Telefilm Time Machine: The Stranger Within (1974)

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The acclaimed horror and science fiction author, Richard Matheson passed away earlier this week at age 87 and in appreciation of his work I decided to devote my latest installment of Telefilm Time Machine to THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974). This noteworthy ABC Movie of the Week was based on one of Matheson’s original short stories (Mother by Protest aka Trespass), which was first published in 1954. Matheson was also responsible for the script of THE STRANGER WITHIN and even though it might not have the strong cult following of some of his other popular telefilms such as THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), it does have its own kind of eerie charm.

strangerwithintvThis sparse drama unfolds in the barren hills of Los Angeles, California at the home of Ann and David Collins (Barbara Eden and George Grizzard). Ann is an artist and David is a teacher who returns from work one afternoon to find his wife waiting for him with some unexpected news. We soon discover that Ann’s managed to become pregnant even though her husband had a vasectomy three years earlier. How did Ann become pregnant? Why is she suddenly devouring salt and drinking large amounts of black coffee? And when did she become immune to the cold and gain the ability the speed read text books? These are just a few of the odd questions that begin to plague the couple as they try and navigate the strange situation they’ve found themselves in. Things are further complicated by Ann’s medical history, which suggests that the pregnancy could kill her but when her doctor (Nehemiah Persoff) recommends she gets an abortion, the medical procedure is continually delayed due to Ann’s recurring health problems. The couple eventually turns to friends (Joyce Van Patten and David Doyle) who suggest Ann should undergo hypnosis in an effort to find out more about her unusual condition but this only seems to complicate matters. As Ann’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic her marriage begins to suffer but she insists on giving birth to her fatherless child regardless of the consequences.

At first glance THE STRANGER WITHIN seems to be just another twisted take on ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), which generated plenty of knockoffs and copycats. But Richard Matheson penned his strange tale of parenthood fears, suburban paranoia and a marriage on the rocks 13 years before Ira Levin published his best-selling novel that was the basis of Polanski’s film. If we’re going to make comparisons it’s best to acknowledge that Levin was probably inspired by Matheson’s unmatched ability to take familiar settings and situations and turn them upside down while exposing the cold, dark, terrified and tender underbelly of the American psyche.

This low-key telefilm was produced on a minimal budget and directed by Lee Phillips who’s probably better remembered today for his roles in films such as PEYTON PLACE (1957) and MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959). But the handsome actor who once played Lana Turner and Kim Novak’s love interest also directed episodes of many acclaimed television programs including THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and THE WALTONS. Phillips’ restrained directing style and laborious pacing enhance the somewhat claustrophobic mood of THE STRANGER WITHIN and Richard Matheson’s stark script lends this 74 minute telefilm a foreboding mood that permeates the proceedings. The action is minimal and the drama extremely subdued but the evasive conversations and long silences punctuated by repeated shots of clock faces, open windows and billowing white curtains suggest that something uncanny and unexpected is going to occur.

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Critics have complained that this made-for-TV movie drags a little and would have functioned better as an episode of THE TWLIGHT ZONE or THE NIGHT GALLERY. But I believe that the length provides Matheson’s script with some breathing room and allows his strange tale to be told with care and consideration. It also gives Barbara Eden the opportunity to break out of her I DREAM OF JEANIE bottle and really show off her acting chops as the tormented mother-to-be.

THE STRANGER WITHIN is one of the many telefilms released on DVD by the Warner Archive. This bare bones release is well packaged and the unrestored print looks crisp and is glitch free. Some might find this an unremarkable release that doesn’t warrant the Warner Archive label but I’m thrilled that that these long forgotten made-for-TV movies are being made available so a new generation can discover them. On a Tuesday night back in 1974 when there were very few channels to choose from and home video systems were still unattainable luxuries for most Americans, THE STRANGER WITHIN was undoubtedly a memorable viewing experience for many horror and science fiction fans.

