyett) reassures her that he will attempt to trace the call, and Jill manages to keep the stranger on the line for longer next time. As soon as he hangs up, the sergeant telephones and states that the call is coming from inside the house. He orders Jill to leave immediately. Looking up, she sees a man's shadow at the top of the stairs. She frantically opens the front door as the police arrive. The intruder upstairs is apprehended, but he is covered in the blood of the two Mandrakis children, whom he killed several hours earlier. By the time detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) appears on the scene, the parents have returned home and are trying to comprehend the tragedy. Officer Charlie Garber informs Clifford that the killer, a British citizen named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), used a second telephone line inside the house to call the babysitter, who was not hurt.

    Seven years later.

    Clifford has retired from the police force and works as a private investigator. Dr. Mandrakis hires him to find Duncan, who has recently escaped from the state mental hospital. Clifford questions Duncan's supervising physician, Dr. Monk (Rachel Roberts), who believes the patient is no longer a threat to children and feels confident that the intensive therapy, including electric shock treatment, was helpful, but Clifford would prefer clues as to the whereabouts of the psychopath.

    Meanwhile, at a bar downtown called Torchy's, Duncan tries to converse with a single, middle-aged woman named Tracy Fuller (Colleen Dewhurst), but she ignores him. When Duncan remains persistent, another bar patron assaults him. Tracy suddenly feels sympathy for the British man as he is dragged into the alley. Walking home alone that night, she is unaware that Duncan follows her. He appears outside her apartment door and apologizes for his behavior at the bar. Tracy is initially considerate until Duncan insists on staying and having coffee. After finally persuading him to leave, she feels unnerved by the stranger.

    At police headquarters, Clifford receives cooperation from his former colleague, Garber, who is now a lieutenant, and combs through recent crime reports. He also questions vagrants on the street and shows them a photograph of Duncan. After inquiring about the fight at Torchy's, Clifford tracks down Tracy and enlists her help in trapping the child murderer. Clifford then confides to Garber (Ron O'Neal) that he plans to kill Duncan and requests that the police do not get involved. Reluctantly, Garber agrees.

    As instructed, Tracy leaves Torchy's and walks back to her apartment alone at night, while Clifford watches for anyone following her. Duncan, however, does not appear. Nevertheless, Clifford assures Tracy that he will keep patrol outside her building. As Tracy settles in for the evening, Duncan, who has been hiding inside the apartment, surprises her and pleads with her for friendship. Hearing Tracy scream, Clifford storms into the apartment, but is unable to catch the killer as he flees. With a tip from a vagrant, Clifford locates Duncan at a homeless shelter, and the two men confront each other. Clifford aims a lethal lock needle towards the murderer, but Duncan dodges the weapon and escapes.

    Meanwhile, Jill Johnson still lives in Los Angeles, but is now married to Stephen Lockhart (Steven Anderson) and has two young children. As she prepares to cook dinner for the family, her husband telephones and announces that he is taking her to a restaurant. Jill then arranges for Sharon to babysit the children. While Jill and Stephen are enjoying dinner, the maître d' at the restaurant interrupts and informs the couple that they have a telephone call. When Jill picks up the receiver, the familiar voice with the British accent says, "Have you checked the children?" Jill screams that Curt Duncan is back, and Stephen immediately calls the babysitter, who assures the parents that everything is fine at home.

    Accompanied by a police officer, Stephen and Jill return to the house, and are relieved to find that the children are okay. Nevertheless, Stephen places a rifle by his bedside. Meanwhile, at police headquarters, Garber hears about the incident with Mrs. Lockart and alerts Clifford. When Clifford telephones the Lockhart home and receives a constant busy signal, the operator notifies him that the line appears to have been recently disconnected.

    Meanwhile, Jill cannot sleep. Checking on her son, she notices a piece of candy in his room that she did not give him. Frightened, she goes back to her bedroom. There, she hears Duncan's voice and assumes he is hiding in the closet. She shakes her husband in the bed, but instead, Duncan jumps out from underneath the covers. As the killer tries to strangle Jill, Clifford suddenly arrives and shoots Duncan dead. The private investigator comforts Jill and assures her that Stephen, who was knocked unconscious and placed in a closet, is fine.

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