Lois Duncan’s YA horror novels are a perfect example of the cyclical nature of book publishing. They were big hits when originally published in the 1970s and they were so perfectly suited to the current boom in teen horror, her publisher reissued key backlist titles with modernized text. Duncan’s sales also benefited from the hit movie adaptation of I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequels, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and Damn It, What You Did Two Summers Ago Still Pisses Me Off. However, horror auteur Wes Craven got first crack at Duncan’s oeuvre with the TV movie Summer of Fear (trailer here), which is now available on DVD and BluRay, from Doppelganger Releasing.
Before her orphaned cousin Julia Trent came to live with her family, Rachel Bryant lived a nearly idyllic life for an American teen. She got along freakishly well with her parents, had an attentive boyfriend, and was the odds-on-favorite to win the country club’s equestrian tournament. Strangely, her horse Sundance does not take to Trent when she arrives, for reasons Bryant will understand soon enough.
Before long, Trent steals away Bryant’s boyfriend and causes an accident that fatally breaks Sundance’s leg. How does she do that? Witchcraft. Bryant can see the remnants of it in the room they share, but proving it will be a trickier matter. She gets some sage advice from their neighbor, Prof. Jarvis, an expert in folklore’s darker manifestations, but that puts the kindly old man in Trent’s crosshairs.
It turns out witches cannot be photographed, much like vampires. Too bad they didn’t have cameras make during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, because they could have saved a lot of trouble. Bryant also might have made things easier for herself if she had bought a Polaroid instant camera, but whatever.
Summer of Fear has a reputation for being a diamond in the rough, because it combines the talents of Wes Craven, less than one year after The Hills Have Eyes, and Linda Blair playing Bryant five years after The Exorcist, in the first screen adaptation of Duncan’s work. Logic dictates it must be great, but it is really just a fairly typical TV movie.
Granted, the general level of performance is far superior to what you’d commonly find in that era’s movies-of-the-week. Blair is appealingly forceful, while Lee Purcell is eerily seductive and insidious as Trent. They also look somewhat similar, which makes it all creepier. Summer is additionally notable as the television debut of Fran “The Nanny” Drescher, who does indeed show quite promising energy and presence as Bryant’s bestie, nurse-in-training, Carolyn Baker.