Sometimes, TV horror is the perfect medium for a particular kind of story. Perhaps a story that doesn’t rely on effects or sensationalism to affect the viewer; a tale that works in a simple, straightforward way, dealing with all too common emotions experienced by the regular teenage mind. To wit, Summer of Fear (1978) AKA Stranger in Our House, a chiller directed by the late legend Wes Craven based on the bestselling YA novel of the same name by Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer). It’s a breezy thrill ride that also shows Craven could successfully work in the mainstream.
Originally airing Halloween night on NBC under the Stranger title as one of their The Big Event titles, its toughest competition was ABC’s Three’s Company/Taxi/Starsky and Hutch dynamo. But no worries, if you needed a horror fix on Halloween night, this is what you were watching. As a matter of fact, it played so well that they added footage, gave it Duncan’s title of Summer of Fear, and then released it theatrically overseas to resounding appeal.
Cast a spell, open up your hex-filled TV GUIDE, and let’s see what we can conjure forth:
STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE (Tuesday, 9pm, NBC)
When a teenage girl’s cousin comes to stay with her after a family tragedy, she finds out that her cousin harbors a deadly secret. Linda Blair, Lee Purcell star.
The telefilm opens with a car racing along a mountain road before careening off a cliff in an explosive manner. Superimposed over the flames is an image of a beautiful brunette with icy blue and bloodshot eyes. We then cut to the Bryant household, where we’re informed that Mrs. Bryant (Carol Lawrence – Mr. and Mrs. Dracula)’s sister was killed along with her husband and housekeeper in the aforementioned crash. When Mr. (Jeremy Slate – The Lawnmower Man) and Mrs. Bryant return from the funeral they bring with them their niece, Julia (Lee Purcell – Stir Crazy), whom none of the Bryant’s have seen in ten years. Julia is quickly embraced by the Bryant’s daughter Rachel (Linda Blair – Roller Boogie) and oldest son Peter (Jeff East – Superman), who takes a strange hankering to his cousin (ew – you were Clark Kent, man!). Julia is shy and reserved at first, but slowly ingratiates herself into the Bryant’s life, one witchcraft totem at a time. Rachel can’t go to the big dance as she develops the worst case of acne since, well, The Exorcist; her horse hates Julia, who in turn causes it to suffer; dad Bryant is seduced by Julia while she makes plans to get rid of mom. Perhaps the kindly professor with the expertise in the occult (Macdonald Carey – Days of Our Lives) can help Rachel before her family is destroyed?
Summer of Fear (I must call it that – it’s a way better title, and the one used for all subsequent re-airings and home video releases) works because it wisely taps into the fears and insecurities of the average teenage girl. Rachel is shown to be an open and giving young lady as the film opens, and is eager to share her life with her misbegotten cousin. (The Bryant’s are loaded, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good people.) She only displays pettiness when that trust is betrayed; Julia takes away her boyfriend, and (SPOILER ALERT) causes her beloved Sundance to be put down. It also deals with bodily insecurity; Rachel’s homemade dress for the dance doesn’t fit her properly, but when she can’t go and Julia asks to wear it, somehow it fits her perfectly.
It really is a glorified Afterschool Special, but with Craven behind the camera, a sense of fun unease is ever present. This was his third directorial effort (not including 1975’s soft porn The Fireworks Woman) following Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and proved that he could work within more mainstream tastes. There isn’t any of his academic subversion on display, and that’s fine; I think his goal was to tell a straightforward story and open up avenues previously not afforded. While that didn’t exactly work for him – he was back to the weird (thank god) with 1981’s Deadly Blessing – he keeps Summer moving at a good clip, and hits several suspenseful beats throughout.
But it’s really the cast that sells this to the youth. Blair was long past her Exorcist glory days, but could still pull off teenagers convincingly (she was only 19 at the time) and gives Rachel a vulnerability (and eventual strength) that plays right to the target audience. The hardest part, however, went to Purcell, who had to play a teenager at the age of 31; it’s actually ideal casting, especially when Julia turns all succubus and makes her claim on every male she wants. She’s a woman, an ideal which frightens Rachel even more; Julia’s sexuality is being used to usurp every male relationship in her life.
Don’t look to Summer of Fear for big shocks; you just won’t find them. An explosion here and there? Sure. Some winds and a door blown off by a power hungry witch? You bet. But I promise if you ever were (or currently are) a teenager, no special effect will be more successful than someone upending your social status with the wave of a wand. (Disclaimer: Poetic license. No wands are used in this telefilm – Purcell’s evil grin is enough.)Next: It Came From The Tube: MR. BOOGEDY (1986)