The Silent Scream (1980)
Directed by: Denny Harris
Starring: Rebecca Balding, Steve Doubet, Brad Rearden, Cameron Mitchell, Avery Schreiber, Barbara Steele, Juli Andelman, Yvonne De Carlo, John Widelock
1/2 (out of 4)
Barbara's feeling a bit stabby today.
WARNING: Some spoilers ahead.
The Silent Scream is a neat low-budget slasher film that I would count among the first wave of slashers, which includes Halloween, Black Christmas, and the granddaddy Psycho, which the film gets a lot of its inspiration from. It’s a competent homage to that 1960 classic – ominous house on a hill, knife murders, twisted family secrets. Credit director Denny Harris, some nice cinematography, and naturalistic acting from the cast for raising Silent Scream beyond the category of mere ripoff (or “slasher”) and turning it into a moody thriller that really doesn’t have as great a connection to that same year’s Friday the 13th or its slice-n-dice spinoffs – there’s more going on in it than lining up victims for an unknown psycho killer. Not only is Silent Scream remarkably restrained in its violence (relatively speaking, gore is minimal), its murders serve to propel the story forward, not define it. And although it makes an emotional link between sex and death, it doesn’t take the moral position that later movies would (the survivors are the only ones who happen to get it on; the victims don’t even have a chance at romance).
Inefficient use of closet space.
Scotty Parker (Rebecca Balding, really cute) is desperate for a place to stay so she can attend a nearby university. She finally discovers a beautiful seaside mansion home owned by the reclusive Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo) who lives there with her visibly disturbed, socially awkward son Mason (Brad Rearden), who rents out one of the rooms to her. There, she meets other college student/renters Jack (Steve Doubet), Doris (Juli Andelman), and Pete (John Widelock). She soon cozies up to Jack, but Doris and Pete don’t have the same luck – Pete gets drunk on the beach and Doris storms off in disgust at his behavior. Pete is soon stabbed to death by an unseen assailant, and the police (veteran Cameron Mitchell and 70s Doritos guy Avery Schreiber) are called in. The detectives soon begin research into the Engles family history, discovering information about Mason’s sister Victoria (Barbara Steele), who tried to stab her ex-boyfriend many years before, and whose whereabouts are unknown. (Of course, it soon becomes obvious where she is and what she’s doing).
Erin Gray, take me away!
The identity of the killer isn’t much of a stretch in Silent Scream; the twist comes when the nature of the Engles family is finally revealed, which involves the relationship between brother and sister as well as Mason’s obsession with his father, a World War II veteran who died before he was born. By the end of the movie, to my surprise, it’s really not about college kids Jack and Scotty at all, but the disturbed Mason’s struggle with his identity, coming to terms with the twisted nature of his family line. Keeping in line with films like Psycho (and perhaps even Friday the 13th), the villains of Silent Scream aren’t really evil, but more tragic figures affected by traumatic events. Mason certainly fits that designation – hell, at the end he’s practically the hero, while Scotty and her boyfriend are more the unwilling spectators to an unfolding family drama.
The map to the stars homes brought me to Anthony Perkins' house.
Rather simple in story and modest in intentions, Silent Scream’s main interest is to scare the audience, which is harder to pull off these days because we’ve all seen countless Hitchcock films and slashers. However, there are some tense, well-shot sequences, including a camera traveling up a secret stairwell to a wall that is soon broke through by Victoria, or a scene where Scotty is tied up in a closet and the disturbed Victoria, knife in hand, suddenly sets her attention on her. There’s also an effective scene that juxtaposes Scotty and Jack making love with Doris’ murder in the basement – Doris can’t help but listen in on them, thanks to the piping running through the house, and at the moment of Scotty’s orgasm the camera jump-cuts into Doris being stabbed repeatedly by the killer. Blood hitting the white sheets during the attack and Doris’ hand grabbing at them is unmistakably a take on the shower scene in Psycho (the musical cues during the murder scenes also recall Bernard Herrmann’s score), and at this moment I can’t think of another sequence that so clearly makes emotional connections between murder and sexual release (maybe Bava’s Bay Of Blood). Cinematography by Michael D. Murphy (and partly by David Shore) is well done, with nice establishing shots and push-ins, and there is good use made of the house and its secret cobwebbed corridors. Acting by the younger cast is naturalistic and believable; in contrast, I found the detective scenes stagy and distracting. Music score by Roger Kellaway is pretty good, including an approximation of a 60s ditty that Virginia constantly plays on her record player; however the “romantic” jazz score played during Scotty and Jack’s courtship was more humorous to me than romantic.
You'll never criticize my sand castles again.
Silent Scream makes for a good viewing, despite its visible flaws, the biggest of which is that Rebecca Balding’s character is criminally underused in the conclusion. She has a great look and natural ability, and it’s too bad she didn’t make more movie appearances (she has done a lot of TV work, however). I think the film has been lost among the sea of slashers that followed in the 80s. It’s a movie that concentrates on mood, not gore, which works in its favor. Scorpion Releasing has released a new DVD edition of Silent Scream, which was out-of-print for a long time. It comes with audio commentary by writers Ken and Jim Wheat, and Rebecca Balding. There is also a 40 minute retrospective with the trio, a segment that takes a quick survey of other movies written by the Wheat brothers (like Elm Street 4), and an sole interview with Balding (who has an amusing story about going nude for The Boogens). This was Harris’ only film and he died in 2007, but the DVD includes an audio interview with him a week before he passed away. Rounding out the disc is a theatrical trailer and TV spot. By the way, this movie came before the anti-abortion documentary of the same name was released – don’t get confused. I was also surprised to learn that this movie was originally filmed in 1977 but was deemed awful enough that 85% of the finished product is composed of reshoots, in which De Carlo, Steele, Mitchell, and Schreiber were all added to the cast. Good job, Wheat brothers!
- Bill Gordon
The long lost prototype of Melrose Place