Summer of Fear (1978)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-10-18 03:21

Written by: Glenn M. Benest (teleplay), Lois Duncan (novel), Max A. Keller (teleplay
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Linda Blair, Lee Purcell, and Jeremy Slate

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I like my hair this way. Mike does, too. So does your father."
"Well,I can't stand a thing about you, and that includes your hair!"

Wes Cravenís sometimes odd career often took detours to the small screen, yielding a filmography littered with obscure, largely unseen works nestled between the landmarks. Such is the case with Summer of Fear, the TV-movie Craven helmed shortly after The Hills Have Eyes, one of the films that would have made him something of a household name by 1978 (even if some execs were supposedly repulsed by his work), when NBC was looking to score a Halloween night hit by joining one of the horror genreís emerging directorial talents with one if its more infamous on-screen faces in Linda Blair. 40 years later, that appeal largely holds true, though I suppose itís fair to say that Summer of Fear has become more of a curiosity since Cravenís TV track record can be generously described as ďspottyĒ despite his status as one of the most iconic horror directors ever.

But this one is probably the best of that particular bunch, at least among those Iíve seen (1990ís Night Visions remains elusive on home video). Working from an adaptation of Lois Duncanís novel, he helms a reasonably absorbing (if not downright lurid) thriller that intersects with his own preoccupation with American families under siege.

In this case, itís the Bryants, a family of five settled in rural Northern California, where daughter Rachel (Blair) spends her days tending to her horses and hanging out with her good-hearted boyfriend Mike (Jeff McCracken). Everything is upended, however, when the family learns theyíll have to take in cousin Julia (Lee Purcell) because her parents have perished in a fiery car accident. At first, itís not such a bad arrangement: if Rachel has any reservations about her cousin at all, itís due to typical teenage girl drama, as she senses all the boys (including Mike) might have eyes for her. Soon, though, she senses something much more sinister at work, almost as if Julia were scheming some awful plot against her. Strange discoveriesólike a human tooth in Juliaís luggageólead her to believe that something is certainly afoul with her cousin, who practically begins to replace her right before her own eyes.

Summer of Fear is interesting trash. Its TV-movie-of-the-week aesthetic makes it feel like a pulp novel masquerading as an After School Special. With its cozy, rustic photography and its sappy score, it doesnít look or sound like a typical Craven film, resulting in an assuming, almost uncanny effect. It works in its favor, though, once Summer of Fear veers into overt horror and begins to pervert this family movie aesthetic into something horrible. In many ways, itís a microcosm of Cravenís oeuvre, which often twists family dynamics into perverse, horrific propositions. For Craven, the American family unit was always just waiting to be torn apart at the seams, and the Bryant clan here is no exception, as a dark, ethereal force descends upon their quaint home, threatening to unleash total hell once discovered.

While any sharp-eyed viewer will snuff out the eventual (and highly telegraphed) twist here, you have to admire the audacious attempt to bring such sleaze into American living rooms. When Julia begins to eye her own uncle and makes some very obviously sexual designs on him, it feels like the sort of filth typically reserved for the eraís Eurotrash. Thereís an element of genuine danger and wildness to it, one that announces Summer of Fear is willing to push against its restrictive boundaries. Even if it doesnít truly go all the way, it treads close enough, so much so that I imagine that some of its contemporary audience may have been genuinely uncomfortable at the sight of a niece making a move on her own uncle. Malabimba she ainít, but Julia leaves quite an impression thanks to Purcellís devious turn, which has her adopting a disarming southern twang to charm all of the men in her life.

In doing so, she also drives Rachel right up the fucking wall. Blair is a perfect foil for Purcell: sheís sweet but also just bratty enough that you canít help but chuckle at the teenage drama on display here. Watching her grow flustered creates another disarming effect that paves the way towards some of the truly fucked up stuff Julia inflicts on her. If she isnít giving her horrible boils to make her miss the big dance, sheís spooking her horse into going wild during a show, a freak-out that ultimately ends in tragedy. Summer of Fear has some terrific homespun witchery on display, as Duncanís novel basically anticipates the likes of The Craft in the sense that it takes this teenagerís goth phase at face value. Not only are Rachelís suspicions about Julia true, but the latter also has no compunctions about flaunting her powers, much to the dismay of her flummoxed cousin. Thereís even one part where Julia manipulates Rachelís parents into considering kicking their own daughter out of the house, which is somehow both hilarious and sad.

Of course, there is a limit imposed by those aforementioned network television restrictions. Summer of Fear can only go so far before it begins to relent a bit, though Craven admirably captures a pretty manic freakout of a climax, complete with feverish dream visions, hellraising sorcery, and fiery carnage. He also edges as closely as he can towards the incestuous innuendo hinted at earlier, so Summer of Fear does capture the faintest glint of the directorís rugged, unsettling 70s aesthetic. Squint hard enough, and you can see the same filmmaker that wreaked havoc on the ill-fated families in Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, even if the source material (and network suits, presumably) essentially force him to ease up a bit towards the end. A predictably tacked-on epilogue does its best to undercut the mega happy ending here, but even it feels playfully lifted out of the conventional horror playbook as an obligatory final scare.

Watching Craven work in such an environment is always fascinating. While none of his small screen efforts are nearly on the level of his masterworks (and understandably so), you can often find his sensibilities couched within, buried however deeply. In the case of Summer of Fear, theyíre lurking just beneath that rose-tinted 70s TV-movie faÁade, creating quite a striking contrast: this is both a sunny little After School goof and Cravenís vaguely weird, pulpy attempt to exorcise his familial demons. If nothing else, Duncanís source novel sings fairly well: Summer of Fear is loaded with greasy, melodramatic intrigue, and Craven wrings it for all its worth, sprinkling bouts of witchcraft though Rachelís investigation (which eventually crosses paths with the likes of Macdonald Carey and Fran Drescher) in an effort to mimic the novelís page-turning sense of propulsion.

Despite going on to secure a theatrical release in Europe, Summer of Fear has lingered about in obscurity in the States. While Artisan released it on DVD (complete with a commentary from Craven), itís remained an overlooked entry in the Craven canon, especially since that disc went out of print. No worries, however, as Doppelganger Releasing and Music Box Films have brought the title to Blu-ray, meaning it looks better than it ever has before. Not only does it retain Cravenís commentary, but it also adds a 13-minute interview with Blair, who reflects on the making of the film. The international trailer is also included alongside a stills gallery It should be noted that their release features the original 92-minute broadcast cut, while Artisanís boasts a slightly longer 99-minute cut, so enthusiasts and completists will want to hang onto the latter (just in case). Itís a pretty nice release, especially since it features Craven himself, who could have easily shunned this lesser work. Now, if someone would just dig up The Fireworks Woman, his weird, pornographic follow-up to Last House, weíd really be in business.

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