This Halloween, many of us are staying safe indoors – but in this short by undersung genre auteur Fred Walton, home is where the horror is. Taking a then-obscure urban legend as their starting point, Walton and his writing partner Steve Feke designed a masterclass in tension, suspense and visual economy, driven by a single set, one actor, and the terrifying power of the human voice.
A few years later, Walton would remake The Sitter almost shot-for-shot as the first act of 1979 feature When a Stranger Calls, starring Carol Kane in the babysitter role and Charles Durning as the detective trying to avenge her. The Sitter and When a Stranger Calls would become defining classics of a new wave in horror and progenitors of the slasher genre alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). When Wes Craven put a more cynical, postmodern spin on the template with Scream (1996), he opened his wildly successful film with a 12-minute homage to Walton’s gripping but empathetic chillers.
“After its release friends would come up to me and say, half jokingly, ‘I didn’t know you were such a sadist.’ What they didn’t understand is that to tell a frightening story you have to put yourself in the place of the victim, constantly asking yourself, ‘What would scare me?’ If you, the teller, can’t identify with the victim of the story, how can your audience? But it comes at a price. Or it did for me. For months after working on the project, I couldn’t go to bed without double and triple-checking the front door to make sure that I had really locked it.” FRED WALTON
The short’s crew was mostly made up of other young technicians who, like Walton, were hoping to get noticed in L.A. However, the film received an unlikely boost in professional production value from Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant, then a recent emigré to the U.S. The short marks the beginning of the legendary DP’s mid-career restart in Hollywood, following two decades shooting for major European auteurs like Godard, Pialat, Schlöndorff, Marker, Varda, Gainsbourg and an expatriated Orson Welles.
Like other masters of horror Herk Harvey and George Romero, Fred Walton learned his trade directing industrial films. After the commercial success of When a Stranger Calls, he turned to passion project Hadley’s Rebellion (1983), a little-seen high-school sports drama. Walton would continue to shoot respected horror films like April Fool’s Day (1986) and The Rosary Murders (1987) with Donald Sutherland, and became an in-demand director for TV films and series, including notable episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Miami Vice. In 1993, he directed one of his finest works, When a Stranger Calls Back, a made-for-TV sequel that reunited Carol Kane and Charles Durning in a disturbing, darkly humorous and strangely tender story about trauma and solitude. Now retired, he lives in Portland, Oregon.
- Credits for
- THE SITTER
- Karen Kondan, Ed Ruffalo, Curt Sanders, Lucia Stalser & Bill Striglos
- written by
- Steve Feke & Fred Walton
- produced by
- Steve Feke
- Willy Kurant
- Terry Burns
- Jane McNealy
- Sam Vitale