Ann Collins (Barbara Eden) is shocked to discover she is pregnant, even though her husband David (George Grizzard) had a vasectomy three years ago. Since suffering a miscarriage, Ann was warned by doctors she could not give birth without endangering her own health yet the foetus is healthy and growing at an alarming rate. Though supportive, David is troubled by the idea his wife has been unfaithful. In desperation, Ann agrees to be put under hypnosis but remains unable to answer any questions about her mysterious pregnancy. She reluctantly agrees to an abortion, but her body is wracked with severe pains that prevent her from going through with it. As months go by, Ann’s behaviour grows increasingly strange. She pours salt on her food, drinks endless pots of coffee and becomes hypersensitive to sound. She devours books on science and sociology, history and politics. Then she returns from the woods bearing strange scratches and pneumonia symptoms that heal themselves within minutes, baffling doctors. Eventually, David’s paranormally-inclined friend Bob (David Doyle) gives hypnosis another try and discovers Ann is carrying a child that is not of this world…
Infamous among Seventies TV horror movie buffs as “the one where I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden births an alien baby”, The Stranger Within actually boasts an excellent pedigree being written by Richard Matheson. Matheson is one of the greatest fantasy novelists of all time. Aside from the many fine screenplays he wrote for Roger Corman, his books were adapted into such memorable movies as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the underrated A Stir of Echoes (1999) and What Dreams May Come (1998), and the three misfires: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007) based on his seminal vampire novel.
What could have been a schlocky science fiction riff on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is instead scripted with subtlety and sensitivity and performed with the utmost sincerity by a marvellous cast. Familiar faces like George Grizzard, David Doyle (that’s right, Bosley from Charlie’s Angels!) and Nehemiah Persoff ground the outlandish premise firmly in believable human drama. Lovely Barbara Eden may sport a fantastically coiffed hairdo but she delivers a compellingly understated and sympathetic performance, gradually hardening her demeanour the more “alien” Ann becomes. Often underrated, Eden undoubtedly relished the chance to show off her range beyond the sexily iconic Jeannie. She was equally impressive in the early TV thriller, A Howling in the Woods (1971) alongside Jeannie co-star Larry Hagman.
Like Rosemary’s Baby, the plot springs from one of the most elemental horror movie ideas: the monster wants your body. Evil wants to be made physical. But is Ann’s baby a menace in the manner of Village of the Damned (1960) or a benign, lost visitor from the stars? Matheson perhaps keeps things too ambiguous for the story’s own good, but makes intriguing allusions to the birth of Christ in a manner more subtle than Larry Cohen managed with God Told Me To (1976). Television veteran Lee Paterson directs with a stylishly ominous touch and resists the urge to throw any clunky UFOs into the climax, which is ambiguous and eerie. Quite what this child means for mankind we never know, but it is hard to share Bob’s belief in its benevolence given its sinister use of Ann. Excellent score by Charles Fox.