Theatrically-released versions of vintage YA works are few and far between- it has taken until this year to finally get a high-profile Judy Blume adaptation (The first pass, Tiger Eyes, an indie release directed by Blume’s son, basically sank without a trace in 2013). In the days before Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games (and the quickly diminishing returns that were Divergent and The Maze Runner…) most contemporary YA adaptations were relegated to TV, either the ubiquitous after-school special or the occasional TV-movie.
The flip side of the equation was that in the last century there were some pretty interesting TV movies out there, and a surprising number of them were straight-up horror movies, ranging from the classic (Steven Spielberg’s feature debut Duel) to the fondly remembered (Trilogy of Terror’s epic battle between Karen Black and a murderous doll) to classics of a different kind (Killdozer) to the completely forgettable (something like Night Slaves, a completely pointless Invasion of the Body Snatchers re-tread).
Occupying some middle ground here is Stranger in Our House, a fairly faithful adaptation of Lois Duncan’s Summer of Fear, directed by an up-and-comer named Wes Craven (fresh off The Hills Have Eyes) and starring Linda Blair, already in need of a comeback at 19.
Premiering on NBC on Halloween night, 1978, the film was later released theatrically in Europe under Duncan’s original title, and this is the version that seems to be widely available today.
While TV movies in later decades suffered from cheaping out on things like sets and music (not to mention star power) Craven really delivers a first-class production, with impressive special effects, stunts and makeup.
The plot very closely follows Duncan’s original story: high schooler Rachel “Rae” Bryant (Blair) slowly begins to realize that there is SOMETHING UP with the long-lost cousin with the tragically dead parents that comes to live with her family, as cousin Julia (Lee Purcell) charms her parents, brothers, boyfriend and BFF while Rachel is plagued by a series of terrible events- could it be WITCHCRAFT?
The main changes are that Rae’s dog is swapped for a horse, which I guess is more cinematic, since it involves several scenes of really impressive stunt work as the horse also knows SOMETHING IS UP and attacks Julia, then runs amok at Rae’s big horse show, crashing down a hill, rolling over Blair’s stunt double and then having to be euthanized for a broken leg on the spot.
Julia’s intended seduction of Rae’s father is also made more explicit, which is pretty racy stuff for a TV movie.
Blair is well-cast: with an authentically frizzy 70s perm, her desperation to get anyone to believe her often comes off as brattiness, as she levels terrible accusations against her poor cousin with the tragically dead parents.
Supporting Blair are “special guest star” Macdonald Carey as Professor Jarvis, the neighbor who specializes in Ozark’s folklore and the only adult to share Rae’s suspicions and a 20-year-old Fran Drescher as BFF Carolyn, looking very conventionally attractive and with only the merest hint of her infamous “Nanny” accent:
Rae finally gets “Julia” to admit that she is not in fact the cousin with the tragically dead parents, but instead the family’s local cleaning girl, who deftly orchestrated the fiery car crash that killed both the real Julia and her parents; following Professor Jarvis’s advice, Rae manages to trick Julia into getting her picture taken and then develops the film herself, finally providing concrete proof of Julia’s witchniess: her image does not appear in the photos.
While in the book, Rae merely locked Julia in the darkroom and raced to save her mother from a similar fiery car-crash fate, here we get a rousing showdown between Rae and Julia that recalls both Carrie and the Exorcist, which includes an attempted decapitation-by-paper cutter, some impressive explosions, novelty contact lenses, and Julia working mind-control on Rae’s Dad.
THEN we get a really impressive car chase through the California hills (yes, it’s a maybe Duel knock off, but who’s counting?) that ends with Julia driving off a cliff with an impressive explosion.
Sometime later, Rae and her family are making out a report to the local sheriff, who is pretty “Well, nothing to be done about it now” about the whole thing. Dad insists he conveniently has no memory of the past week, so everyone lets the whole making-out-with-his-supposed-niece, attempting-to-take-his-daughter-out-with-a-metal-chair thing go. Boyfriend Mike shows up with a baby horse for Rae, and all’s well that that ends well, right?
A yellow cab pulls up in front of a posh suburban home and the passenger is revealed to be a remarkably unexploded Julia, arriving for her first day as a governess to a new family.
Odds and Ends Department:
Purcell’s switching back and forth between shy finishing school student and hillbilly hellion is jarring, but it works for me.
Check out brother Peter’s stylin’ folksinger ensemble.
Macdonald Carey looks so old I can’t believe he lived to star in almost another 20 seasons of “Days of Our Lives” after this.
Numerous streaming platforms (all seem to have the European release that runs a few minutes shorter than the TV version); DVD and Blu-ray.