Original Air Date: October 31st, 1978
In the 70's, a renegade filmmaker named Wes Craven was making a name for himself at the drive in circuit with Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Looking for something mainstream, or perhaps just looking for a good paycheck, Craven's next project was Summer of Fear, which was based on the Lois Duncan young adult novel of the same name. Craven cast Linda Blair as the spunky but put-upon Rachel Bryant. The Bryants are welcoming Rachel’s cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell) into the family fold after her parents are tragically killed in a car accident. Shy but beautiful Julia manages to work her way into the hearts of everyone around her, including Rachel's hunky beau, Mike (Jeff McCracken). Peppy Rachel is the only one who seems to think that there’s something wrong with Julia and her strange Ozark accent (she only spent her summers there). It appears Julia is wielding her magic on all who come across her. And I think you can figure the rest out...
Obviously, this is not nearly as shocking or unnerving as Craven’s previous work, but Summer of Fear is still an enjoyable little thriller with much to appreciate. On the commentary track, Craven admits to being drawn to the family structure aspect of the movie and the idea of treating someone involved in the supernatural as though they are just like any other outsider welcomed into a working class family.
Linda Blair is up to the challenge of playing the likeable teenager who solves the mystery. She’s cute as ever here (even with the bad perm) and her knowledge and love of horses adds to one of the more gruesome moments of the film.
Lee Purcell is also perfectly cast as Linda’s nemesis. You know Julia is evil but you are never quite sure what her motives are or where she'll strike next. Just a few years later, Purcell would go from a young woman in Summer of Fear to a seductive mother in Valley Girl! My goodness, she is ageless (and still looks fantastic)! Rounding out the affable cast is a then-unknown Fran Drescher, soap opera legend MacDonald Carey and Jeff East, pre-young Clark Kent in Superman.
The main audience of Summer of Fear will be people, like me, who remember seeing it as a kid. It was so successful when it originally aired on Halloween in 1978 (could that Halloween have been any better?!?) that a theatrical version, titled Stranger in Our House was released overseas.
But most importantly, the film is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Summer of Fear brings to mind the heyday of the made for television movie. Very few titles have gotten their dues on DVD, but the now-defunct Artisan label has made a pretty good disc for nostalgia buffs. It has a beautiful, if slightly flawed, transfer with crisp, clear images – A nice change from the blurry dubs I usually see of TV movies.
The commentary track, featuring Wes Craven and producer Max Keller, takes a casual but informative look at the work that goes behind the making of a small screen film. Fans of Craven may also be interested in his other two TV movies Invitation to Hell (go Susan Lucci, go!) and the thought provoking Chiller, both of which have also been released on DVD but to lesser results (click here for a review of Chiller). For those of you with a taste for bitchy witches try doing a double feature of Summer of Fear with the sadly obscure but wonderfully fun TVM classic Midnight Offerings.