Friday, October 31, 2008

It Was 30 Years Ago Tonight

Another reason network television is so lame today. Where are the crappy Halloween movies? Here’s what you might have been watching exactly thirty years ago tonight.

I don’t remember STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, but it’s interesting in that it was directed by none other than Wes Craven. I’d be curious to know how Craven landed a network gig, because at that time, he was known only by hardcore horror fans for directing LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. While both films are distinguished by Craven’s skills for achieving on-screen suspense, I can’t imagine many network executives lining up in their cars at a Southern California drive-in to see them. Today, of course, it would be considered something of a coup to land Craven for a television directing gig. He did a few more TV-movies and some episodes of the 1980s remake of TWILIGHT ZONE, including two outstanding episodes, “Shatterday” with Bruce Willis and “Wordplay” with Robert Klein.

NBC, of course, played up THE EXORCIST in touting Linda Blair’s starring role in STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE. She had appeared in several highly rated TV-movies before 1978, such as SWEET HOSTAGE with Martin Sheen (which I clearly remember watching, but haven’t seen it since) and the notorious BORN INNOCENT. STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE was later retitled SUMMER OF FEAR and given a DVD release a few years ago (with a Craven audio commentary).

Linda Blair aside, it would be very difficult, just judging from these ads, to watch her movie over something called DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL, which, thankfully, is also on DVD. DEVIL DOG is one of the funniest made-for-TV horror films ever made, and it all boils down to Richard Crenna’s amazing line, “That damn dog tried to force me to stick my hand in the lawn mower!”

The same year the fine actor Crenna starred in THE EVIL, he made DEVIL DOG, which surprisingly appears to have been taken seriously by the men and women who made it. Like STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, DEVIL DOG was directed by a known horror director, Curtis Harrington (THE KILLING KIND). Unlike Wes Craven, however, Harrington had television experience with TV-movies like THE CAT CREATURE and THE DEAD DON’T DIE under his belt.

Crenna stars as Michael Barry, a typical suburban dad with a wife (Yvette Mimieux) and two kids who take in a new pup the same day the beloved household pet is run down by a hit-and-run driver. Little Lucky proves to be less than an angel after various Barry friends, employees, neighbors (and their animals) die mysteriously. Even the wife and kids start acting batty (it helps the movie that Harrington cast the unearthly siblings from the WITCH MOUNTAIN movies). What’s a beleaguered pop to do but climb an Ecuadorian mountain in search of a wizened old shaman (Victor Jory) who can reveal the only method of destroying the demon that possesses Crenna’s German shepherd?

The woeful animated visual effects that punctuate the limp climax would barely pass muster on ELECTRA WOMAN AND DYNAGIRL, but there’s probably no way to make a dog with glowing eyes wearing a South American Indian headdress scary anyway. You’ll admire Crenna, who survives this indignity with surprising grace, but the rest of DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL is a real howler.

1 comment:

Neil Sarver said...

A Stranger in Our House is available on DVD as Summer of Fear... it's one of those movies that scared the crap out of me when I was 7, I guess it would have been... and one of the very few that has actually held up moderately to grown-up viewing.

If I had been in charge at that point, I'm sure I'd have picked Devil Dog