Tune in Tonight: "Summer of Fear"
One of the best plots in made for TV movies is “mysterious woman moves into a gullible family’s house and tries to take it over,” as seen in Summer Girl, The Babysitter, and too many “evil nanny” Lifetime movies, including one literally called Evil Nanny. In all of the movies, the plot hinges upon people being so pig-stupid that the villain could pour arsenic into their teacups right in front of them, and they’d still drink it. At least in 1978’s Summer of Fear, it takes some witchcraft to get things moving, but you still come away from it thinking these numbskulls deserve what they get.
Directed, like last week’s Invitation to Hell, by Wes Craven, it’s based on a teen mystery novel by Lois Duncan, adapted as slightly more lurid to appeal to an adult audience. Linda Blair, sporting a spectacular lion’s mane for hair, is Rachel, whose posh, show horse riding existence is shaken by the arrival of her cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell), orphaned after her parents, along with their housekeeper, are killed in a fiery auto wreck near their summer home in the Ozarks. No one’s seen that side of the family in more than a decade, and nobody knows what Julia sounds or even looks like for some reason, but hey, sure, move her right into the house, why not?
Julia, who’s ostensibly in her late teens, looks and comes off like a 30 year-old spinster Sunday school teacher, at least at first. Nevertheless, her shy nature and Arkansas accent quickly charm the men in the household, particularly dad Tom (Jeremy Slate), and Pete (Jeff East), Rachel’s older brother. Rachel initially encourages Pete to flirt with Julia and even take her out on a date, evidently not realizing that if Julia is her cousin, then she’s Pete’s cousin too, which would make that super fucking weird, but nobody really thinks anything of it. It takes a little while for anyone to realize that Julia, supposedly born and raised in Massachusetts, shouldn’t have an Arkansas accent, but nobody really thinks anything of that either, except Rachel.
Soon Julia’s wearing slightly more fashionable clothing (if dressing like a Universal Studios tour guide is “fashionable”), and gets a televangelist wife hairdo, neither of which make her look any younger, but evidently make her devastatingly attractive to every man she encounters, including Mike (Jeff McCracken), Rachel’s likable lug of a boyfriend. After Rachel is mysteriously stricken with a case of hives, Michael takes Julia to a dance, where after just an hour or so in each other’s presence, they fall madly in love and begin dating. As with Julia’s Southern belle accent, nobody else in the family remarks upon this puzzling turn of events, except that isn’t it nice that Julia is making friends and meeting boys?
Other than Rachel and her horse, which rears in terror in Julia’s presence, the only character who seems to realize that something is amiss about Julia is Rachel’s neighbor, Professor Jarvis (Macdonald Carey). “Professor Jarvis is our local expert on the occult,” Rachel says, in a tone of voice that suggests that every neighborhood has a local expert on the occult. Professor Jarvis is also apparently an expert on the Ozarks, and doesn’t buy that Julia merely spends her summers there. Professor Jarvis and Julia exchange some meaningful glares, and then Jarvis disappears until the plot requires his services again.
Before Rachel can explore her reservations about Julia any further, however, a freak accident occurs, fatally injuring her beloved horse, who earlier tried to trample Julia. Despite this trauma, the very next scene is a montage of Rachel’s entire family, including mom Leslie (Carol Lawrence) and younger brother Bobby (James Jarnigan), for all intents and purposes replacing Rachel with Julia, while Rachel sits up in her bedroom and stews. Tom, instantly won over by Julia’s chess playing and shoulder rubbing skills, seems to treat her as both a surrogate daughter and a second wife, to hair raising results. Rachel eventually figures out that Julia might be a witch who’s casting spells on her family to keep them in her thrall. She doesn’t come to this conclusion because she’s particularly smart or perceptive, but because Julia is a sloppy, careless witch, leaving burnt matches all over the room they share, and barely hiding a picture of Rachel that she’s covered in red marker, as part of a spell cast to give her hives (why Rachel keeps a framed bikini photo of herself is anyone’s guess). If Julia was just outright killing people with her bare hands, she’d be leaving notes saying I DID IT written in the victims’ blood.
