THEN: Quite a few years ago I attended a friend’s house for a small get together with just another couple and the hosts. Once there I was introduced to the other guest, a beautiful mother-to-be by the name of Jill Schoelen. Not once did we talk about how amazing she was in THE STEPFATHER, nor did we bring up one of the most underappreciated horror gems from the 90’s POPCORN, frankly we didn’t really talk Hollywood at all. Why this trip down memory lane? Well recently I happened upon one of her movies, a made for cable flick called “When a Stranger Calls Back” – sequel to the theatrical WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. Watching this utterly adorable, yet strikingly unique scream queen stirred my memories of the actress - and the incredibly sweet person she was when I met her - thus it seemed like the right time to find out exactly what she’s been up to.
My first memory of Jill was the terrific 1987 thriller THE STEPFATHER, which also starred the great Terry O’Quinn from “Lost” and so many other great performances. As a young teenage girl terrorized by a psycho who married her mom (played by Shelley Hack) she possessed a charm that many a scream queen would kill for. The actress had a certain amount of vulnerability, yet she was a whole lot tougher than one would expect from her outward appearance. This little movie came out of nowhere and as you may well be aware spawned a couple of sequels as well as a dreadful remake in 2009 – the only worthwhile thing in the new film was Amber Heard. As terrifying as O’Quinn was, this flick needed a worthy opponent and Ms. Schoelen was it.
Before fighting for her life against an evil Stepfather, the actress appeared in a handful of TV shows such as “Little House on the Prairie” in 1982 and “T.J. Hooker” in 1983. Her feature film credits included D.C. CAB in 1985 as well as THAT WAS THEN… THIS IS NOW in 1987. Between 1981 and 1987 the actress was plenty busy. She even appeared in the Wes Craven directed TV movie “Chiller” that same year. It may not have been one of Craven’s finest films, but the director absolutely knows how to cast a spunky leading lady. Clearly Hollywood was on to something, and thankfully for genre fans, the actress continued to charm in some classic Eighties and Nineties horror fun.
Next up for chills came THE CURSE II: THE BITE (1989) which saw a her battle a man who truns into a giant snake and the scare flick that starred Brad Pitt, the 1989 horror/comedy whodunit CUTTING CLASS. To be fair, this is not the best example of great scary movies, yet for me Schoelen continued to prove what a major asset she was for horror. Of course it wasn’t too long before she took on what is one of the most criminally underrated movies ever called POPCORN (1991). I love this flick and she is terrific alongside a few cool horror folk including Dee Wallace, Kelly Joe Minter and badass character icon Ray Walston. This creepy ode to all-nite horror festivals is both a loving tribute as well as a twisted tale of murder and mayhem. If you’ve never experienced this deliciously devious horror snack you may just want to turn the lights out and pop a little you know what.
Thankfully Jill didn’t stray very far from spooky stuff as she starred opposite Robert Englund in the gory THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA remake in 1989. Not one of my personal favorites but worth it for the strong cast. Of course, then there is the previously mentioned made for cable sequel “When a Stranger Calls Back” in 1993. The first twenty minutes or so takes the typical babysitter home alone with a psycho cliché, yet this time with an interesting ventriloquist trick. It may have been a bit contrived, but hey, she is so good here and it is great to see both Carol Kane and Charles Durning return from the first film. This was a surprisingly entertaining, albeit flawed, little gem.
NOW: Schoelen’s final film credit on IMDB is in the 2004 short “She Kept Silent." Before that she starred in the 1996 poorly ranked on IMDB feature NOT AGAIN! - lots of free time in-between eh? This of course brings me to that dinner party I mentioned before where much of the conversation was on children and parenting if I remember correctly. Like many an actress, it seems family life may have called her into acting retirement. Yet according to Wikipedia , after a divorce, having two children and then meeting a jazz composer, she fell into the world of music. She even produced the play “The Standard Bearer” as well as co-producing “Baby, It’s You" on Broadway, both in 2011. In 2009 she released a jazz record called “Kelly’s Smile” which is available on iTunes. And to top it all off she’s got a pretty sweet voice. Ms. Schoelen also happened to be singing like a songbird very recently down at Vitello’s in Studio City in 2012 which you can find a few of the tunes on YouTube here .
As a longtime fan - and currently a Facebook friend – it certainly seems that her direction changed from scream queen to mother to jazz singer extraordinaire. As a leading lady in horror, she was always just a little bit smarter than many of her contemporaries with a whole lot of spunk. She was vibrant, funny and charming and oh so absolutely adorably cute. All those years ago, I had a really wonderful time chatting with Jill – this of course she couldn’t possibly remember - and while she may not be making movies anymore, I hope that she has found her passion. And who knows, maybe some lucky filmmaker will bring her out of retirement.