Few would say that Wes Craven made what could be called “art cinema,” yet his storytelling interests often coincide with those of several of the mode’s practitioners. To that end, Summer of Fear could be understood as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema for teenagers, with its bewitching visitor a young female cousin “from the Ozarks” rather than Terence Stamp’s slender sex machine. Craven’s dedication to the horror genre as the best template for addressing a family’s betrayal of its individual members for the sake of upholding either tradition or sanctity answers why the director of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes chose to direct a made-for-television adaptation of a popular, and family-friendly, Lois Duncan novel. Summer of Fear shows Craven evolving his aesthetic capabilities to service industry demands for genre works that could appeal to both youth and adult audiences.
Visually, the film conforms to the demands of the television movie, with tight framings on character faces comprising nearly half of the film’s shots. Our introduction to Rachel (Linda Blair) occurs in one such shot, with the teen awakening one summer morning to be told by her mother (Carol Lawrence) that her aunt and uncle were killed in a car crash. The deceased couple leaves behind Julia (Lee Purcell), whose newfound homelessness necessitates that she shack up with Rachel and her family for the remainder of the summer. The efficient terms of the premise, in which Julia’s country twang clashes with Rachel’s more bourgeois notions of hip and cool, establish the class-based conflict that Craven was drawn to throughout his career. The band of killers in The Last House on the Left ripped apart the façade of a loving suburban home. The Hills Have Eyes took place on an atomic testing site where radioactive cannibals pick off members of a vacationing nuclear family. In Summer of Fear, Max A. Keller and Glenn M. Benest’s teleplay uses witchcraft as a narrative device to address the daily hardships of adolescent social life.
Craven grasps that what sells the story’s horror isn’t the horror itself, but the sense of being abandoned by one’s own parents over a disagreeable personality trait. In Rachel’s case, her interest in competing horses makes her “a liberated woman” according to a local professor (Macdonald Carey), and her tomboyish depiction also makes her an intriguing prototype for the “final girl” alongside Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode from John Carpenter’s Halloween, released just six days prior to Summer of Fear in 1978. The film’s most violent moment occurs when Rachel’s mother smacks her across the face after she calls Julia “a witch,” and Craven plays it ambivalently, as it’s not clear exactly why Rachel’s slander disturbed her mother so much. The guardians in Summer of Fear seem to act out of preserving an imprecise sense of decency. The outburst of violence is the outcome of an unexamined family dynamics that Julia—who, it turns out, really is a witch—disrupts simply through her presence as an alluring young woman.
The underlying nature of the family’s fragility in Summer of Fear never becomes an explicit focus of Craven’s direction, meaning any statement being made about the unthinking ideology of suburbia remains peripheral to any scene. On the surface, it’s Blair’s chipper demeanor that most compels Craven, as the camera constantly focuses on her in varying states of emotional distress. At her most despondent moment, she’s been dumped by her boyfriend, is suffering from a skin rash, and her pet horse has just been euthanized. Rachel’s humiliation is a slow burn, eating at her sanity in such a way that it’s as if her very existence is crumbling right before her eyes.
The broader supernatural dimension of the plot, however, devolves into an unsatisfying conclusion in which Julia confesses her literal torturing and manipulation of Rachel with magic. The simple explication of Julia’s malicious hunger gives Rachel reprieve from her paranoia that her self-esteem problems might be greater than Julia’s constant presence, meaning the film’s preceding, intimate moments of grief are undercut by a finale the becomes hellbent solely on exorcising the demon. At least Craven and company have the decency not to toss in an explicit parting wink to The Exorcist.
The HD scan of Summer of Fear from Doppelgänger Releasing is mostly solid. But in at least four different instances, the image becomes noticeably blurry. Similarly, there are at least a handful of moments where color and contrast inexplicably change, suggesting a fault in the transfer rather than an intended, momentary alteration of the film's image on Wes Craven's part. There are also instances of mild damage to the negative, such as blips and nicks, within nearly every scene of the film. The 2.0 DTS-HD mix has similar quality issues, with momentary dips and fluctuations in sound levels occurring regularly. These image and sound problems are minor and don't detract from one's ability to enjoy the otherwise striking transfer, but they're the sorts of issues that could seemingly be avoided with more attentive restoration work.
A feature commentary by Craven helps contextualize his involvement with the project, which came about, in part, because he wanted to prove he was capable of directing different kinds of material. While Craven remains largely focused on explaining his process, there are lulls in the commentary into the banalities of the shoot, such as who took the most lunches from the craft services table. Still, Craven's playful tone ensures that even when he's gossiping and speculating on careers, he's doing so without malice and in favor of thinking of a production as being akin to a summer camp. In a recent interview, Linda Blair explains how she was excited to make a movie with Craven and such a distinguished cast. Moreover, she talks about her introduction to the world of television movies. Rounding out this lean lot of extras is the original trailer and a photo and poster gallery.
A family-friendly (and still chilling) endeavor from horror icon Wes Craven gets a respectable Blu-ray transfer from Doppelgänger Releasing.