Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 27, 2013
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.
This 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.
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.
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