Summer Of Fear (1978, aka Stranger In Our House) (Made-For-TV-Movie) Blu-Ray

Once I found that TV guide ad above it explained why I had no recollection of this movie. I do now have a vague recollection of seeing those two pages above and choosing to watch Devil Dog instead, because anything called Stranger In Our House sounded like a drama, and at nine years of age I didn’t watch anything that wasn’t a cartoon, or had monsters in it, or science fiction related. I wasn’t yet into horror, but did come across certain flicks without “horrific “elements” in them. You know what, I don’t think I even watched Devil Dog all the way through. If it was something horror I bumped into on TV, it generally ended up scaring me so bad I couldn’t continue watching it. With Devil Dog either I started off watching it and willingly stopped, or my mother put me to bed during some portion of it.

Some years ago I learned a lot of those made-for-TV flicks from back in the day ended up playing in theaters overseas, and this explains why that ad above calls the movie Stranger In Our House and the blu-ray is labeled, Summer Of Fear. On the commentary with Wes Craven and producer Max Keller, they explain when it played overseas the name was changed (now matching the young adult novel it was based on), and that cut was Craven’s version, though there’s no indication in the commentary how it differs from what aired on TV back. IMDB, however, states there were four minutes excised from the TV airing that was restored to the DVD, so, there you go, now we know.

Since I had never seen this movie before the twist in the tale was surprising. It’s mostly told from Linda Blair’s character’s viewpoint. If she’s not in a scene she’s either about to enter it, or is just leaving it, so we pretty much only know what she knows, which makes the movie a mystery on one level. It’s also a bit of a car chase flick, the movie starts off with an out of control car going off the cliff and killing everyone it in a fiery explosion, and the flick ends with a car chase between two main characters and the antagonist, who ends up going off the cliff and dying in a fiery explosion, so you’ve got elements of a mild horror film, a mystery, and a “car chase flick” all rolled into one.

The horror in the film is witchcraft, and since we only know what Rachel Bryant (Blair, who was eighteen when she made this film, according to Craven and Keller in the commentary) we never see any spells being cast, only getting the remnants of them afterwards, which include Rachel finding a lot of burnt matches everywhere, and various collections of burnt paper, human hair, and marred pictures hidden in various places. There’s even the discovery of a “voodoo doll” that looks like a freakish four-legged embryo with horse hair glued to it, and that’s because the subject of the doll is Rachel’s horse, Sundance, who has to be put down after an “accident” she has with it in a tournament. The movie’s witch is Rachel’s cousin, Julia Trent (Lee Purcell). You see, her mother and father were killed in that accident we saw in the prologue and that ended up being a kind of precognitive dream Rachel had. She wakes and finds her mother crying, her father making plans to visit for the funeral, and then we learn the context of that car accident we just saw. Julia grew up in Boston and spends summers in the Ozarks, according to neighbor, Professer Jarvis (Macdonald Carey), that area has always had some interesting tales of odd things, odd people, and odd myths. I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but you get the picture.

I like the way Purcell plays Julia. I was afraid this might be one of those “mustache twirling villains,” but until Rachel starts to catch on to what she is, she plays it all very innocently, with a sinister underpinning you can just barely notice early on. Witch lore has never been my specialty, I know more about werewolves and vampires than witches, so I wasn’t sure how accurate some of the “lore” presented, like horses don’t seem to like witches, hence why Julia wants Sundance out of the picture, and according to a book Rachel gets her hands on witches are at their weakest when they sleep, they also can’t be photographed. There’s an odd mirror sequence where Rachel can’t see Julia’s reflection, so there’s also that. Her goal, it appears, is to kill off Rachel’s mother (Carol Lawrence), and Rachel and take over the family, we also get some sexually suggestive advances towards the father (Jeremy Slate), and at one point a total takeover of his personality, for there’s a fisticuffs scene between Rachel and Julia that ends with Julia being locked in a darkroom, but her father intervenes and actually goes after his daughter.

The only “spell” we see cast is when Julia can’t escape from the darkroom so she conjures up a force that blows the door to pieces, she also gets crazy, funky eyes when she goes all witchy evil. During the end car chase, she’s able to roll up the windows, stamp on the gas pedal and control certain functions of the car Rachel and her ex-boyfriend, Mike (Jeff McCraken), are fleeing in.  The twist in this whole tale is clever, but is it entirely believable to have it go on for so long? The movie does give you a nice impression of the passage of weeks, and maybe months, remember it is called, Summer Of Fear. And during that time Julia has made herself into the darling of the family. Did I forget to mention Rachel has two brothers? I guess I did, an older one, Peter (Jeff East) and a much younger one, Bobby (James Jarnigan), and they all end up thinking she’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. She also manages to take Mike away from Rachel, making him her boyfriend; kill off Rachel’s horse, and acquire influence over her father, as previously mentioned. But the twist is this girl isn’t Rachel’s cousin, Julia, she was her aunt and uncle’s cleaning lady Sarah Brown, and having spent an entire year with the Trents she learned Rachel and her family had no clue what Julia looked like, the Trents never sent any photos. Yeah, I thought that was hard to believe, but, perhaps, not that improbable, but how did she manage to pull off masquerading as Julia’s for so long? I initially assumed Julia was in that car crash in the beginning, but she couldn’t have been, since Rachel’s parents went to the funeral(s), so that means Sarah had to have killed Julia elsewhere and hidden the body. But odd the parents never noticed a missing niece when they went to the funerals in the beginning, unless Sarah was there already pretending to be her? It’s a good twist that just needed to be thought out more. I suspect, maybe, the novel handled this better?

The only time the movie truly deviates from “Rachel’s viewpoint” is the twisty epilogue that has this family getting a new Nanny and guess who shows up, Sarah. So, this is her M.O., she’s some kind of “supernatural parasite” that moves from one family to the next. Hmmm, interesting. Speaking of nannies, Fran Drescher, makes her movie debut in this as best friend to Rachel. I’ve never seen Drescher looking like a teenager. This is the second film I’ve reviewed that Jeff East was in. I reviewed that new Superman double feature blu Warner Archives put out last month, and from the  commentary Craven reminded me he put East in his Deadly Blessing (1981) flick.

I liked this movie, so, yes, it has now gained coveted entrance into my collection, and really at the end of that day isn’t that all that matters?

The only other time Summer Of Fear has had a disc release is from Artisan in 2003 on DVD. I have to admit seeing this get blued was totally unexpected and you can thank Doppelganger Releasing for that! They also released it on basic DVD as well.

Buy it here on Amazon!

(Reverse “mood art”)

Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.33:1 high definition full frame—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English SDH subs only

For the most part this is a good transfer. Not perfect, but colors and blacks were at their appropriate eye-pleasing levels for me.

Extras included . . .

  • Audio Commentary With Director Wes Craven & Producer Max Keller (Ported over from the 2003 DVD)
  • Exclusive New Interview With Linda Blair (13:13) (New)
  • Photo & Poster Gallery (16 photos) (New)
  • Original 1978 Trailer (New)



About Shawn Francis

Movie collector and horror writer.
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