Like a lot of characters in scary movies who do inexplicably dumb things to keep the plot moving along, Rachel not only tells Julia that she’s on to her, she also tells her the identity of the person who’s going to help her uncover who (or what) she really is. That would be Professor Jarvis, who, you’ll be shocked to discover, keels over from a stroke in his front yard just minutes later. He holds on long enough to tell Rachel that witches cannot be photographed, which seems to be something made up entirely for this movie, but we’ll let it slide.
Conveniently, Leslie, Rachel’s mother, is a freelance photographer, but doesn’t seem to notice that Julia poses for photos like she’s doing a perp walk, squirming and covering her face. It takes Leslie catching Tom and Julia up late standing in front of the refrigerator feeding each other to finally admit something might be going on with this girl she doesn’t know from Adam, but invited to live in her house anyway. Rather than confront them, however, she leaves town and lets Rachel do it for her. Rachel soon discovers not just that Julia has cast a spell to kill her mother (again, because Julia just leaves everything out in the open for people to find it), but that she seems to be doing it with Tom’s approval and encouragement. You see, it’s not Rachel that Julia wants to replace, it’s Leslie, as matriarch of this boring upper-class family, and when you see what a charismatic hunk Tom is, it’ll all make sense.
Julia, wearing a negligee set that’s presumably supposed to make her look sexy but instead looks like something Phyllis Diller would wear, confronts Rachel, and tells her that she’s really Sarah, her aunt and uncle’s “cleaning gal,” and the real Julia died in the same car crash that killed them. “I killed them all to get here,” Sarah says, which seems to be an awful lot of trouble to go to just to seduce a pajama set wearing drip like Tom, but fine. Sarah seems to only be able to use her malevolent powers when it’s convenient to the plot, getting into an old-fashioned knockdown, drag out catfight with Rachel, followed by a car chase. With some astonishing time bending luck, they end up on the highway at the exact same time as Leslie, and Sarah is defeated, going Toonces the Driving Cat style off a cliff.
When next we see Rachel and her family, Tom has recovered from whatever spell Julia/Sarah supposedly had him under, Mike and Rachel are back together, and the family buys Rachel a new pony, because, really, that’s the least any of them can do. Evil never dies, however, and neither do thirty year-old teenagers: the movie ends with Sarah now speaking with a vague English accent, and starting work as a governess for a family that clearly didn’t bother checking her references.
Released a year before the masterpiece Roller Boogie, Summer of Fear would be one of Linda Blair’s last respectable acting roles for a long time, before she started doing women in prison movies and snorting coke off Rick James’s bare chest. It’s unclear if this was a screenwriting issue, or a choice Blair herself opted to make, but Rachel starts out as a likable heroine, only to quickly become whiny and petulant. She’s more annoyed by Julia’s hold over her family and friends than scared, even when it becomes apparent that she cast a spell that caused the death of her beloved horse. Though the movie was sold as a horror film, even airing on Halloween, things don’t start getting in the realm of “scary” until the last ten minutes, when Sarah puts creepy “demon” contact lenses in her eyes and makes dry ice appear out of nowhere. Even then, it just results in a car chase, as all 70s TV movies were legally obligated to feature at least one car chase, because by God every studio bought a Steadicam, and by God, they were going to use it.
Like a lot of cheaply made, slapdash thrillers, even when the villain explains their motivations, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sarah taking on a different identity and moving in with another family at the end of the movie seems to suggest that this is something she does for S & Gs, yet she tells Rachel that her sole purpose in killing the last family was so she could take over Tom’s household and claim him for herself. And yet, on the third hand (just pretend we have three hands in this scenario), it’s earlier mentioned that Rachel and Julia’s families kept so little in contact with each other that no one even knows what Julia looks like. Perhaps there lies the motivation: not ever actually having met or seen Tom and the rest of the family, Sarah convinced herself that he looked like a handsomely aging Robert Redford type, instead of someone with the looks of a mid-level Carter Administration cabinet member, and the personality of Les Nesman from WKRP in Cincinnati. More than likely, however, it was just plain old wishful thinking on the parts of the screenwriters.
Original airdate: October 31, 1978