Mill Creek Entertainment’s release of double features can be hit or miss. Typically the pairings are odd at best with only a few being a combo of films that you would watch right after one another. Refreshingly they have paired two old school horror films that actually could be watched satisfyingly back to back, “When a Stranger Calls” and “Happy Birthday to Me.”
“When a Stranger Calls” begin with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) babysitting two young children when she starts receiving strange phone calls by a man who tells her to keep checking the kids as they sleep. After a traumatic turn of events, the story picks up seven years later as Jill is older and has her own family now. John Clifford (Charles Durning), the detective who worked on the original case is still looking to catch the killer. Soon after we meet up with the characters, similar events to the original crime begin to occur, sending Jill into paranoia and detective Clifford into obsession.
This film is possibly the more known of the two for its main conceit than the actual quality of the movie itself. However the conceit of mysterious phone calls coming from within the house was used in the earlier “Black Christmas” in 1974 and to better effect. “Stranger” is a tale of two movies, with the aforementioned plot, then a follow-up with a completely different feel and setting. The second half has a more urban look to it that usually does not appear too much in horror films, Isolation from others (which oozes from the first half) usually plays a big role in the genre. As for this film, it plays out more like a detective thriller with some horror elements. It also is a realistic portrayal of a character dealing with a past trauma. After hearing some of the legendary hype this film had, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed. I for one think that the idea worked better the way it was used in that film and the 2006 remake. Viewing this movie more as a curiosity than a legit horror would help temper expectations.
In “Happy Birthday to Me”, Virginia Wainwright (Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson) is firmly engrossed in the Group of Ten, a prestigious group of students at Crawford University. She has recently returned from a stint in a mental hospital after the death of her unhinged and socially needy mother. The “Group of Ten” is a raucous, gambling, socially incestuous, risk-taking, beer swilling gang of collegiates which is wholly defined by their financial and social status within the community. Soon after we meet them Virginia‘s friends are killed by an unseen assailant. One by one they are picked off but no definitive hints are given to who it could be. Everyone is a suspect as there are many red herrings presented in the opening act. Sometimes they are presented a little heavy handed but are necessary to create the mystery.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because “Scream” used this very same plot structure, even though the two have never officially been compared by Craven. The multitude of plot twists reveal themselves nicely. In fact, one could say the ending is ahead of its time because I could see it still being used today in modern horror films and it would work. In all honesty, in the last scene it seems that “Scream” was heavily influenced by this as there is even some exact dialogue sequences and plot motivations that are uncanny. However, even knowing that, the ending would still be a surprise.
The 1080P transfer of When a Stranger Calls, while showing some nicely details moments, mostly comes across as a softer image which retains much of its original grain structure. This is a good thing however since none of the grain looks to have been scrubbed away. Also being a late 70’s title, the color palette leans to the duller side with colors remaining muted. Muddied is a good word to describe it. Out of the two films, this is the rougher transfer.
The detail in “Happy Birthday To Me” is quite good. Sometimes Mill Creek’s release can be hit and miss but this is definitely one for the hit column. Close-ups show impressive detail for a catalogue film from the early 80’s. There is a light grain structure that looks devoid of any heavy digital manipulation. Colors, although slightly muted, have a nice, authentic look to them. There are only a handful of outdoor, sunny moments which show some exceptional quality that should make fans of the film happy. Close-ups on metallic objects show some exceptional detail at times.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track for “When a Stanger Calls” is perfectly serviceable for what it needs to do. All dialogue is clearly understood and the music sounds accurate. The whole track has a tinny-ness that plagues most low budget horror films from this era.
“Happy Birthday to Me” has a slightly more dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There are several small “action” oriented scenes that make slight use of surrounds but it is nothing that would stress your system. Everything here is suitable with no glaring glitches or messiness.
“Happy Birthday to Me” and “When a Stranger Calls” are from a time when horror was relatively new after a resurgence in the late 70’s. This was a time when it was okay to have deliberate pacing and more added backstory to give some meat to the stories. They aren’t made like this anymore. “When a Stranger Calls” does not live up to its legend, however, “Happy Birthday to Me” is revealing in the fact that it seems to be a big contributor to later whodunit/horror films like “Scream”. The video and audio quality vary from bad to good between the two films with “Birthday” ending up on top. Recommended for the upcoming horror view season with a little help from Mill Creek’s pricing plan. You may not be blown away but these are a couple of pleasant surprises.