Movie Madness And/Or Mania: Summer of Fear [AKA Stranger In Our House] (1978)

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?

(Yes)

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:

summer fran

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?

BUT WAIT!

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.

Availability:

Numerous streaming platforms (all seem to have the European release that runs a few minutes shorter than the TV version); DVD and Blu-ray.

This entry was posted in Movies, Vintage YA Fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Movie Madness And/Or Mania: Summer of Fear [AKA Stranger In Our House] (1978)

  1. Susan says:

    After The Exorcist, Carrie, and Cujo, I don’t think I’ve ever watched another horror movie. I just can’t. Ever. And I know those are probably mild compared to what has been produced since.
    (After my quarantine binge of The Office I ran across A Quiet Place, which I had refused to go see, and kept it on since John Krasinski is in it. I was so traumatized by the opening scene that if I had been in a theater I would have had to forfeit my ticket price and leave.)
    This looks relatively mild, but still. I would like to see young Fran Drescher so off to check YouTube and skim through … yes, it’s there, probably unauthorized, and there’s Fran! (What was up with Linda Blair’s hair?)

    • mondomolly says:

      Have you seen the movie American Hot Wax? It came out the same year and also co-stars Drescher (and as a bonus, also a very young Jay Leno). It’s hard to find, but it looks like you can watch it on YouTube!

  2. Sheesh says:

    OMG, that narration in the trailer!!!

  3. Moon says:

    What sticks out for me is how inexperienced a rider Linda Blair is. All that flopping around looks like it hurts!

  4. Julie Anderson-Smith says:

    I’m really dating myself here, but I remember watching all four made-for-tv movies starring Linda Blair when they were released between my elementary and junior high school years. Before “Summer of Fear” there were 1974’s “Born Innocent”, then “Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” and “Sweet Hostage” (based on the novel “Welcome to Xanadu”), both made in 1975. Thanks for bringing back memories of lounging in my mother’s bedroom, where the best t.v. in the house was located, watching Linda chew up scenery. I didn’t realize until years later, because of a chance YouTube encounter, that she shared the screen with a very young Martin Sheen in “Sweet Hostage”. Since I was young and didn’t know a thing about Stockholm Syndrome, I thought it was very romantic and cried my eyes out at the end of the movie. Has anyone read “Welcome to Xanadu”?

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! Those 70s Tv movies are so much fun!

      I’ll have to check that one out! I want to feature some more teen-oriented TV-movies in the future, and “Sarah T.” was definitely on my list.

  5. Susan says:

    I remember watching Sarah T, although for some reason I thought it was Jodie Foster rather than Linda Blair. Just checked and it’s on YouTube (at least for now).

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