31 Days to Scare ~ Summer of Fear (1978)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl’s life is turned upside down after her cousin moves into her house, and as time goes by, she begins to suspect that she may be a practitioner of witchcraft.

Stars: Linda Blair, Lee Purcell, Jeff East, Fran Drescher, Jeff McCracken, Carol Lawrence

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve said it before but man, I really miss the classic made-for-network-television movie that has long been extinct. I remember looking forward to all those Moment of Truth movies on NBC as well as the domestic thrillers, wacky comedies, and disease of week flicks that would show up anytime you were ready to change the dial. Without a movie studio behind them, so many of these films have been lost to time with many found only on YouTube in various degrees of quality.

There is the occasional TV movie that drew the kind of viewership that allowed the movie to live on (often being released theatrically in Europe) and one such example is Summer of Fear from 1978. Originally broadcast as Stranger in Our House, the title was officially changed once the movie was granted a run in overseas theaters. It then made it’s debut on DVD before getting a nice treatment on BluRay in 2017. While it’s relatively vanilla for today’s horror audiences, it’s a fun little time capsule that has several impressive names attached to it.

Star Linda Blair was a hot, if troubled, commodity when the movie went into production. An Oscar nominee for The Exorcist, she was also the lead of several notable TV movies which garnered her good notices. At the time, Blair was coming off of the much maligned The Exorcist II: The Heretic and some personal struggles when she signed on to star. Did I mention the film is an early effort from legendary horror director Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing, Nightmare on Elm Street)? Craven had directed a few intense adult horror movies before this and his overall restraint in the confines of television censors here is admirable.

Based on the popular YA novel by Lois Duncan (who had a run of creepy books that were adapted into movies on TV and in theaters), Summer of Fear follows Rachel, a horse-loving teen in California that goes through hell when her orphaned cousin comes to visit and turns her life upside down. After her parents die in a car crash, mousy Julia (Lee Purcell, Valley Girl) leaves her Ozark home to come to live with Rachel and her family in their ranch house. Soon, Julia gets a make-over and starts to ingratiate herself into the lives of her family…to increasingly deadly results. Most of this comes at the expense of Rachel who loses her friends, her boyfriend, and her horse to Julia’s increasing grip over her life. Is Julia just a master manipulator or is there something more sinister going on?

With her big perm and sometimes baby-ish line readings, Blair (Hell Night) is campy fun as the paranoid Rachel. You often can’t blame her for being amazed that people are falling over themselves around Julia, everyone in her life seems so terrible to her you often wonder why she just doesn’t pack a bag and find a new family. It’s nearly hilarious how her loved ones turn on her the moment Julia arrives. Even her father starts to make moony eyes over his niece from the start (ew) and I can’t believe no one has mentioned how gross it is that Blair tries to set her older brother up with Julia…his first cousin! That he turns into a lovestruck puppy over her earns another ‘ew’ from me. I actually shouted out loud more than once, “She’s Your Cousin!!”

At 92 minutes, it feels like a full film meal and Craven often gives us a heaping plate of over-the-top moments. Blair has a knock down, drag out fight with someone and the stunt people look like they are wearing the exact same style wig. It looks like twins are fighting eachother. Purcell is also notable as the mysterious Julia.  She’s evil, no doubt, but you aren’t quite sure if it’s just teen angst or if she’s harboring a darker secret. I’m surprised that this hasn’t had a remake, actually, as the story seems to be prime material to reexamine or reinterpret. As it is, the film manages to locate more than its share of creepy moments within it’s TV trappings and is quite worth seeking out.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Exorcist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Kitty Winn, Lee J. Cobb

Director: William Friedkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I remember when I was finally allowed to rent The Exorcist on VHS from our local video store after several months of asking (aka begging) my parents to see it.  When they finally relented, my dad delivered the caveat that it was the ‘scariest film ever’…which only made me hop on my bike faster to make it to Home Video before sundown.

I have to admit that my first impression of The Exorcist was disappointment because I found the film more funny than scary.  I mean, a girl pees her pants, swears a blue streak at anyone that gets near her, and she pukes a green soupy rainbow over a priest.  In my defense, at the time all I was interested in when it came to horror were masked killers, marauding sharks, and the gorier the film was the better.  While The Exorcist had its fair share of icky moments, there wasn’t enough of the red stuff to make it worth my while…I actually laughed more at the crazy swears coming out of the young and possessed Linda Blair.

Now thankfully over time my taste for subtle horror has developed and my understanding of cinematic technique has increased so The Exorcist means something very different to me now.  Though I never saw the film during its theatrical run (I wasn’t born yet, thank you very much) the film did show on network television, albeit heavily censored, the night I was born…coincidence?…my babysitters wouldn’t think so.

It’s next to impossible to watch the film without having its many spoofs and rip-offs influencing your enjoyment so it’s best to just acknowledge that the film inspired a whole demonic possession streak of films and countless other moments that populate the cultural lexicon of our understanding.  Once that’s taken care of, you can take the film for what it is…a true genre classic that takes its sweet time to unfold until it finally unleashes some lasting moments of terror that will stay with you throughout the night.

