There's a stranger in our house…
The Bryants are a typical California family living a quiet, peaceful life on a sprawling suburban ranch. Tragedy strikes when Mrs. Bryant's sister and brother-in-law are killed in a freak automobile accident. Graciously, they agree to take in their now orphaned daughter, Julia. Rachel, the Bryant's own energetic child, agrees to share her room with the mysterious "cousin." But it's not long before strange things start happening. The family seems to instantly side with Julia on all issues. Before a big dinner dance, Rachel develops a severe case of hives. Julia attends the party in her place and helps herself to Mike, Rachel's boyfriend and riding coach. On the day of the big horse show competition, Rachel's prize pony is spooked (it never really liked Julia), injured, and has to be destroyed. Angry at how her family and friends have responded to the newcomer's presence and whims, Rachel begins investigating. She finds the burnt remnants of a voodoo like ritual and an odd wax sculpture. She discovers personal items of hers that Julia has destroyed. Discussing the matter with a local professor of the occult, she gets confirmation of what she has already begun believing herself: Not only may Julia not be her cousin, but she may not even be human. The stranger in her house may indeed be a witch, hell-bent of destroying the family to gain more malevolent power. It's up to Rachel to save her loved ones before they spend another frightful day in this Summer of Fear.
Many fans may be surprised to learn that horrormeister Wes Craven got his first professional break via television, directing this NBC movie of the week, which aired originally under the title Stranger in Our House. After making Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes independently, Craven had yet to land a studio based job when producer Max Keller came calling, wondering if he would be interested in tackling this small screen version of a widely popular young adult's novel. Glad to be given the chance, Craven poured all his efforts in to making Stranger a success. And it was. Shown initially, and then three more times within the first two years of its creation, Summer of Fear (the title given to the overseas theatrical version) is fondly remembered as part of Linda Blair's stellar mid '70s transition from young victim of demonic possession (her seminal role in The Exorcist) to a popular and talented young actress taking on challenging, controversial roles. Her choices were usually met with gasps, considered scandalous (by standards 30 years ago) in the subject matter tackled. Issues like jail rape (the infamous Born Innocent), teen drinking (Sarah T.—Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic), and crime (Sweet Hostage) were formulated into provocative television fare. But no matter how loud the outcry, one thing was consistent. These TV movies were huge ratings winners (as stated before, Stranger was no exception). Now we get a welcomed chance to revisit this much talked about title as part of Artisan's ongoing attempts to seemingly flood the digital market with all manner of off title DVD material.
For the most part, Summer of Fear works. Those expecting knockout special effects or scenes of spectacular horror or gore will be disappointed. But Craven is an expert at building tension and keeping the audience off center and uncomfortable. He layers directing and thematic tricks and cues onto the realities of this standard made for television terror fare to create a creepy and credible story of witchcraft and evil. Imagine if this movie were to be made in 2003: there would be multiple mentions and explanations of Wicca, some stupid Goth glop soundtrack, too much P.C. philosophizing, and a whole diatribe on the "good vs. bad" magic misconceptions. Craven avoids the fad trappings that we now associate with black wearing gals and guys gloomily worshipping their dark lord for a more scientific and believable exploration of sorcery. His cast also helps sell the serious, playing the occasional outrageous material in a realistic, straightforward manner. Lee Purcell is fine as the satanic seductress. She conveys a real sense of hidden menace behind her mannered Southern simplicity. Carol Lawrence and Jeremy Slate are also excellent, providing the proper balance between parental concern and ethereal hypnotic manipulation. But the real star here is Linda Blair, or better yet her outrageous bear bunch hair. Saddled with the most unfortunate perm in the history of the coiffeur, she still manages to create an incredibly believable teen protagonist, filled with instantly recognizable angst and insecurity. You really get the feeling that uncontrollable supernatural forces have hijacked her life. Add in some incredibly nasty hives (a very good makeup job by the effects crew) and a powerful conclusion, and Summer of Fear turns out to be a solid (if occasionally slow) little thriller.
Artisan offers a wonderful presentation of this title. The 25-year-old full screen image looks newly minted and could pass for having been shot recently. Craven utilizes the 1:33.1 aspect ratio competently, and without major defects and only minor, occasional flecks of dirt, Summer looks very good. Sonically, there is a faux Dolby Digital 5.1 track that attempts to create some manner of multi-channel ambience, but offers nothing more than an occasional speaker-to-speaker shuffle. As this is the overseas release of Stranger in Our House, Summer of Fear is cut by about four minutes, which really doesn't affect the quality of the film. The deletions are not obvious or missed. Bonuses include a decent cast and crew filmography and a nice set of "sneak peeks" (read: trailers) to other Artisan horror titles. Thankfully, the best is saved for last by letting the now famous auteur speak for himself. Craven and producer Max Keller are around to offer a thoughtful, funny, and informative commentary track that covers all aspects of the film, from its origins to Craven's hiring to anecdotes about people's reactions to Wes' previous filmmaking efforts. While sparse at times—there are long gaps in the storytelling—Craven's genialness and Keller's pride over the project make for a fun, entertaining oral history of the film. While somber and not showy enough by or for current standards, Summer of Fear still stands out as one of the better Made for Television films created during the genre's zenith in the mid '70s. It's the starting point for Craven's ascension into the pantheon of great mainstream horror directors and is definitely worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Wes Craven and Producer Max Keller
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