A summer at Antagony & Ecstasy without ANY 1980s horror movies is no summer at all. So every weekend in July, I'm looking at a grab-bag of some of the more notable titles released in and around the great slasher boom of 1980-1984.

It's cheap to rag on a movie for not holding fast to the rules of a non-existent genre that it helped to create. But even so, When a Stranger Calls is a weird damn movie: it's one of the key proto-slashers, released late in 1979, right before the slash glut began in earnest, but its structure is unrecognisably different from anything that has ever been placed in the slasher movie wheelhouse. And while I am only able to make that claim thanks to decades of hindsight, I'm pretty sure that even if we just take When a Stranger Calls on its own terms, it doesn't magically become all that much less bizarre. It's basically two movies, one sandwiched inside the other, and the two movies have completely different goals, tones, and arguably even genres.

Here's what the film isn't: the story of a babysitter getting upsetting calls from an increasingly threatening prankster, and the breathless warning from the cops she finally calls to intervene that "the call is coming from inside the house!" It is partially this, true. In fact, it is in part a remake of a 1977 short film written and directed by Fred Walton, The Sitter, which tells exactly that story. I do not know whether Walton ever planned for The Sitter to be more than just a little lark, but the world-changing success of Halloween in 1978 was all the encouragement he needed to expand it into a feature, with the help of co-writer Steve Feke. What they did not do was simply expand their concept to an hour and a half, as happened when this film was remade in 2006 to dismal effect. What they did was... odd.

Anyway, let's back into that. First comes the 23-minute opening for which the film will undoubtedly remain known as long as there are horror movie fans. It is an adaptation of the much-beloved urban legend about the poor babysitter terrorised by a random psychopath who has set his sights on her for no reason, and that's surely what recommended it as an obvious Halloween knock-off. Our babysitter for the evening is Jill Johnson, played by Carol Kane, which is maybe the oddest thing about the whole production. Not just because, decades later (decades including an iconic turn as a shrill-voiced old woman in The Princess Bride), Kane seems to be too distinctive a performer for anybody in their right mind to think she could disappear into the role of an Everyteen. But even by 1979, I can't imagine that she wasn't already heading down that path: earlier the same year, she scored the kind of cameo in The Muppet Movie that they don't hand out to non-famous people, and she'd had a memorable couple of scenes in the Best Picture-winning Annie Hall two years earlier; hell, she was herself a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1975's Hester Street, and that has to count for something. But her she is, in what appears to all purposes to be a grimy little shocker, playing a teenager. She's good in the role! Even allowing for the fact that nobody in the world sounds like Carol Kane and it is therefore not possible to watch the movie and forget who she is, her tiny frame and thin face made her a natural faux-adolescent, and she's a good enough actor to put over the role's basic requirements (grow increasingly unhinged and weep with fear) as well as any more traditional, anonymous scream queen could ever have managed.

In fact, Kane is so good in the role - particularly as the anonymous caller grows nastier and more violent in his calls, and Jill turns into a panicky basket case, or when she gathers up enough barely-stable resolve to walk over to the stair to check on the children, as the caller insists - she helps to make the opening act of When a Stranger Calls one of the best horror movie sequences on the books. If you've only seen the homage/parody that opens the 1996 Scream, which is by all means a more than solid sequence and one of the highlights of '90s horror, know that you've only seen a fragmentary echo. This is the real deal, right here: it's a sickening collection of raw nerves and twisting guts, as Dana Kaproff's effective if unimaginative musical score drones darkly, and Walton and cinematographer Donald Peterman find plenty of ways to use the frame to isolate Jill and stress how alone and unprotected she is, and above all, as Kane lets us understand just how baffled and horrified this young woman is, stripping away all of the "fun" stuff of horror thrillers to reveal the sweat-soaked terror of being alone in a big house full of shadows and windows and knowing that someone is watching your every move.

Kane, and to a lesser degree Kaproff, is the savior of this sequence, which has its share of problems. Walton knows a good frame when he sees it, and there are at least two all-time good shots here (one that shoots Jill through the window from outside, pinning her against a black backdrop behind the windowframe; one a slow push-in as she sits, wholly miserable, on the steps leading upstairs, as the phone rings), there's some really dodgy technique on display. I am primarily thinking about the frequently whackadoo editing by Sam Vitale, with amateur-hour gestures like a cut from a medium shot of Kane to a medium close-up, still of Kane, and then back; the early sequence when Jill hears a noise and hunts around the house looking for its source is so indifferently cut and blandly lit that it stomps all the tension out of what should be the first leap up in our state of stress.

Still and all, this is the kind of stuff that makes a nervous sort chew grip the arms of their chair till their fingernails bleed, and can even cut through the fog of a cynical genre habitué - I know that the second time the caller snarls "Why haven't you checked on the children?" knocked the stuffing out of me even more than Kane's quivering had done it, and "[I want] your blood all over me" was enough for me to squeak a little bit. Yes indeed, the opening of the movie is choice stuff, right up until the point that Jill starts tugging at the security chain on the front door, as the stranger stalks down the steps towards her, unseen but for a shadow, and as she finally wrenches open the door, what should be standing there but a grainy freeze-frame of Charles Durning? Wait what the fuck? Yeah, it's meant to be a sleek transition into the next scene, with police officer John Clifford (Durning) musing sorrowfully over the bloody aftermath of the stranger's acts - Jill got away, but the two children in the house were brutally murdered - but it is the hokiest sonofabitching thing, and it stops the movie's momentum cold. And the movie takes this opportunity to transform into Lord knows what.