William Peter Blatty won an Oscar for adapting his hit novel surrounding a Georgetown pre-teen (Blair, Hell Night) that becomes possessed by an ancient evil.  Her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn, Interstellar) runs out of options and finally calls on the services of the titular character (Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Never Say Never Again) and a local priest (Jason Miller) to cast out the force that’s destroying her daughter.

Though the film jumps continents, director William Friedkin (Killer Joe) stages the film almost like a play (it actually was adapted for the stage in 2012) with the majority of the action taking place in the bedroom of the young girl.  Also winning an Oscar for sound (it was nominated for 10 total), all the elements come together to put the audience through the wringer and I can’t imagine how scary the movie must have been to viewers in the early 70’s just coming out of the hippy dippy peace movements.

Watching the film recently I was reminded at how level Friedkin and Blatty keep the movie, rarely straying into cheap scares or overly effusive dialogue.  The entity of evil is treated with an aura of respect and understanding which makes it all the freakier when the youngster is subjected to its grisly whims.  I’ve always found the ending of the film to be the tiniest bit of a letdown when you consider all that came before it…if you happen to look away for a moment (no one would blame you), you may miss a key wrap up development that influences the rest of the picture.

That minor quibble aside, on its 40th birthday The Exorcist is still celebrated for bringing horror stylishly into the mainstream…even being nominated for Best Picture at The Oscars where it was beaten by The Sting (I have a feeling it would have won had the Academy been a bit more forward thinking).

If it’s been a while since you’ve taken it in or if you’ve somehow never seen the film you owe it to yourself to give it a look…just throw away all your cans of pea soup first.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hell Night

The Facts:

Synopsis: Four college pledges are forced to spend the night in a deserted old mansion where they get killed off one by one by the monstrous surviving members of a family massacre years earlier for trespassing on their living grounds.

Stars: Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton

Director: Tom DeSimone

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  In 1981, horror movies were still figuring out ‘the rules’ to their formula.  With the double-barreled shotgun successes of 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s Friday the 13th, the slasher film was on the brink of an all out attack on the box office with countless imitators being filmed and released in short order.  August of 1981 saw the release of Hell Night which, while falling into most of the trappings of the genre, still manages to come off as well-intentioned and (mostly) well made.

The plot of Hell Night reads along the same lines as the Mad Lib-ed nature of wannabe horror films.  Basically it’s a fill in the blank set-up: Nubile teens are stalked by a BLANK at a BLANK.  Just fill in your killer and location and you’re good to go.  Here the nubile teens (really college freshmen) are stalked by a half-breed crazy at a supposedly haunted mansion which was the site of a family homicide years before.  Every year the local college fraternities and sororities haze a selected group of incoming pledges by forcing them to do something crazy…and this time it’s to spend the night in said mansion.   It’s safe to say that the mansion isn’t as deserted as they think and it becomes a cat and monster game to see who will survive the night.

After making a splash with her Oscar nominated performance in The Exorcist (which, to be fair, was greatly aided by make-up and special effects), Blair was at an awkward stage of growing up.  She always looked more mature than she actually is and hasn’t changed a whole heckuva lot since.  In Hell Night she looks more like an upperclassman rather than a freshman…try as the film may to give her a young appearance.  It may be mean but I have to say that I also didn’t buy the notion that she was one of the more comely lasses at this college, making most of the men that see her go googly-eyed.  She’s not a conventional beauty like other scream queens…but come to think of it, neither were the leads of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Still, Blair makes for a nice lead and aside from her mature appearance is otherwise totally convincing in conveying her terror.

She’s joined by a group of non-memorable supporting players that only exist to get the axe at some point.  Van Patten is kinda funny as a lothario that gets put through the ringer and stages a head-shaker of a robbery from a police station later in the film.  Barton is the sensitive college guy that probably would end up with Blair if they can just get out of the locked gates around the perimeter of the house.

So…to the blood and gore…I mean, that’s what you’re ultimately here for, right?  Well…director De Simone goes light on the red stuff in favor of drawing out the dread as long as he can.  Remember, this was a time when it was still OK to not bathe the audience in boobs and blood so if you’re looking for a film with those elements you’ll need to look later in the 80’s and to cheaper movies.

At 101 minutes, the film is much too long for its own good.  There are several endless sequences where the actors just look around the mansion trying not to get killed.  It’s a lot of s-l-o-w walking around…and it feels like it’s filmed in real time.  At one point, two actors were ascending a flight of stairs when I got up to grab something to drink.  When I returned they hadn’t made it to the top of the stairs.  I’m not joking.  A good 10-15 minutes could have been trimmed out to keep things moving, enhancing the pace and not letting the action drift.

If the wrought iron fence around the mansion was were as wide as the plot holes the actors could have escaped in no time flat.  You’ll be incredulous at the amount of times someone will escape the house only to go right back in to find a missing friend.  It’s the noble thing to do, yeah…but I can honestly say if a maniac was trying to kill me you’d see only a dust cloud behind me if I had the chance.

One of the lesser known horror films of the 80’s, Hell Night is still enjoyable for its pre-mass imitation attack on its tale.  It’s not very original and not quite scary…but something about it works well enough to keep it memorable in my brain several days after viewing it.  If you can track it down, try it out and see if you agree.