This is one of the few films where going into it I knew careers of the director and the two lead actresses well. I guess that’s why I was probably set up for a fall with this one. Stranger in Our House is a made-for-TV film by Wes Craven that originally aired in 1978 on NBC. Seems unlikely now that a network television station would hire a director like Craven to make a film for their channel, especially because at this point Craven didn’t have much to his name other than a pair of highly-controversial films – The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left.
There’s not much that marks Summer of Fear as interesting, really, other than the names attached to it. A teenage Linda Blair is the leading lady, but mostly comes off like the moody child she’s so good at playing instead of a more compelling lead. Also notable is that the screenplay was adapted from the book Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan, whose films have been adapted to films multiple times, including I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Rachel Bryant (Blair) wakes up one morning to the news that her uncle and aunt have died in a car crash. Their daughter, Julia, moves in with Rachel’s family. The two families had been distant for years, so the death of Julia’s parents is the first time Rachel has learned of her cousin, who is the same age as her.
Julia’s arrival marks the start of strange events like sending Rachel’s horse Sundance into a frenzy, her male cousin (Rachel’s older brother, Peter) hitting on her and Rachel finding a tooth in a canister in Julia’s luggage. Plus Julia spends time in the Ozarks, which the family attributes to her strange accent, despite the fact that she’s from Massachusetts and goes to school there.
Despite her suspicions, Rachel decides to take Julia under her wing and take her shopping with her friend Carolyn (played by a young Fran Drescher). Julia gets a make-over to help her blend in with her horse-obsessed surroundings. But when the girls head back to the Bryant house, Sundance is not a fan of Julia’s new look and nearly tramples her. The horse gets moved to the club and away from Julia.
The morning of the dance, Rachel wakes up covered in hives and discovers a picture of her is missing from a frame. Because of her illness, she doesn’t go to the dance, and instead Julia goes with Rachel’s boyfriend Mike as her escort and wearing the dress that Rachel spent ages making herself. While the family admires Julia in the mirror, Rachel notices that her cousin doesn’t always have a reflection.
In the night, Rachel does some poking around in the bedroom she’s sharing with Julia. She finds some questionable objects, including several matches and an a wax figure with Sundance’s hair on it. She hears someone come home and finds her brother Peter on the other side of her bedroom door. He’s angry because Mike didn’t let anyone get near Julia all night, which is probably not the most desirable quality in a boyfriend (though, perhaps you shouldn’t let your boyfriend go out on dates with your obviously-freaky cousin to begin with).
The next day is Rachel’s horse competition and she attends since her hives cleared up overnight. She hunts down Mike, who says that he felt instantly attracted to Julia and is finished with Rachel. Kind of a dick move there, Mike. Unfortunately, the days gets worse for Rachel when Sundance begins to freak out, and tumbles down a hill with Rachel on his back. The horse suffers a broken leg and is immediately put down by the vet.
Things for Julia, on the other hand, keep getting better as she integrates more with the Bryant’s and edges out Rachel. She becomes close with Carolyn and her relationship continues with Mike.
Fed up with Julia’s happiness at her expense, Rachel goes to the town’s occult expert (which, you know, every town in America has). Professor Jarvis tells her that the objects she mentioned (the wax figure and the picture) could be used for black magic. Rachel continues her research into witchcraft. She reads that horses have animosity towards the possessed. But Rachel messes everything up when she tells Julia she’s going to expose her with Professor Jarvis’ help.
In the morning, Rachel can’t find any of her evidence. Plus Professor Jarvis is found harmed after collapsing and is rushed to the hospital. Rachel decides to go to the hospital with Julia. Her suggestion of it makes Julia react, obviously foiling her plans. When they return from their visit (one that the prof survives), Rachel reads in her book that witches’ powers are not active while they sleep. She digs up a letter addressed to Julia and learns that Julia has a supposed interest in music, and after calling Julia’s old roommate, she learns that she was captain of the glee club.
During her investigation, Carolyn calls saying that the professor has been asking for Rachel. She goes to see him and he tells her that witches are not able to be photographed. Rachel later convinces her mother to photograph Julia. The cousin is reluctantly photographed, but Rachel’s mother postpones developing the photographs. Rachel and her mother get into an argument over Rachel’s strange behvaiour and her theories about Julia. But she does overhear Julia admitting she has no interest in music, contradicting the information that Julia’s roommate told her.
The night before Julia and Rachel’s mother are to go on a trip, Rachel’s mother sees Julia flirting with her uncle. Rachel’s mother seems to be warming to the idea that something strange is going on, especially after she approaches her husband about the topic. Julia decides to forgo the trip with her aunt, and stays to attack Rachel while she develops the photographs.
Julia reveals that she is in fact Sarah, the family cleaning lady of Julia’s family. The two women begin to fight, but Rachel manages to lock Sarah into the darkroom. The rest of the movie the resulting chase and showdown between the Bryants and Sarah.
Stranger in Our House (or also known as Summer of Fear) is nothing super exciting, to be completely honest. But when are made-for-TV movies ever really great? The story is predictable and pretty safe, but that’s network television for you. It would have been a lot more fun to watch Craven work his magic with his gloves off, especially when working with actress like Blair and the fabulous Lee Purcell, who played Julia. It’s probably only worth the effort if you’re a Craven complete-ist.