Seven years later, Clifford is a private investigator, and the strange caller - English merchant marine Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) - is cooling his heels in a mental hospital. Since we've landed here with about 72 minutes of movie left to go, you can probably guess that one of the first things to happen is that Duncan escapes, and the natural thing for him to do is to track down the one that got away, hunting for the now-married Jill and her two children, right about the same age as the ones he killed while she was babysitting. That is indeed natural, and the film obligingly goes there, but it... meanders, let us say. In fact, when next we see Jill, it's at the 77-minute mark, a full 55 minutes after her last appearance. Filling in that gap is some very different, almost unrecognisable film, as When a Stranger Calls turns into a most unanticipated prefiguration of Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. For its middle hour, by far the longest part of its running time, the movie follows Duncan's obsessive attempt to "court" a middle-aged woman of no particular notability named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst), whom he meets one night at a crappy bar. For her part, Tracy is put off by the almost perceptibly slimy behavior that the scrawny, staring Duncan seems to think qualifies as flirting, and the killer gets himself beat into a pulp by one of the bar's regulars, Bill (Michael Champion). This is enough to at least make her feel guilty, so much so that she doesn't scream in mortal terror and call the police when Duncan tracks her home that night as a normal person might do. She does manage to talk him into waiting for coffee the next day, and apparently she even means it. Meanwhile, Clifford has taken on an Ahab-esque desire to find Duncan and apprehend him if necessary, but killing him like a rabid dog is much more Clifford's preference. And once he meets up with Tracy, he's found his bait, though she's not terribly keen on the idea.

So, I just don't know. It's not that this is inherently terrible, though the execution frequently leaves a lot to be desired. The scene with Duncan bothering Tracy in the bar is deadly slow, drawing only the slightest fragments of tension from our assumption that this mildewy fellow (whom we've never seen) must be the killer, since why the hell else would any of this be happening? Really, everything in the film surrounding Tracy is pretty suspect, other than Dewhurst's performance, which has the effortless cockiness of a woman who has seen enough repugnant creeps in her day that this one is no more than a minor nuisance, even at his most overtly rapacious. The screenplay absolutely cannot come up with a reasonable motivation for why she responds to Duncan so warmly in their second meeting, and Dewhurst doesn't have anything rational to provide; moreover, her entire function in the overall structure is inconsistent and arbitrary. When we meet her, she has the status of virtually another protagonist, the stand-in for Jill in this second phase of the movie, which also metes out leading roles for Clifford and Duncan. By the time this chunk of the movie has wrapped up, she's nothing but a plot point, vanishing from the film without even a reaction shot just as soon as she's fulfilled her function in Clifford's plan. It's the most glaring mistake in this long subplot (or rather, A-plot, since the bookending Jill sequences combine for considerably less screen time), but hardly the only one.

At the same time, parts of it are absolutely stellar - the leering quality to Duncan's stalking isn't as thoroughly nightmarish a what Jill suffers through in the opening, but it's pretty great as the stuff of a psychological thriller, which is what the movie is now, having hit "pause" on being a horror film. Its Maniac-style attempt to peer into Duncan's head as he crawls through the mean streets of this nameless city comes somewhat close to working: Beckley is a game actor who allows himself to look and act repulsive, and the flaring out of frustrated rage that he gets to play in one creepy, memorable moment of Duncan howling like an animal, naked, in a filthy bathroom, is vivid, if nothing else.

The real problem is that it's simply not all one film - the middle of When a Stranger Calls feels more like the inexplicable, vaguely unsatisfying sequel to the Jill story, not the elongated second act. The tonal whiplash alone is almost impossible to resolve: we spend 20 electrifying minutes exposed to Duncan only as a disembodied voice and looming sense of danger, and then almost a full hour attempting to psychoanalyse him, and then a final 18 minutes where he's dropped into the unseen villain role in a home invasion thriller. I'm not at all sure how Walton and Feke expected this to play, but it doesn't end up working out at all, and much as the long middle section feels completely out of place after the almost mythic quality of the opening act, so does the finale feel hopelessly unpersuasive and tacked-on, now that we've gotten to know Duncan better. Kane struggles to redeem it, and she get an amazing scene of some of the most out-of-control ugly crying you ever did see; but to what end? The last act of When a Stranger Calls feels like a clumsy, arbitrary afterthought, not so much tying the whole movie together as confirming that it had no particular shape to begin with. It's never uninteresting (indeed, the excessive structural dysfunction is inherently interesting all by itself), and the craftsmanship, at least, is rarely less than generically competent, but the overall sense of wild imbalance and the lack of any throughline as to which characters we find interesting and why, is almost enough to rob When a Stranger Calls of the peerless strength of that near-masterpiece of an opening.

Body Count: 3, of which two are kept offscreen, which is just as well; "the killer rips children apart with his bare hands" is something even the hungriest gore hound is probably better off not seeing in a movie.