Summer of Fear Review

Summer Of Fear begins with a bang but, sadly, not one of the dramatic kind. A car careers off a road which, for reasons best known to the filmmakers, immediately causes it to explode in a ball of flames while its rolling down a rather gentle incline. Thus begins a film which does not exactly have realism as one of its keynotes. Coming from any notable horror director, this TV movie would be a disappointment. From Wes Craven, straight off the magnificent The Hills Have Eyes, it’s virtually unforgivable. He regards it as a step-up because it have him the chance to use 35MM and thus enter the Directors Guild, but surely he could have come up with something at least slightly more interesting.

Basically, the film is a vehicle for a resurgent Linda Blair. Blair had spent the years after The Exorcist trying to find things to do which wouldn’t remind people of her revolving head and interestingly coloured vomit. Sadly, most of these things were pretty dire - Airport 1975 is pretty typical of the quality control being exercised by her agent. Exorcist II The Heretic, in 1977, may be beloved of some of us Boorman junkies but it’s hard to claim that it did anything to help its young star’s career considering the appalling reviews it received – many of them aimed at her – and its financial failure. Summer Of Fear was made for NBC for television consumption in America – where it was called Stranger In Our House - and was released in cinemas overseas, which is why this DVD presentation is in an initially perplexing 1.77:1 ratio. The international version, under review, is a longer cut.

Based on a popular teenage novel by Lois Duncan, Summer Of Fear is about a young orphan Julia (Purcell) who, following her parents death in the aforementioned crash, moves in with her cousins – Tom Bryant (Slater) and Leslie (Lawrence)and their children Rachel (Blair), Peter (East) and Bobby (Jarnigan). Initially, Rachel is keen on showing Julia round and trying to take her out of her shyness but doubts begin to set in when her boyfriend Mike (McCracken) shows rather more interest than might be considered proper. These doubts become more pronounced when Rachel finds a tooth amongst Julia’s belongings. Soon, Julia has begun taking over Rachel’s life; she steals Mike when Rachel gets a mysterious case of hives all over her face and has to miss the school dance; she turns Leslie against her daughter and persuades Tom to take more than a strictly paternal interest in her. Searching for an explanation, Rachel discovers the horrifying truth, with the assistance of local mythology expert Dr Jarvis (Carey).

This is all so predictable that you could probably recite the entire story without seeing the movie. It’s stolen from a variety of other, better films. For instance, Julia’s inability to pass a horse without it trying to attack her is immediately reminiscent of animals’ aversion to Damien in The Omen. The normal family being invaded by a force of darkness can be seen in movies ranging from Leave Her To Heaven to Theorem. The ‘cuckoo in the nest’ scenario, originally a positive one, goes back at least as far as Jerome K. Jerome’s Passing of The Third Floor Back. You can also see elements from films as various as Rosemary’s Baby and Blood On Satan’s Claw. This in itself isn’t necessarily a problem if the film is strong enough to hold its own. Summer Of Fear possesses little narrative drive and eventually the only thing which keeps you watching is waiting to see the clichés roll around with the inevitability of day following night.

The performances are generally better than the film deserves. Lee Purcell, who was so wonderful in Big Wednesday, is memorably sinister as Julia – all bland smiles concealing something dangerous underneath. Purcell was wasted on a string of unmemorable films during the 1980s and 1990s and is now working largely as a producer. Popular TV actress Carol Lawrence is adequate as the mother but Jeremy Slater is very good as the father, especially in the scenes where he has to fume with repressed erotic longings for Julia. It’s interesting to see Jeff East – best known as the young Superman – with an ill-advised curly perm and there are some nice moments from the young Fran Drescher and TV soap veteran Macdonald Carey, in the somewhat obvious role of the omniscient professor. Sadly, Linda Blair isn’t particularly good in the central role. Her line readings are clunky and she doesn’t seem to have much of a presence – certainly, Lee Purcell acts her off the screen whenever she appears, which tends to unbalance the drama. Blair clumps about gracelessly but you have to sympathise with her when she has to cope with lines like “I can’t stand a thing about you.... and that includes your hair !”

The TV origins of this film perhaps explain why its so bland but that’s not really an adequate excuse for the failings of Craven and screenwriters Glenn M. Benest and Max. A Keller. After all, Spielberg’s extraordinary Duel began as a Movie of the Week and TV has brought us a lot of other very fine and often daring work - Do You Remember Love, Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, The Dollmaker, Citizen Cohn. On occasions, its even managed to be genuinely unnerving - Black Noon, Something Evil and the scary-as-hell British TV drama The Woman In Black. The blandness begins with the unimaginative cinematography which has a TV flatness to it and lacks any atmosphere and is compounded by the risibly obvious music score. Craven indulges his increased resources with lots of dolly shots and some mildly interesting use of low angles and lengthy takes. The second half of the film does try to get some tension going and is generally an improvement of the first. But the revelations about Julia are nothing we haven’t guessed for ourselves much earlier and the last minute ‘twist’ is so predictable as to leave you almost surprised that they resorted to it. Like the rest of Summer Of Fear, it’s less likely to leave you shivering with horror than comatose with indifference.

The Disc

Anchor Bay have released the international cut of Summer Of Fear on Region 2 DVD with an amusing press release which states that this was “Linda Blair’s welcome return to the horror genre ("Exorcist II: The Heretic" notwithstanding) following a string of roles in a series of bland and unremarkable TV movies”. This isn’t strictly accurate. Blair’s work in TV films during the mid-seventies was often brave and important, pushing the barriers of subject matter that could be addressed in the medium - Born Innocent and the excellent Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic for example. It’s also the case that Summer of Fear is considerably more bland than any of the other TV films Blair made

The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer. This is apparently correct since the version on the disc is the one intended for cinema release in Europe. The transfer is a mixed bag. It’s a reasonably clean print without the distracting scratches and damage which afflicted the Anchor Bay release of Android earlier this year. The picture also has quite a lot of fine detail and is sharp without being over-enhanced. However, there is a lot of artefacting in certain scenes, particularly the darker interiors, and some texturing to the image is visible throughout. Overall, however, this is quite pleasing and the colours come across very well.

There are, inevitably, three English soundtracks to choose from. The best of them is the Dolby Digital 2.0 option. This contains some minor separations but is, to all intents and purposes, a 2.0 mono track. Dialogue is clear and natural and the various elements of the soundtrack are well balanced. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks are, as usual, artificial and unnecessary but some simulation of surround sound may please those who like their audio surround set-up to be used by every film they watch. Personally, I like a track which best represents the original presentation.

The extras consist of reasonably well written biographies of Linda Blair and Wes Craven and a rather good commentary track from Wes Craven and producer/co-write Max A. Keller. This is interesting and amusing with Craven, as ever, providing good value with his thoughtful observations and wry self-deprecation. They find a lot more to say than I would have expected and there are few dead spots during the 98 minutes of the film.

The film is divided into 20 chapter stops. As usual with Anchor Bay, no English subtitles are provided which is a shame but according to the forum on their website, they may be rectifying this omission on some future releases.

Summer Of Fear is a far cry from Wes Craven’s best work and only occasional moments of inspiration – a fight between the girls illuminated by flashing cameras for example – bring it to anything resembling life. The DVD isn’t bad and makes the film worth a look for die hard fans of the director or Linda Blair.

NB: Ignore the publicity for the release which shows it as having a BBFC 18 certificate. The release is actually rated a far more suitable 12.

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