Friday, November 27, 2009

Silent Scream

Labels can be very dismissive because of how narrowly they are perceived. They can totally denigrate a work and group it with the worst offenders of that label. An example of this is the "slasher" label that has been lazily attached to Denny Harris's Silent Scream ('80), an early 80's gem finally released on DVD by Scorpion Releasing.

To me, a "slasher" film is a work that focuses primarily on the actions of a mysterious or mindless killer. The Good, Bad and Ugly that fall squarely into this category are Halloween, Friday the 13th, Final Exam, He Knows You're Alone, Curtains, Madman, The Mutilator, Girls' Night Out, The Burning, and My Bloody Valentine. One stupid list on the internet suggests that Mother's Day is a slasher. I cry foul. Same with Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer. Henry kills, sure, but the film is NOT a slasher film because its focus is not on people being slashed and cut up.

I first saw Silent Scream at the movies in 1980. I took a trip to the city with a lovely gal I'd just started dating and we saw it at one of Melbourne's newest cinemas, The Bryson (now a multi-story parking lot on Russell Street). Immediately, I liked the movie because it begins like a police procedural with a slomo flash-forward then rewinds to tell its tale.

Scotty (Rebecca Balding), a uni student, is looking for a room. After striking out on several possibilities, she manages to rent one in a large, beachside house. Although the house is owned by Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo, who once played the unforgettable 'Lily Munster'), Scotty is obliged to deal with Mason (Brad Reardon), Lily Munster's odd son. Scotty befriends a couple of other boarders, and ends up bedding down with Jack (Steve Doubet), so life in the old, white house is looking up.

Well, if she had bothered to, literally, look up, she would have seen the face looking down at her from behind an air grate in the ceiling. The face belongs to a member of the Engels family who isn't the full dollar. In fact, she has a history of violence and is thought to be incognito by the local constabulary. Played with great intensity by the super-sexy Barbara Steele (Jesus, there is something so hot about her!) Victoria is the Engels' family's dirty little secret.

Not content to establish Victoria as a nut, set her loose, then make THAT the story, the writers cross-cut between what Scotty's up to and what Mason's struggling with -- namely, the filthy family secret that is destroying his life. Victoria starts killing again because, for the first time in years, the Engels' sorry financial state has forced them to rent out rooms to boarders. This gives Victoria access, and access is everything for a murderess. So good news for the the crazy Steele is bad news for boarders and Mason, who is jealous of his mother's dedication to Victoria's "problem" and fixated on his dead father's military history.

Silent Scream has been pretty much unavailable since its original release, so almost thirty years passed between my seeing it last week and seeing it one time only in 1980. Immediately, the great Roger Kellaway score struck me as quite brilliant and much imitated. Although parts of it clone sections from Herrmann's Psycho score, the quieter, more subtle cues with a creepy piano really gave me the willies (in the best way, of course). Interestingly, Kellaway also scored Evilspeak and an obscure favorite of mine, The Mafu Cage ('78).

By today's ADD-ridden standards, the film is slow, but it is directed with great skill, attention to small architectural details, and is big on atmosphere. You never get the impression that director Denny Harris is trying to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter's Halloween because the killings are minimal and the focus, as stated, is on Scotty's discoveries and the family's efforts to protect a nutter in their midst.

Brad Reardon, who is extremely sympathetic as Mason Engels, did not go on to do much after Silent Scream and that's a terrible shame. He invites us to sympathize with the tragic aspects of his family situation, and he takes us with him when he finally loses his head in a most interesting way.

Silent Scream is not a slasher film; it's a very good film (not perfect) performed, directed, and written with care. And Scorpion Releasing's DVD, which boats a terrific print of the film, commentary, and interviews, is a must-get.

Oh, yeah. I've decided that I could live with a dirty little secret like Barbara Steele in my attic.


  1. I recently went looking in my VHS collection for my tape of this and came up empty. Somewhere along the way I must've lost it, sold it off, or something. So I'm just happy that it's finally coming out on DVD! I haven't seen it in probably ten years but I remember really enjoying it as being something very different than I had expected. Plus, Rebecca Balding from The Boogens was in it and back in the day I thought she was terrific.

  2. I think that theres a song of slayer named silent scream