0.5/4, 1970s, Horror, Review, Wes Craven

Stranger in Our House (or, Summer of Fear)

#22 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

Wes Craven moved from New York to Los Angeles and got offered this made for television movie project starring Linda Blair based on some minor novel by Lois Duncan. Working with a real crew and real equipment, Craven made the first film in his limited body of work that feels distinctly cinematic. It’s also horribly boring and awful. I’m not the biggest fan of his first two films, but at least that grungy aesthetic was in service to some effort to entertain. This feels like the most by-the-numbers approach to adapting a distinctly uncinematic novel to the screen I’ve ever seen, with no effort at the script stage to actually make it work as a film.

Reading a bit about the film after it was over, I found out that Craven had in mind the earlier works of Roman Polanski, like Repulsion, when he started working on this. The idea was to create a similar sense of unbearable domestic tension around small things. Well, he failed miserably at that. I think the issue at hand is that there’s nothing that the film is really building up to. For a long stretch, it just feels like a girl complaining that another girl stole her boyfriend. The sense of the witchcraft is poorly handled while there seems to be no goal in place for either of the two girls at the film’s center. Things just kind of happen for ninety minutes until there’s a silly horror-tinged climax.

Rachel (Linda Blair) is the daughter of stockbroker Tom (Jeremy Slate) and photographer Leslie (Carol Lawrence). She has an older brother Peter (Jeff East) and a younger brother Bobby (James Jarnigan) as well as her boyfriend and horse-riding teacher Mike (Jeff McCracken). She’s a quality rider and lives comfortably on the family’s small ranch in California where she’s generally just pretty happy with life. Into this comes Julia (Lee Purcell), her cousin after her aunt and uncle are killed in a fiery car crash that also claimed their live-in housekeeper. Things seem wrong from the start when Rachel rides up to greet her cousin on the back of her horse Sundance, but Sundance is obviously agitated by something. Now, this introductory scene where Sundance moves back and forth in Julia’s presence feels wrong and awkward. Rachel rides the horse right up to the car door and seemingly makes no effort to pull Sundance back, allowing the horse to simply clop right in front of the obviously frightened Julia. It’s both too obvious and too weirdly filmed while also taking too long. This is Craven telegraphing at the beginning that something isn’t right with Julia. Instead of building any kind of suspense, it deflates a fair bit.

Rachel tries to ingratiate Julia into her small circle of friends, but when she suddenly breaks out into hives the day before a big community dance, Rachel has to let Mike take Julia in her place. At the dance, Mike and Julia become an item instantly, ending the romance between Rachel and her boyfriend, all while Julia continues to sleep in Rachel’s bed in her own room. Things go even worse when Sundance goes nuts at a competition and breaks his leg, necessitating putting it down, much to Rachel’s lament. It seems like Julia is stealing Rachel’s whole life, but the movie doesn’t even really seem to notice it. That’s the core fault of the film, I think.

Rachel is watching her whole life fall apart in front of her eyes. This new girl takes over her room, steals her boyfriend, becomes the favorite of her parents, and possibly even does witchcraft to kill her horse. And the movie either keeps it super, super subtle or simply does not notice that this is what’s happening to this girl. I think this might be a gender perception issue. The original novel was written by a woman, but the script was written by two men and the film was directed by a man. I firmly believe that it shouldn’t be any kind barrier, but the inability of the film to embrace this concept of a young woman losing her life to a female competitor is a major failing.

And that would be the tension. Is she just jealous because this prettier, nicer girl is invading her life while she just makes up stuff about Julia being a witch to make herself feel better? Or is the witchcraft real? The film never embraces any kind of ambiguity around it, though. Yes, Julia is a witch. It’s not really questioned in any degree. It’s just brought up and then dropped a few times, again making it feel like there’s no narrative momentum. There’s no build up to a reveal or a threat. It just goes on long enough to the point where the full reveal just happens, and it’s silly to look at.

The explosion of action that fills the final ten minutes of the film just feels like complete nonsense. It’s loud and borderline incoherent, and then it’s over where we get an awkward explanation by a sheriff we’ve never seen before who irons out the details just in case someone lost interest an hour before and didn’t realize what was going on.

Really, this is kind of embarrassing. Linda Blair is okay in it, and I think she might be the highlight of the film. That’s kind of sad. I don’t dislike Blair at all, but she was pretty much sleepwalking through this. And she’s the highlight. Sad.

Rating: 0.5/4

9 thoughts on “Stranger in Our House (or, Summer of Fear)”

    1. I have a feeling that there’s going to be a lot of this. Aside from a handful of his more famous movies, most of his filmography has been completely forgotten. For good reason.

      And thanks. That’s what I get for not proofreading.

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  1. Single White Female did it better.

    This really isn’t a very compelling plot, though. It isn’t even great psychological horror.

    I liked Linda Blair in this but it was something I was watching trying to catch up on HER filmography, I had no idea Wes Craven even directed it. There’s so much blah in 70’s movies, for all that the decade is praised, but the lack of moral grounding does this movie no favors. Nobody in California thought being a witch was bad or wrong. So there goes that tension.

    Craven fails at horror here, which is odd because his first two flicks, for their flaws, actually ARE horror. Maybe he was trying to make a drama but he failed at that. Not all directors are equally skilled.

    Or maybe it’s a source material problem, this isn’t based on an idea he had, so maybe Craven sucks at adapting other’s work. We’ll see….

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    1. Even if this is a problem with the source material, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved in the adaptation. The complete lack of dramatic undergirding to the supposed horror is killer to the whole experience, and it’s a problem that seemed endemic to Craven’s written work. He can’t structure for shit.

      And yeah, Blair is fine in this. She’s okay. She’s the bright spot, but it’s a very dim light.

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