14 Responses Telefilm Time Machine: The Stranger Within (1974)
Posted By jennifromrollamo : June 27, 2013 12:32 pm

Oh this sounds like a goodie to me. I bet Barbara Eden was ready to branch out and do a part completely different from Jeanie.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : June 27, 2013 12:32 pm

Oh this sounds like a goodie to me. I bet Barbara Eden was ready to branch out and do a part completely different from Jeanie.

Posted By Gene : June 27, 2013 2:11 pm

Kimberly, I recall seeing this film but vaguely. I am so pleased these films are being marketed, they represent an age of film just as much as films from the 30′s and 40′s (or any decade) would. As much as was going on during the 70′s, with America’s “Loss of Innocence”, even horror/sci-fi films represent a certain degree of innocence compared to the world today. Barbara Eden, of course, got typecast as Jeannie. She was beautiful (and still is) but she did indeed have acting talent. Thanks for this post and for the tribute to Richard Matheson. A great writer who deserves a broader audience beyond his devout cult following.

Posted By Gene : June 27, 2013 2:11 pm

Kimberly, I recall seeing this film but vaguely. I am so pleased these films are being marketed, they represent an age of film just as much as films from the 30′s and 40′s (or any decade) would. As much as was going on during the 70′s, with America’s “Loss of Innocence”, even horror/sci-fi films represent a certain degree of innocence compared to the world today. Barbara Eden, of course, got typecast as Jeannie. She was beautiful (and still is) but she did indeed have acting talent. Thanks for this post and for the tribute to Richard Matheson. A great writer who deserves a broader audience beyond his devout cult following.

Posted By Doug : June 27, 2013 2:23 pm

I have a friend going to Macinaw Island in a few weeks-I lent her
“Somewhere In Time” which was filmed there- Matheson makes a cameo in the film which was based on one of his stories.
His story, “The Test” is quite chilling, and would make a good “Twilight Zone” episode.
I’m glad that Warner Archive is bringing out telefilms-it makes sense, as TV shows are made on the cheap, with so many familiar faces such as Barbara Eden having a place in our childhood memories.
I especially like the supernatural telefilms such as this one.
Her friend in this, Joyce Van Patten-I remember seeing her as Dick Van Dyke’s sister in the new Dick Van Dyke show in the early 1970′s.
Good times, and thank you, Kimberly, for this series. Lots of fun to look back on those days.

Posted By Doug : June 27, 2013 2:23 pm

I have a friend going to Macinaw Island in a few weeks-I lent her
“Somewhere In Time” which was filmed there- Matheson makes a cameo in the film which was based on one of his stories.
His story, “The Test” is quite chilling, and would make a good “Twilight Zone” episode.
I’m glad that Warner Archive is bringing out telefilms-it makes sense, as TV shows are made on the cheap, with so many familiar faces such as Barbara Eden having a place in our childhood memories.
I especially like the supernatural telefilms such as this one.
Her friend in this, Joyce Van Patten-I remember seeing her as Dick Van Dyke’s sister in the new Dick Van Dyke show in the early 1970′s.
Good times, and thank you, Kimberly, for this series. Lots of fun to look back on those days.

Posted By vp19 : June 27, 2013 3:05 pm

If TCM is going to show movie-related segments from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” there’s no reason it can’t show the occasional made-for-TV movie, particularly those that feature classic-era stars, even in supporting roles. (Myrna Loy made several TV movies, including a 1971 remake of 1934′s “Death Takes A Holiday.”)

Posted By vp19 : June 27, 2013 3:05 pm

If TCM is going to show movie-related segments from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” there’s no reason it can’t show the occasional made-for-TV movie, particularly those that feature classic-era stars, even in supporting roles. (Myrna Loy made several TV movies, including a 1971 remake of 1934′s “Death Takes A Holiday.”)

Posted By Susan Doll : June 27, 2013 4:42 pm

I am really enjoying your telefilm series. I loved telefilms and mini-series from the networks back in the day. I sort of took them for granted at the time, but now I wish the networks would invest in them again.

