Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1978)

3. Stranger in Our House

Welcome to the land of 1970’s TV movies. Many folks declare the decade as the best for the format, especially in the horror genre. Indeed, television did produce many classics during this time. But for every “The Night Stalker,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” or even a “Bad Ronald,” there was a “Stranger in Our House.” It was Wes Craven’s first time working in TV, a field he would return to repeatedly through out his career with decidedly mixed results.

Based on a young adult novel by Lois Duncan, the film follows the Bryant family. An uncle, aunt, and their house keeper recently perished in a car accident. The surviving niece, Julia, comes to stay with the Bryants. While mom, dad, older brother, and even younger brother are fine with this, middle daughter Rachel has some suspicion. Something is off with Julia’s story. Petty misfortunes begin to affect Rachel, while every one in the family just loves Julia more and more. Could something sinister be afoot, hmmm?

“Stranger in Our House” is an exercise in high ridiculousness, from beginning to end. The opening credits play over footage of a car madly careening around twisting mountain roads, the musical score pitched at hysterical levels. This is only the first deeply silly thing that happens. How about the horse? The horse, named Sundance, can detect evil, prompting it to go on several rampages throughout the film. It smashes its obviously fake legs through a car window, the musical score blaring and Fran Drescher screaming. Later on, it goes nuts at a horse show, pushing awkwardly through a tent. That happens because Julia, who is an evil witch, made a weird clay effigy of the horse, one that kind of looks like a hairy yam.

To find out that the film is based on a book written for teenage girls is not surprising. The stakes here are astonishingly low. What are the awful things Julia does to Rachel? Causes her prom dress to fit badly! Gives her really bad acne! And on the day of the prom! She accomplishes this by drawling red dots on a photograph. And, oh no, she wears Rachel’s dress to the dance and magically steals her boyfriend! These most pedestrian threats are treated with not only up-most seriousness, but melodramatic emphasis. The most evil thing Julia does is give an old dude a heart attack and, I guess, cause some potentially fatal car accidents.

Aside from its general hilariousness, “Stranger in Our House” has another serious problem. Linda Blair, sporting some frighteningly frizzy hair, is impossible to take seriously as a dramatic lead. Her cutie-pie voice drains any convincing quality from all the dialogue. Lines like “Whoa, Sundance!” or “A rat-fanged varmint!” are especially hard to swallow. Blair can’t convey emotion in any believable manner. She takes the death of her aunt extremely well. When a beloved pet dies before her very eyes, Blair’s sorrow plays as a petty temper-tantrum. She spends the entire latter half of the movie pouting like a snotty teenage girl. Did I mention she’s dressed up as a cowboy at one point?

The script is predictable. Julia, as played by Lee Purcell, immediately covets everything Rachel has. The movie goes out of its way to contrast the two characters, making it glaringly apparent from the beginning that Julia is not who she claims to be. The movie features one of my most hated horror clichés: No body believes the protagonist. Even though Julia is a blatant, transparent villain. Even though the coincidences pile up so quickly, something unusual must be happening. All this does is make Blair look even more ineffectual and makes her family look like total bitches. Lee Purcell slips in and out of a silly Southern accent, ruining an all ready shaky performance. Oh, and did you know witches can’t be photographed? I thought that was only vampires but apparently not.

The movie is notable, I guess, for featuring an early performance from Fran Drescher. She schleps her way into the film, visibly flubbing her dialogue several times. She trades obnoxiously “girly” dialogue with Blair. Despite the situation being serious (to the characters anyway), the girls seem to have a lot of fun sleuthing around. Beyond Drescher, Macdonald Carey has a thankless small part as the very convenient occult expert in town. He delivers grave, self-serious dialogue in a professional, committed fashion.

From the technical perspective, the score is a huge problem. It’s super happy at times, such as during the montage that exist to display some deeply seventies fashion. When it’s not inappropriately upbeat, the music is poundingly melodramatic. Concerning Wes Craven, trademarks of his like POV shots or long pans crop up once or twice. You could say the film fits into his reoccurring theme of family. There’s an incestuous relationship that is introduced and promptly never mentioned again. And there might be an early example of intentional shaky-cam during the aforementioned horse rampage.

After dragging in total boredom for a good hunk of its middle section, “Stranger in Our House” goes nuts at the end. The villain drops a load of leaden exposition for no reason before attacking Blair. She fights the witch off with a camera, prompting the villain to show off her superpowers. She punches through a wall, wears some goofy contact lens, and blows a door off its hinges. What follows is one of the most ridiculous car chases I’ve ever seen. There’s a rough zoom on a road sign and the baddy is disposed off in the most absurd horror villain’s demise since Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster.” We conclude with Linda Blair squee-ing over a new pony and an incredibly lame “Or Is It?” ending.

There's not a single poster for
this movie with the original title.
It’s hard to believe but “Stranger in Our House” was actually released theatrically in Europe, under the title “Summer of Fear.” The same title is on the DVD which, despite being out of print, can still be easily found. I don’t know why television producers looked at Craven’s early, extreme films and decided he was perfect for television. [Grade: D]

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