The Stranger Within (1974)

Richard Matheson was one of the greatest TV writers ever.

If you tried to list everything he wrote for the Idiot Box, you would be at it for some time, but it includes things like The Night Stalker, Duel and episodes of such great series as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Circle of Fear, Amazing Stories and Alfred Hitchcock.

And that ignores his many movie scripts, short stories and novels.

But that doesn’t mean everything he wrote was brilliant.

The Stranger Within starts out slowly. Very slowly. There’s very little drama in sight for quite a while and, in fact, it looks like it’s about to turn into one of those Issue of the Week TV movies that were so common at the time. If you lived through that era you probably remember the kind of thing I mean, where they spun some hot button issue into a movie, while sedulously avoiding taking any clear positions about it all.

Hey, it’s just a story, right?

In this case, it seems to be abortion. The Supreme Court decision was only two years earlier, and it’s interesting to note just how normal a thing it’s supposed to be. Barbara Eden plays a housewife who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, despite the fact that her husband had a vasectomy (something else which probably wouldn’t have been discussed on TV not many years earlier). She had serious (if unspecified) problems with her last pregnancy and nearly died, so her husband wants her to have an abortion.

She, however, seems reluctant (and I have to wonder if we’re supposed to read any significance into the fact that he took it upon himself to have a vasectomy — and she didn’t have her tubes tied). Before you know it, she starts acting very strangely — eating odd things and speed-reading a weird assortment of books.

And, of course, she wants to keep the child.

Before you can say “Damien Thorne” we know that we’re watching a film meant to cash in on current films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen.

However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s a SF twist to this one. Heck, most of you have probably guessed what it is. Most of the reviews and summaries come right out and tell you, even though it only gets revealed in the last quarter hour or so of the film. It’s almost embarrassing to be the only one out there not spoiling this thing.

Oh, well.

It does finally come to life in the last few scenes, when it gives us a freaky final image that tells us that this has not been an isolated incident.

But it isn’t enough, not by then.

This isn’t a bad film. I suppose my opinion of it might even be higher if Matheson hadn’t written it. But it does seem as if it might have made a better half-hour Twilight Zone episode or a very short short story. There’s just too much time to fill and not enough story to go around.

Oh, well, at least Richard managed to write three other TV movies the same year (two of them for Dark Shadows’ Dan Curtis). And his serious drama, The Morning After, was even nominated for an Emmy.

I guess he was entitled to one failure.

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