‘The Sitter’: The 1977 short film inspired by an urban legend that became ‘When a Stranger Calls’

“Have you checked the children?” “The call’s coming from inside the house!” These are familiar phrases, thanks in large part to the 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls, but did you know they originated from a certain urban legend? Or that the terrifying opening of Stranger is essentially a clone of a rarely seen short film?

The 1977 short, The Sitter, was inspired by the urban legend concerning a female teenage babysitter who receives strange, frightening phone calls in which the caller keeps asking, “Have you checked the children?” Eventually, it’s determined the calls are coming from another phone line inside of the house. The tale usually ends with a shocking, disturbing reveal. “The babysitter and the man upstairs” legend is thought to have been first circulated in the early 1960s.

Fred Walton and Steve Feke were working as writers for a fleeting TV show when they came up with the idea for The Sitter. Feke told Walton the babysitter legend, which Feke believed to have actually taken place. Walton hadn’t heard the story before, and immediately thought it was something that could be developed for the screen. Thinking that it wasn’t right for the program they were writing for, Walton and Feke decided to produce a short film. The pair co-wrote the script, with Walton directing.

Shot over just three days, The Sitter is an impressive slice of low-budget, first-time filmmaking. Feke and Walton wanted it to look as professional as possible—which included hiring Jean-Luc Godard’s cameraperson and having the film processed at the same lab used by Stanley Kubrick—and it shows in the final product. All that wouldn’t matter if The Sitter wasn’t an effective little horror picture, but it certainly is. 
Little-known actress Lucia Stralser as Jill, the terrorized babysitter, in ‘The Sitter’.

Though the short didn’t garner the attention Feke and Walton were hoping for, the duo continued to talk up The Sitter in Hollywood. Eventually, they’d secure the backing of a wealthy financier, and the decision was made to turn the short into a feature-length film. Also co-written by Feke and Walton, with the latter once again in the director’s chair, When a Stranger Calls (1979) was produced for $1.5 million; it went on to gross over $20 million in the United States alone.
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The beginning of When a Stranger Calls is a virtual remake of The Sitter, with similar looking shots, pacing, and running time. For Stranger, acclaimed actress Carol Kane was cast in the role of the babysitter. Kane’s first-rate performance in the opening, along with a tightening of the script for the sequence, resulted in an improvement over The Sitter. But the short is still appealing as a separate, standalone work, in part, as not everything is duplicated in Stranger; the slow, creepy Steadicam shots are particularly noteworthy.

After such a strong start, When a Stranger Calls quickly loses its way, morphing into an unsatisfying crime thriller that ends up being the bulk of the movie, before returning to Kane’s character—who isn’t seen for nearly an hour—for the finale. But the beginning made a lasting impression on audiences and has influenced teen slasher films (particularly Scream (1996) and, of course, the 2006 remake of Stranger). Often associated with the genre, When a Stranger Calls isn’t a slasher, though it was marketed as such. It came out in 1979, the same year Halloween (1978) had become a hit (it wasn’t a winner out of the gate), and as both films feature a female teenage babysitter in peril, the advertising materials focused on the scary opening, with the apparent hope that audiences would conclude it was a slasher similar to Halloween.

It’s been said that the financial success of Halloween inspired Walton to turn The Sitter into a feature, but that wasn’t the case; the filming of When a Stranger Calls took place before Halloween was even released.
The Sitter is embedded below. Watch When a Stranger Calls here. But before you check out either….

Check the children!!!!!!

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Black Christmas’: The groundbreaking 1974 slasher film that paved the way for ‘Halloween’
‘Silent Scream’: This little-known horror gem led to the explosion of slasher films in the 1980s
‘Swirlee’: ‘Street Trash’ alums and David Caruso star in bizarre short about a man made of ice cream

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