Television in the 1970s seemed to take over the original b-movie idea from the Golden age. The term b-movie has been altered to mean a bad movie, but originally, they were smaller-scaled movies with shorter shooting schedules and running times, starring actors on their way up or down. But, many were terrific movies, or at least solid movies that were well crafted. I think of made-for-tv films in the same way.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 27, 2013 4:42 pm

I am really enjoying your telefilm series. I loved telefilms and mini-series from the networks back in the day. I sort of took them for granted at the time, but now I wish the networks would invest in them again.

Television in the 1970s seemed to take over the original b-movie idea from the Golden age. The term b-movie has been altered to mean a bad movie, but originally, they were smaller-scaled movies with shorter shooting schedules and running times, starring actors on their way up or down. But, many were terrific movies, or at least solid movies that were well crafted. I think of made-for-tv films in the same way.

Posted By AL : June 27, 2013 5:39 pm

She’s so talented, likeable and such a great Beauty that her dreadful nose-job was never a distraction. She always Delivered.

Posted By AL : June 27, 2013 5:39 pm

She’s so talented, likeable and such a great Beauty that her dreadful nose-job was never a distraction. She always Delivered.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 27, 2013 6:19 pm

I’m glad you all appreciate my ongoing attempt to revisit some of my favorite telefilms!

Jennifromrollamo – I think you’ll appreciate Barbara Eden’s surprising turn as Ann Collins. It’s very different from her role in I DREAM OF JEANIE but it’s fun to watch her branch out and play a very different (and much more serious) role.

Gene – I completely agree. The ’70s was a fascinating time for telefilms. I think a lot of their impact at the time was due to the fact that more & more Americans were able to purchase TVs and started watching these programs with family members,friends & neighbors. They became communal experiences that we all shared directly or indirectly.

Doug – Glad to see another Richard Matheson fan here! I don’t want to jump the gun but I suspect you’ll see his name mentioned again at the Morlocks in the coming weeks. I prefer the supernatural telefilms myself. I think the medium lends itself to these types of short thrillers that keep viewers on the edge of their seat even between commercial breaks.

vp19 – I like the way you think! That would be some fun programming and there are many classic Hollywood stars that appeared in these made-for-TV movies during the ’70s. In the past I’ve written about telefilms that featured Gene Tierney, Ray Milland, Joan Blondell, John Carradine and James Mason just to name a few.

Susan – It’s fascinating by the way film terms have changed over the years but you a bring up a great point. I think of made-for-TV movies in a similar way. I’m particularly fond of the ones made during the ’70s because they featured so many classic stars in their later years when Hollywood was basically ignoring them. Many of these beloved performers were able to find a second life and a whole new group of younger fans thanks to their work in telefilms.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 27, 2013 6:19 pm

I’m glad you all appreciate my ongoing attempt to revisit some of my favorite telefilms!

Jennifromrollamo – I think you’ll appreciate Barbara Eden’s surprising turn as Ann Collins. It’s very different from her role in I DREAM OF JEANIE but it’s fun to watch her branch out and play a very different (and much more serious) role.

Gene – I completely agree. The ’70s was a fascinating time for telefilms. I think a lot of their impact at the time was due to the fact that more & more Americans were able to purchase TVs and started watching these programs with family members,friends & neighbors. They became communal experiences that we all shared directly or indirectly.

Doug – Glad to see another Richard Matheson fan here! I don’t want to jump the gun but I suspect you’ll see his name mentioned again at the Morlocks in the coming weeks. I prefer the supernatural telefilms myself. I think the medium lends itself to these types of short thrillers that keep viewers on the edge of their seat even between commercial breaks.

vp19 – I like the way you think! That would be some fun programming and there are many classic Hollywood stars that appeared in these made-for-TV movies during the ’70s. In the past I’ve written about telefilms that featured Gene Tierney, Ray Milland, Joan Blondell, John Carradine and James Mason just to name a few.

Susan – It’s fascinating by the way film terms have changed over the years but you a bring up a great point. I think of made-for-TV movies in a similar way. I’m particularly fond of the ones made during the ’70s because they featured so many classic stars in their later years when Hollywood was basically ignoring them. Many of these beloved performers were able to find a second life and a whole new group of younger fans thanks to their work in telefilms.

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