I am always suspicious of horror fans who roll their eyes at horror releases with PG-13 ratings. There are certain instances where I can indentify with their frustrations. In particular, I’m annoyed when an older R-rated film is made safe for the trogs of today. Some things should not be made more accessible. Personally, most of my favorite horror films tend to be a little low key. I prefer atmosphere over violence or gore almost every time. I think horror can be effective without reaching for the gross out lever every five minutes. This early Wes Craven effort, originally titled “Stranger In Our House” is perfect proof of that. While made for television back in 1978, it still managed to capture the audience’s imaginations, and those who saw the film back then still fondly recall it. There’s no visceral imagery. In fact, there’s only one on screen death, and that’s courtesy of an exploding car. But the story is great, the performances are strong, and Craven effectively conjures a bank of atmosphere that keeps your curious piqued.
Linda Blair stars as Rachel Bryant, an equestrian teen whose family opens their home to cousin Julia following the untimely death of her parents. Over time, Rachel is the brunt of bad luck that only seems to benefit Julia. Rachel’s horse, who isn’t particularly fond the new arrival, goers berserk and is sent away. Later, Rachel develops some nasty hives on the eve of a dance, which leads to Rachel’s boyfriend Mike falling in love with Julia. Eventually Rachel discovers a handful of ritualistic ingredients that lead her to believe her cousin is practicing black magic. Even the man whom Julia enlists to help convince her parents of this outlandish theory falls tragically ill, and Rachel knows it’s no coincidence. Just as Julia is on the verge of possessing the family, Julia exposes her, saving the day.
There’s virtually nothing about this film that I do not like. The only weak link this film has is the build up to the twist pertaining to Julia’s true identity. Other than that, Blair turns in a delightfully bratty performance. The absolutely stunning Lee Purcell deals a knockout performance as the hex-savvy belle Julia. The film also provides Fran Drescher’s TV debut as Rachel’s best friend.
This is yet another fine TV horror piece in the tradition of “Gargoyles,” “Bad Ronald,” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” that takes the less-is-more approach. While it won’t blow you away, “Summer of Fear” is definitely simple, utterly likable, and actually very well made. Though some may dismiss this as too tame, it is easily one of Craven’s most effective in terms of feel, and certainly an overall better quality movie than some of his later work.
The movie was so well-received by the American TV audience that it was later repackaged for a theatrical run overseas as "Summer of Fear." The script itself was based on the 1976 "Summer of Fear" novel by Lois Duncan, who could be called the godmother of the explosively popular young adult novel trend of today. Much of her work has had a profound influence on modern horror, and several of her novels have been turned into popular films, including the unfortunate Kevin Williamson abortion "I Know What You Did Last Summer."