The telephone has a sordid history in cinema, dating back to Dial M for Murder and even earlier, and creepy callers were the subject of a previous FEARnet feature (if you missed it, be sure to check it out here). As we all know, any time the phone rings in a horror film, you can be sure that it’s Satan on the line.
Part of what makes telephone calls in horror films so frightening is that the viewer typically cannot see who's tormenting the film’s protagonist. It’s the same basic idea as the unseen perpetrator; we fear that which we cannot see. Therefore, the telephone has been used for many a game of cat and mouse... and to terrify countless babysitters. In honor of one of the most nefarious tools of terror horror cinema has to offer, we count down eight of the most terrifying phone calls in horror... and for your auditory pleasure, you can listen below. [Warning: some spoilers ahead]
Ghostface Calls Casey in Scream
It may be tame by today’s standards, but when audiences saw the opening scene in Scream, where Casey (Drew Barrymore) receives threatening phone calls and is forced to play a deadly game of movie trivia, we were naturally frightened. Ghostface is not only threatening her, but also making threats against her boyfriend, who is tied up in the backyard. Since Barrymore received top billing for the film, we expected her to be the requisite final girl, so killing her off in the first fifteen minutes was a bold move. That unexpected decision, as well as an ingenious script and Wes Craven's keen direction, made Scream one of the most intelligent horror films in years, and made audiences afraid to answer the phone in the same way that Jaws had audiences afraid to hit the beach!
The "Billy" Phone Calls in Black Christmas (1974)
Billy was and probably still is a major creep and a huge pervert; he utters sexually explicit remarks that would make even the most sexually experienced individual blush. Not only that, he's half-murmuring and half-screaming about the murderous proclivities that are afoot, terrifying the poor girls in that sorority house as well as the film’s audience. Keeping Billy’s identity a mystery makes the film much scarier than if director Bob Clark had shown us everything and taken the suspense out of the mayhem.
"The Stranger" Calling in When a Stranger Calls
When a Stranger Calls is the holy grail of the telephone terror film, as babysitter Jill (Carol Kane) learns firsthand just how scary five simple words could be. “Have you checked the children?” The stranger is ominous, perverse, and relentless; his performance is so chilling that it feels as if we were on the other end of the line. Kane is the perfect blend of vulnerable and tough: we feel for her, but we also want to see her start some shit. When a Stranger Calls went on to inspire countless slasher and suspense films in the years since its release.
All of the Calls in Ringu and The Ring
The phone calls in Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Gore Verbinski's US remake The Ring aren’t terrifying because of what's being said – or what isn’t being said – on the other end on the line; it has everything to do with the realization that the recipient of the call is about to die. It’s part of human nature (for most people at least) to prefer not to know when they're going to die, and to receive that information is more than most people can bear. To get a call letting you know you're about to kick the bucket is an unimaginably terrifying fate, and these films had timid viewers hesitant to pick up the phone after watching for the first time.
Freddy Krueger Telephones Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street
It was scary enough that the phone is ringing when it isn’t even plugged in to the wall... but the proverbial cake is taken when Freddy tries to give Nancy a little smooch through the receiver. Though it's slightly comical to watch after having seen it a hundred times, the first time viewers saw Freddy trying to give Nancy a French kiss by way of her telephone, it was equal parts disgusting and terrifying. Poor Nancy has already been through hell and back, and the last thing she needs is for Freddy to try and mouth-rape her through the phone.
All of the Phone Calls from "Rose" in The Caller
This low budget 2011 horror flick from Puerto Rico packs a lot of punch. Though it doesn’t utilize any mind-blowing special effects or a lot of locations, it succeeds at what it set out to do: terrify its audience. The calls that poor Mary (Rachelle Lefevre) continues to receive from Rose (Lorna Raver), who claims to be calling from the past, were chilling, traumatic, and mean spirited. As Rose goes more and more insane, her calls become more and more terrifying. When Mary tries to cut contact, Rose retaliates by brutalizing Mary as a child. Making things even worse, Rose phones after the fact to coyly gloat about her nefarious handiwork. Way to go, Rose.
The Calls from Hell in 976-Evil
Poor Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys) just wants to fit in. Unfortunately, he wears sweater vests, lets his eccentric mother run his life, and has a really creepy obsession with spiders. So when Hoax begins calling a "Horror-Scope" line, he finally experiences a taste of being slightly less of a creep. Unfortunately for young Hoax, his newfound popularity is short-lived; he begins receiving phone calls from Satan – or one of Satan’s minions – telling him to do all sorts of terrible things. But, it’s not just Hoax being tormented by the ‘Horror-Scope’ line, one unlucky caller becomes the victim of an exploding phone booth. How’s that for a terrifying phone call?
The "Indrid Cold" Call in The Mothman Prophecies
When John (Richard Gere) receives a call from a friend who has the evasive Indrid Cold on the line, it starts out fairly uneventful... but within seconds, Cold is telling John where he grew up, details about his parents, and even what John is doing as the two of them converse. Moreover, Indrid Cold has a fantastically creepy voice, which amps up the tension by about one thousand percent. Seeing that scene for the first time in a dark theater scared the tar out of me.
A very honorable mention to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call, which would have made the list but we were unable to unearth corresponding video/audio footage to support its inclusion.