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Stranger in Our House (1978)

Summer of Fear

she was a clever girl, she almost got away with it

Directed by:

Wes Craven

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 98 minutes

UK Certificate: 12


The name Wes Craven is synonymous with horror, not least because he has kept a firm stranglehold over viewers for three whole decades. The visceral cruelty of 1972’s Last House on the Left, the articulate, quipping killer in 1984’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, the SM insanity of 1991’s underrated urban fairytale ‘The People Under the Stairs’, and the experiments with postmodernism in ‘New Nightmare’ (1994) which were then perfected in ‘Scream’ (1996) and came to define the horror of the 1990s – these films alone guarantee Craven his place in the horror pantheon. Yet between these admittedly lofty highpoints, his many other films, like ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’, ‘Shocker’, the ‘Scream’ sequels, and even the ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (plus sequel), have been forgettably average.

Which is also an accurate characterisation of 1978’s ‘Summer of Fear’, originally made under the title ‘Stranger in our House’ as a ‘movie-of-the-week’ for American network NBC. It was then recut for European theatrical release for exactly the same reasons as it is now being released on DVD – namely to cash in on the name of its director Craven, and of its star Linda Blair, rightly famous for her childhood performance in ‘The Exorcist’, but thereafter doomed to B-grade perdition. Blair plays big-haired teenager Rachel, who at first welcomes her recently orphaned cousin Julia (Lee Purcell) into the family home, until strange events turn her against her less uptight, better looking relative from the sticks. Rachel’s horse gets spooked, her skin breaks out in hideous pustules (no change from ‘The Exorcist’, then), her boyfriend Mike (Jeff McCracken) dumps her for Julia, there are burnt matches everywhere in Julia’s room, a strange object is hidden in her drawer, the old professor from across the street (Macdonald Carey) who just so happens to specialise in the occult falls mysteriously ill, and everyone seems to prefer Julia to Rachel. Is Rachel just going through all the petty jealousies and anxieties of an average teenager who feels outshone and displaced in her own family, or is her cousin in fact a powerful sorceress hell-bent on bewitching the family to her evil ends? Let’s just say that the film’s title and its opening shots of a car ‘accident’ with a superimposed image of Julia laughing maniacally with huge bloodshot eyes are something of a giveaway, and represent an inexcusable obstacle to Craven’s subsequent attempts to generate tension.

This film has made-for-TV written all over it, with its 1970s sit-com sets and its soundtrack full of brass stings and extravagant orchestral flourishes the likes of which you have not heard since the last time you saw an episode of ‘Quincy’. Blair really gives her all as the whiney, petulant teen, and almost makes it seem possible that the whole film is an allegory of adolescent angst – but where the film’s supernatural elements might have served as a metaphor for female empowerment and transgression, as in George A. Romero’s far more thoughtful ‘Season of the Witch’ (1973), by the end they have been turned into an unequivocal reality, and ‘Summer of Fear’ abandons all its claims to subtlety.

It's Got: Linda Blair in a cowboy hat and checked shirt, a suggestion that people can be recognised as coming from the Ozarks by their distinctive eyes, a policeman commenting at the end she was a clever girl, she almost got away with it as though absolutely nothing out of the ordinary has taken place, and the on-screen debut of Fran The Nanny Drescher.

It Needs: To lose the image of Julia from the films very beginning which makes her malevolence too clear too soon, and to have fewer clichés and a final third that does not so openly work against any subtlety that has preceded.

DVD Extras Extras include scene selection; choice between stereo 2.0, Dolby digital 5.1 and dts sound; optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired; biographies of Wes Craven and Linda Blair (written in tiny text). The highlight is an audio commentary from Wes Craven himself and producer/co-writer Max Keller, although Craven has clearly not seen or thought about the film in decades, and has forgotten the names of most of the cast and crew. Between occasional pauses of vaguely uncomfortable length, Craven fills in the time amiably, if aimlessly, enough by recalling the 45 pet dogs which Linda Blair would bring on set, blathering on about how the owner of the house in which the film was shot made the most of the free catering, resorting to generalisations about union shoots, and reminiscing about Kellers daughters wedding. Most interesting perhaps is his story about how he had to fight with NBC to keep the scenes which point to a sexual liaison between teenaged Julia and Rachels middle-aged, married father, which was then considered a taboo. He is disarmingly honest about how full of clichés the film is (the old man who knows, the girl who no-one believes, the culprit seen chopping food with a knife, etc.) and how dated the styles of the 1970s now seem - and there are a few particularly glaring scenes where Cravens audible intake of breath says more than any actual comment would. DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


Poison Ivy, Rosemarys Baby, Season of the Witch, The Craft


Linda Blair is convincing as a whiney teen covered in pustules, but unlike 'The Exorcist', this Craven-for-hire telemovie is unlikely to put a spell on you.

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