MARCH 5, 2009
I always forget how many TV movies Wes Craven made in the 70s and 80s. And when I watch one, I realize what a shame it is that he never took part in Masters of Horror. Unlike say, John Carpenter, his TV work stacks up favorably to his theatrical releases. In fact, Summer Of Fear (aka Stranger In Our House) actually DID play theatrically in Europe. Sure, they aren’t going to make you forget about Nightmare on Elm St or Shocker, but the level of quality is far beyond what you might expect given the “TV Movie” pedigree.
Unlike Invitation To Hell, this one’s actually pretty serious. It’s based on a YA novel by Lois Duncan (who also wrote the novel for I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was adapted by Scream-writer Kevin Williamson. Everything’s full circle), so the movie’s protagonist is a young girl and her problems are teen-centric (fighting a fellow girl over a boy, her love of a horse, fighting with parents, etc), but it’s not like today’s teen horror films that can’t possibly appeal to an older audience. You look at something like Molly Hartley, which is a crushing bore, and then this, which kept me engaged throughout, and you see the difference 30 years can make.
The only real problem is that a key bit of information is shoehorned in far too early in the narrative. SPOILERS AHEAD. The movie is about a woman coming to live with her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed in an auto wreck. But before we even see the girl, we are randomly told that her parents’ housekeeper was in the car with them when they died while the girl was home alone, and that the family has never seen what she looked like. In other words - the girl’s not their niece at all. Maybe some might not pick up on it, but for me it gave away the “twist” almost instantly (before the horror element had even been introduced!), and I can’t help but wonder if the information had been revealed a bit later, and in a more natural way, if I might not have seen it coming. It also negates some of the creepiness - she sets her designs on her “uncle”, but since I knew they weren’t really related I wasn’t as enthralled with the icky factor as I usually would be.
That aside, I dug it. The basic “someone isn’t who they claim to be” plot is usually a winner, and I almost always enjoy seeing it unfold. And by keeping the supernatural elements to a minimum, it keeps the movie from getting too silly or ridiculous. Of course, the downside is that it’s not particularly action-packed, but to counter that, Linda Blair’s character becomes suspicious of the girl almost instantly, and the bulk of the movie is about her trying to convince everyone else that she’s evil. I don’t want to watch the two of them be all buddy buddy for an hour when I know perfectly well that they will eventually be at each other’s throats.
Also the movie offers a young Fran Drescher. I have to admit - I think she’s hot as hell (when she’s not talking), so to see her at a younger age, without the Jersey hair, was a nice little bonus. She’s not in the movie much, and that surprised me as well - I figured she was obvious fodder, but she gets phased out of the movie without coming into any harm. And apparently her voice is real; the movie is set in CA but she still has her thick Queens brogue.
Being a TV movie, the violence is kept to a minimum, but Craven does deliver not one but two “Horse goes nuts” sequences, both pretty terrifying (I am mildly afraid of horses), and the ending is a hoot as well - a car chase, girls whaling on each other, demon pancake makeup.... plus the old standby: a car exploding in midair as it careens over a cliff. I always wondered how this behavior got started. Obviously a guy had to set an explosive in the car, so did the first guy just do it too early and it’s been a tradition/homage to it since? Or do cars really explode apropos of nothing beyond being moving while not connected to land?
The movie also contains one of the best ironic lines of all time. During one of the many scenes of Blair and the girl yelling at each other, Blair yells “I can’t stand a thing about you, and that includes your hair!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Blair’s hair could best be described as “the world’s largest clump from the washing machine lint trap”, so to hear her mocking someone else’s is pretty amazing. That’d be like me mocking someone’s beard.
(My beard sucks.)
The DVD was released by Artisan before they were bought by Lionsgate, so I am not sure if it’s still in print or if LG has re-released it. This one has a commentary by Craven and producer Max A. Keller. Craven has a good memory (he mentions Scream, so the production was at least 20 years old by the time the track was recorded) and tells some nice anecdotes, but overall it’s kind of dry (he does mention Cursed briefly - worth noting because it’s seemingly before the project became a hellhole and thus he isn't venomous about it). Some cast and crew bios are also tossed in for those who aren’t aware of the IMDb. It was a TV movie, so it was probably shot full frame, so I can’t complain about that. I will laud the transfer itself though; unlike several other TV films from the era, it has been given a sharp, colorful transfer. The print has dirt and flecks on occasion, but its THX quality compared to Somebody’s Watching Me (Carpenter’s TV film from around the same time), and given a 5.1 mix to boot.
So I say again - why aren’t there any made for TV horror films anymore? You can get away with more “R Rated” type material thanks to CSI and such, and since the horror crowds are thinning for theatrical releases anyway (Friday the 13th may have the distinction of being the first movie to gross 45 million on its opening weekend and yet fail to make 70 overall), you’d think the TV market would be pretty enticing for say, NBC (who originally aired the film), who has not a single show in the top 20 and could use an out of the box hit.
What say you?