Wes Craven directed Stranger In Our House for NBC in 1978. After helming two films which had garnered notoriety, The Last House On the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven relished the chance to make a more mainstream movie, one that would be shot in 35 millimeter...as opposed to the 16 he had been used to.
The result was so good, the film was re-titled Summer of Fear for theatres in Europe and its DVD release.
The story concerns a young woman named Julia (Lee Purcell) who goes to live with her aunt's family after she loses both her parents and their housekeeper in a tragic car accident.
Upset at the sudden death of her sister, Leslie Bryant (Carol Lawrence) takes the young woman...on break from school in Boston...in for the summer.
Although they haven't seen her in ten years, Leslie's husband Tom (Jeremy Slate), her son Peter (Jeff East), daughter Rachel (Linda Blair) and youngest son Bobby (James Jarnigan) are all eager to make the new member of the house feel welcome.
Rachel is especially thrilled at the thought of having a girl her age around the house. She even offers to split her bedroom with the cousin.
Julia seems painfully shy. The family takes note of her strange accent. It's not the way most people who live on the east coast speak. Even though her parents lived in the Ozarks in Missouri, isn't that a southern accent they detect? Trying to open up a bit, Julia gets a makeover and develops a more sophisticated façade.
One day, Rachel's horse Sundance attacks Julia and tries to trample her. Julia recovers and begins insinuating herself into the family. Rachel's brother and dad seem particularly taken with the fetching young lady in their midst.
Odd things begin to happen. After having earlier found a human tooth among Julia's belongings, Rachel discovers a photo of herself missing...and her face breaks out in blotchy hives. Oh - and she also notices that Julia doesn't always have a reflection in the mirror.
The hives render Rachel unable to attend a dance. Julia accompanies Rachel's boyfriend Mike (Jeff McCracken) instead...borrowing a dress that Rachel had made for herself. It's an arrangement that Rachel should never have agreed to because Mike becomes smitten with Julia and they begin dating. To make matters worse, the cousin also forges a close friendship with Carolyn (Fran Drescher), Rachel's best friend.
Sadly, Rachel enters into a competition with Sundance...and the horse flips out, breaking its leg in the process and forcing a vet to put it to sleep.
To her surprise, Rachel finds things in Julia dresser drawers that point to something sinister - burned hair from her fallen horse and her missing photo covered in red paint spots. Witchcraft perhaps? She speaks to Professor Jarvis (Macdonald Carey) who tells her it may indeed be the work of someone who practices black magic. Before she can show him the evidence however, the professor collapses and is rushed to the hospital.
A letter that Julia receives from a friend gets the best of Rachel's curiosity. Rachel phones the friend in Boston and discovers that Julia supposedly sings in a choir. Knowing that the person living in her house doesn't have any interest in music, Rachel further suspects something is not right.
Immersing herself in books on the occult, Rachel starts to believe Julia is a witch. During a visit to the professor at the hospital, he tells her that witches do not show up in photographs. A camera is a machine and machines cannot be coerced, she's told. The next day, Rachel encourages her mother to take pictures of the reluctant cousin.
Everything comes to a head when Leslie plans a road trip and Rachel finds a map with burn marks on it. It looks as if Julia is planning on causing her mother to have an accident. She also sees Julia overtly seducing her father.
Too late to stop Leslie from leaving on the trip, Rachel develops the roll of film herself and clearly sees that her suspicions have been correct all along...Julia is nowhere to be found in the photos.
Suddenly, Julia comes pounding into the darkroom and the two have a fierce struggle. Rachel manages to break away and she locks the door to the room. She then evades her dad, who tries to grab her...he now seems possessed by something or someone.
Julia breaks out of the room...her eyes a ghastly white and red. Rachel rushes over to Mike and tells him to get in his car so they can find her mother. Julia takes off after them, hitting Mike's car and trying to drive them off the road. Finally, Rachel and Mike catch sight of Rachel's mom, whose car causes Julia to drive off a cliff to a fiery explosion below.
The Sheriff (Billy Beck) explains that "Julia" was actually the housekeeper and that Leslie's sister, brother-in-law and the real Julia were the ones who perished in the auto accident.
The Bryant family tries to return to normal. Meanwhile, another family welcomes a new nanny into their household. A woman who looks remarkably like the stranger who terrorized the Bryant home...
The first NBC showing of Stranger in Our House was on Halloween night in 1978. It was a ratings hit and the network reran it six months later. CBS then bought the rights and aired it twice more over the next year and a half.
The screenplay by Glenn M. Benest and Executive Producer Max A. Keller was based on Lois Duncan's best-selling novel Summer of Fear. Retitled with the name of the book, the film enjoyed good international box office.
Linda Blair took this role after being plagued by a series of personal problems. An animal lover, the offer was sweetened considerably when the character's beloved companion was changed from a dog in the novel to a horse. With this picture, she proved her acting chops once again...and it is interesting to note that most of her best post-Exorcist work was in television.
Summer of Fear was filmed in Hidden Hills, California in a gated community. Director Wes Craven made good use of the location and showed he was more than capable of making a studio film with a more established cast.