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Summer of Fear (1978)

Music Box Films
Blu-ray Disc Released: 10/17/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/31/2017

I have to assume that readers of all ages visit this website, which means that additional explanations of certain cultural phenomena may be required with some reviews. For decades, television felt that it had to compete with theatrical films in order to remain relevant. Therefore, in addition to the typical half-hour or hour-long shows, in the 1970s, the three major networks (yes kids, there used to only be three) began to roll out "made-for-TV movies". These "films" would often feature a few moderately-famous actors and in many cases would mimic the premises of box-office blockbusters. Some well-known directors did some of their early work in this medium. Steven Spielberg had Duel and John Carpenter did Elvis and Someone's Watching Me. And while these entries are common knowledge, many may not be aware that Wes Craven also contributed to this trend with the 1978 effort Summer of Fear.

Linda Blair stars in Summer of Fear as Rachel Bryant, a young woman who enjoys spending her time riding horses and canoodling with Mike (Jeff McCracken), her riding instructor and boyfriend. Rachel's perfect world is upset when her parents (Jeff East and Carol Lawrence) inform Rachel that her aunt and uncle have been killed in a car wreck and that her distant cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell), will be coming to live with them. At first, Rachel is sort of excited to have Julia around, as it's like having a sister, but she soon begins to suspect that Julia is not a good person. Not only does Julia flirt with Rachel's dad (ewww!), she also sets her sights on Mike. When peculiar things begin to happen around the house, Rachel decides that Julia is not only conniving, but that she may have special powers as well. Despite the fact that no one will see her side of the story, Rachel feels that she must stop Julia.

Summer of Fear is based on a novel by Lois Duncan, the prolific writer who also brought us I Know What You Did Last Summer and several other books which were adapted into films. Duncan clearly laid the ground work for authors like John Saul, as she tapped into the world of teenage insecurity. Rachel seems like a perfectly normal girl to us (sort of, more on that in a moment), but when she begins to suspect that something is not right with Julia, her parents scold her for having the nerve to question the recently orphaned girl. This is the source of any and all emotion in the film. Despite having some very, very mild supernatural touches, which do not appear until the finale, this plays more like a teen drama than a horror movie. We know what Rachel knows, and it's frustrating for us that no one will believe her.

Although the main plot of Summer of Fear is pretty clear, there are also some ambiguities which effect the story. First of all, we are never told how old Rachel is. Linda Blair was 19 when the movie was shot, but Rachel appears to be younger. (As the film is set during the summer, she's not in school...assuming that she should be...) But, it still feels creepy that she's dating her horseback riding instructor. We aren't told how old Julia is either, but she comes across as older and more mature than Rachel. (In the book, Rachel is 15 and Julia is 17.) One thing's for sure, when Rachel begins to accuse Julia, she's treated like a child. And the relationship between Rachel's family and Julia's family is vague, save for the fact that they haven't seen each other in years. Why?

One thing is for sure: Summer of Fear has not aged well. Even for a movie from the 70s, things get out of hand here. How can I describe Linda Blair's hair? Big certainly doesn't do it, neither does huge. I can only assume that it had its own trailer during the production. Julia looks a lot like Ellie Kemper. (That's not a bad thing, it's just distracting.) A character lives near Rachel who is a noted professor, but he's also an expert on the occult. That's such a 70s movie cliche. And, in the end, Summer of Fear looks and feels like a TV movie. So, besides the presence of a young Fran Drescher, the film comes off as little more than a curiosity piece for fans of Wes Craven. He sticks to the source material here and if you didn't know that this was from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street, there are no clues here to point you in that direction. The movie may have produced some thrills when it was released (it even played theatrically in Europe), but today it seems rather tame and dull, unless of course you are afraid of big hair, then you are in for some nightmare material.

Summer of Fear does get some mileage out of a fake horse hoof which likes to punch things on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Music Box Films and Doppleganger. The film is framed at 1.33:1, the original TV broadcast aspect ratio, and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. It looks as if the transfer may have been taken from a theatrical print. The image is sharp and clear, but there is mild grain and some mild defects from the source materials. The colors are OK, but some look muted. The image is never overly dark or bright. The picture does get soft at times, but this may result from the fact that "soft look" was overused in the 70s. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio mono track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 1.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Given that this is a mono track, we don't get much in the way of dynamic audio effects here, but the dialogue is always audible and it's not overpowered by the music.

The Summer of Fear Blu-ray Disc contains a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Wes Craven and Writer Max Keller. "Exclusive Interview with Linda Blair" (13 minutes) is a modern-day (?) chat with the actress who shares her memories of the film and describes her experience of working on the project and how it fits in her legacy of horror movies. The extras are rounded out by an "Image Gallery" and a TRAILER.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long