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When a Stranger Calls/Happy Birthday to Me

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Mill Creek Entertainment
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Fred Walton
J. Lee Thompson
Carol Kane
Charles Durning
Melissa Sue Anderson
Glenn Ford
Bottom Line: 
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What’s better than one horror flick on Blu-ray? How about two, and on the same disc, no less! Yes, folks; I give you the When a Stranger Calls/Happy Birthday to Me Blu-ray double feature! 

Oh, I know what you’re saying:

 “Oh, one of those bargain jobbers with lousy transfers and no extras to speak of!” 

Well, yes, you’re half right. It IS a bargain disc, and, yes, sadly, there’s nary an extra to be found, but, as for the transfers, well, I have to say these two films look downright fantastic, especially given the fact that they’re sharing real estate on the same 50gb disc!

More on that later; first let us take look at the films, themselves, yes?

First off, while I, personally, consider both of these films genre classics, I use the term classic in the same way one would describe an old car. Neither film is particularly a groundbreaking vehicle or oozing with quality, but they’re both sturdy, reliable, and have given me, as a viewer, a lot of mileage. Plus they are each over three decades old, so that’s classic enough for me. 

I also think this pairing is unique in that both of these films have been lumped in with the slasher films of the late 70’s/80s while, in fact, they’re not really true slasher films at all. 

When a Stranger Calls, despite cribbing its best bits from Bob Clark’s seminal slasher prototype, Black Christmas, opens with what I consider a mini masterclass in suspense filmmaking. When babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is left in charge of the Mandrakis children, she begins to receive a series of disturbing phone calls from a man who simply asks her one thing;

“Have you checked the children?”

Understandably frightened, Jill phones the police, but they initially only offer words of comfort. Jill, of course, isn’t remotely calmed by this, and, after a few more calls, she phones the police again, and begs for their help. The dispatcher tell her there’s not much they can do beyond tracing the phone call, and instructs Jill to keep the man on the phone for at least a minute. 

When he next calls, Jill attempts to engage the man in conversation, asking him what it is he wants from her. When she hears his reply, she’s horrified, but that’s nothing compared to her reaction when the police call her back to tell her that the phone call is coming from inside the house!

This opening act of Fred Walton’s (April Fool’s Day) first film is an absolute nail-biter, but it proves to be a hard act to follow, as the rest of the film revolves around Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) and his pursuit of the aforementioned killer caller, Curt Duncan (the late, great Tony Beckley, in his final film), after his escape from a mental hospital seven years later. Much of this is played out like a police procedural, with Clifford working leads and tracking Duncan down with the help of an angsty barfly (played by Colleen Dewhurst) to whom Duncan took a liking. It’s not until the third act where we see the inevitable reunion between a now-married Jill and Duncan where the film returns to horror territory, but it’s a brief coda, and isn’t nearly as terrifying as Walton’s brilliant opening salvo (The putrid 2006 remake, starring Camilla Belle, attempts to stretch the original film’s opening act into a full feature, but failed miserably in its attempt). 

Save for its somewhat plodding middle act, When a Stranger Calls is still an essential (and iconic) horror/thriller that features great performances by Kane, Beckley, and Dewhurst, as well as top notch production values and a fantastic score by Dana Kaproff. It’s not a blood-and-guts slasher by any means, but it more than makes up for a lack of gore with truly visceral thrills.

Happy Birthday to Me is another odd duck in the slasher pond. 

Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) was a shy girl who longed to be part of the in-crowd. When her birthday rolled around, Ginny decided to invite the ten most popular kids at her school in hopes they would welcome her into their inner circle. Unfortunately, one of the other popular girls was having a party of her own, and everyone went there instead of poor Ginny’s. Infuriated, Ginny’s mother dragged her daughter out of the house to go and give those cruel kids a piece of her mind, but, instead, wrapped their car around a tree, killing herself, and nearly killing Ginny. 

Years later, after several surgeries and some seriously intense therapy, the once-shy Ginny is finally starting to come out of her shell. She’s finally achieved her dream of being one of the “top 10” as she is now a popular student at the swanky new private school her dad enrolled her in. Despite her progress, she’s still having trouble coping, and, following a game of chicken with her friends that almost gets them killed, Ginny begins to suffer frequent blackouts and nasty flashbacks to her turbulent relationship with her abusive mother. Making matters worse, Ginny’s friends are disappearing one by one,  leading Ginny to think that, in her fragile mental state, she may be the one responsible.

Happy Birthday to Me has more in common with late 70’s/early 80’s European thrillers than it does with the slasher films it is most associated with. The plot is something straight out of an Italian gialli, with said genre’s sense of mystery, abundant red herrings, and a gloved killer to boot. It’s also a very atmospheric and tense little thriller; one that boasts above average performances from television stalwart, Anderson (Little House on the Prairie) and Hollywood legend, Glen Ford. The presence of Ford - most likely lured into the role by the film’s equally renowned director, J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear/The Greek Tycoon) -  lends the production some serious credibility as well as a sense of maturity that, once again, separates Happy Birthday to Me from the de rigueur teen-friendly splatter flicks.

Both films come to Blu-ray courtesy of Mill Creek Entertainment, who also released the recent Deep Rising/The Puppet Masters set. As with Deep Rising, the transfers here really impressed the hell out of me, especially given that this set will only set you back $10 bucks! Both films look quite good, with a sharp, well-defined image that is clean and virtually devoid of artifacts. When a Stranger Calls sports a bit more grain and the occasional flicker in darker scenes, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail evident in the image. Happy Birthday to Me looks a touch softer, but that’s due to the film’s gauzy aesthetic. When compared to the 2009 Anchor Bay DVD release, I found the image to be sharper, a bit brighter, and definitely more detailed. In both cases, the Blu-ray transfers are significant upgrades over their DVD counterparts, and the audio tracks (a 2.0 DTS HD track for When a Stranger Calls, and a 5.1 DTS HD track for Happy Birthday to Me) are crisp and clean, albeit a bit unbalanced in that dialogue is mixed much lower than the films’ respective scores. 

For $10 dollars – less than a six pack of GOOD beer – you can own two really entertaining and iconic 70s/80s horror flicks on Blu-ray, each boasting transfers that are better than those of lot of much more expensive discs out there. Do I even need to say that this set comes highly recommended? 

I didn’t think so. 

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