Not everyone knows that apart from writing and directing theatrical features that greatly influenced the development of genre filmmaking, Wes Craven ventured outside this bubble in search for other opportunities. In fact, right after making The Last House on the Left he ventured into hardcore pornography (allegedly because indie filmmaking wasn’t exactly lucrative) and those skilled in the art will be able to find some of his work online without much ado. Though, a fair warning to anyone brave enough to do so that to call some of these movies unwatchable would be a compliment. In addition, Craven ended up branching out to make TV movies as well (of the non-adult variety) and over the course of his entire career he would come back periodically to direct something explicitly designed for the small screen.
The 1978 Summer of Fear, released initially as Stranger in Our House, was to my knowledge Craven’s first made-for-TV film, an adaptation of an apparently popular young adult novel by Lois Duncan about a suburban family having to welcome a recently orphaned distant relative only to find out they might not be who they say they are. The film starred Linda Blair and even though it originated as a TV production, it made its way into European cinemas. This could potentially invite a supposition that the film had some merit to it – like Steven Spielberg’s Duel which shared a similar fate – but nothing could be further from the truth. Summer of Fear is not a diamond in the rough. It’s not a masterpiece that oozes artistic excellence from the screen. Far from it. In fact – probably because TV productions were more tightly censored – it would be difficult to pin this film on Craven if his name ended up mysteriously excised from the opening credits. This immediately begs a question why he would be interested in taking this project in the first place?
Naturally, the cynical answer is money. It was a paid gig and an opportunity to hone his directorial craft. But there’s something more about this film that may have caught Craven’s attention, like a siren song ensnaring sailors into a hallucinatory daze. In fact, the key to understanding how this movie connects to Craven’s overarching artistic interests begins with its relationship to a veritable Hollywood classic – Shadow of a Doubt.
In many ways, Summer of Fear and its literary source material are fundamentally inspired by this now classical thriller, and nobody would be surprised if you dismissed it as ‘Shadow of a Doubt for teenagers’. At this point you’d be also welcomed to remind yourself that Craven was by his own admission an admirer of Hitchcock’s work, which could be enough to explain what drove him to make this movie in the first place; an opportunity to remake Shadow of a Doubt and maybe give it some of Craven’s own flavour, the latter of which I honestly doubt he was successful in reducing to practice. But then again, it is even more interesting to prod further and inquire why – of all Hitchcock classics pining to be remade and reimagined – he would want to do a play on Shadow of a Doubt with a hint of witchcraft.
Pulling back and assuming a wider perspective over Craven’s work up to that point (and even further down the line), it is possible to distinguish a handful of thematic threads connecting his work, the most important and pervasive of which has to do with the critique of the conservative American family and its core values. In his early works, such as Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing (which came after Summer of Fear), Craven would apply quite a literal interpretation of the notion of deconstructing the All-American family by having it torn asunder by gangs of hippie murderers or roaming cannibals victimized by American nuclear ambitions. To this end, Summer of Fear is an exercise in taking a picture-perfect American upper-class family (anyone who owns horses is upper-class) by having it infiltrated by an intruder (Lee Purcell) who, by way of magic spells and curses, brings it to a brink of collapse.
Sadly, this is honestly where the conversation ends because we can’t forget the film is based on a YA novel and all divagations will likely be ankle-deep at best. Therefore, an intriguing premise folding The Brady Bunch into Shadow of a Doubt with a hint of The Omen quickly devolves into a by-the-numbers detective story with Linda Blair trying to convince her family that her cousin Julia is not who she says she is. Thus, it becomes nearly impossible to tease out the handful of interesting wrinkles out of the narrative (not helped a whole lot by the downright terrible acting on display from all involved); but they are nevertheless there.
Even though it takes a keen eye to notice these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thematic nodes peering out of the veritable swamp of mediocrity that constitutes the bulk of the film, Summer of Fear is understandably a film Wes Craven would gravitate towards based on his prior interests. For all its faults, and there are many, it is an attempt at ridiculing the conservative family, its safety in wealth and its arrogantly assumed invulnerability to external threats, which in this case again comes from the parts of American culture liberal elites have traditionally disregarded and dismissed as unworthy of attention or care.
But as a film designed to entertain Summer of Fear is only a few notches above Wes Craven’s output as a pornographer, there’s not a shadow of doubt (sic!) about that. It’s very difficult to sit through and almost openly infantile and unengaging. However, together with the filmmaker’s earlier efforts, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even John Carpenter’s Halloween, all of which saw the light of day in a similar time frame, Summer of Fear adds to a chorus of social commentary satirizing the prudishness and sense of cultural superiority baked into the core of an American nuclear family.