The narrative of the television movie, “Summer of Fear,” is told through the point-of-view of Rachel Bryant, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Linda Blair (The Exorcist). She is a teenage girl, living in California, who loves her horse, Sundance, and enjoys spending time with her boyfriend, Mike (Jeff McCracken); he is also her riding instructor. At first, Rachel acts hospitable to her cousin, Julia Trent, played by two time Emmy nominee Lee Purcell (Long Road Home). She has come to live with the Bryant family which, in addition to Rachel, consists of Rachel’s father Tom (Jeremy Slate); her mother Leslie (Carol Lawrence); and her two brothers, Bobby (James Jarnigan) and Peter (Jeff East). Julia’s mother and father, along with their housekeeper, have died in a car accident near their home in the Ozarks. Rachel’s mother and Julia’s mother were sisters, and Julia will be staying with the Bryants until she returns to college, in Massachusetts, in the fall. (As an aside: The original title of the television movie was called “Stranger in Our House.” The name was changed to “Summer of Fear,” when it was theatrically released in Europe).
Shortly after Julia arrives, Rachel’s life begins to take a turn for the worse. For example, she breaks out in a terrible rash, forcing her to cancel going to a dance she had been looking forward to. Additionally, her normally docile horse, which had been stabled at the family home, becomes irritated around Julia and attempts to hurt her. The horse’s behavior leads to Rachel’s father insisting that it be kept at a stable away from the home. Furthermore, Rachel’s parents, her older brother, and her boyfriend, begin to treat her differently. In the case of her boyfriend Mike, after he spends a brief period of time alone with Julia, he abruptly ends his relationship with Rachel, and begins dating Julia.
After discovering some unsettling items in the bedroom she shares with Julia, Rachel begins to look into Julia’s background. Rachel doesn’t buy the shy and sweet routine Julia is putting on for her friends and family. Prior to her coming to live with the Bryant family, none of them had ever met Julia, nor had Leslie, strange as it seems, ever received a photograph of her niece from her sister. When Rachel makes her suspicions known to her parents, they are not pleased with her, and over time, act increasingly hostile toward her while, at the same time, seemingly embracing Julia, and becoming closer to her with each passing day. The only adult who believes Rachel, is her neighbor, occult studies Professor Jarvis, a role acted by Emmy winner MacDonald Carey, who is most known for playing the role of Dr. Tom Horton, for twenty-nine years, on the soap opera “Days of our Lives.” In addition to the aforementioned actors, “Summer of Fear” marked the television debut of two time Golden Globe nominee Fran Drescher (The Nanny); she plays Rachel’s friend, Carolyn Baker, who is a nurse in training.
Are Rachel’s suspicions legitimate? Is Julia up to something sinister? If so, what is she planning? Will Rachel be able to prove to her loved ones, that Julia does not have their best interest at heart? Has Rachel been right all along, but because no one believes her, except for Professor Jarvis, will it be too late to save her family, before Julia can carry out her plan? Those questions will be answered by the time the television movie concludes.
“Summer of Fear” first aired on NBC television (National Broadcasting Company), on Halloween night, 1978. The television movie was directed by Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Based on the novel of the same name written by bestselling author Lois Duncan (I Know What you did Last Summer); the teleplay was written by Glenn M. Benest (Hungry Hearts), and Max A. Keller (Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8).
The television movie, which is part horror and thriller, will most likely be of interest to fans of Craven, who have never seen it; it might hold additional interest for fans of actress Linda Blair. For years, the movie was not available on DVD, or prior to that VHS. I think, overall, given the fact that the movie was on network television, and there were budgetary constraints in place, Craven did as good job as he could with what he had to work with. The cast, as a whole, worked well together, and did their best with the, at times, lame dialogue. In the interest of full disclosure, the horror is kept to a minimum, and more implied than shown. The climax, however, does provide a few jolting moments. All in all, I found “Summer of Fear” entertaining, despite some of the corniness showcased during its 100 minute runtime. I was glad I watched it, because I’ve now seen almost all of Craven’s work, but it is not something that I am going to purchase on DVD, nor am I going to watch it again in the near future.