The Silent Scream (1980)

APRIL 9, 2010


A “slasher heyday” title that had somehow passed me by, The Silent Scream isn’t one of the best of the bunch, nor is it one of the worst. But it’s certainly the most unique. I was reminded at times of (the later) The Unseen, but only in a general way (isolated house run by a weird, non-cannibal family), but otherwise it was nothing like a typical slasher film of the era, even though it had many of its traditional elements.

For starters, it has Barbara Steele, but it’s not an Italian production, nor is it about a fake ghost or something. And Cameron Mitchell also pops up, but not as a villain (or some sort of sleazy supporting character). He’s actually the (not very good) cop investigating the killings (well, killing, as the film only has two kills, one early on and the other near the end), and apparently filmed all of his scenes in two days. And Lily Munster herself (Yvonne De Carlo) plays the mother of Steele and the other creepy character, who looks like a live action Millhouse. All of the hero teens are played by no-names, and I like that. Most slasher movies it’s the other way around - the cast is peppered with recognizable faces, and the killer is played by some stuntman. Here it’s the opposite, which is much more fun. Not only does it make it harder to peg likely dead folks, but it allows the more seasoned actors to have a little fun, playing against their types (Steele, for example, is a mute who seems mentally challenged, a far cry from her usual villainesses).

As you will learn over and over on the disc’s extras, the film was shot in 1977 and mostly scrapped and reshot a year or two later. Only about 15 minutes of the original version survive. Whether it was for the better or not, we don’t know (would have been an amazing DVD extra!), but the resulting film feels compromised. Even before I knew anything about the reshoots, I suspected that Mitchell’s scenes were filmed separately, since he rarely interacts with the cast and disappears for large chunks of the film (they also show one of his scenes twice to get a bit more out of his footage). And the film as a whole lacks a real hook - it came along before Friday the 13th and such, so it makes sense that it’s not very gory, but it’s not very suspenseful either, making it a rather weak successor to Halloween. When A Stranger Calls (pretty much its only pre Friday competition) at least had that great opening sequence, but this one is just sort of THERE. The kids move into the house, they realize it’s weird, and start dying. That’s it. The end has some back story “twists” that change around the family dynamic a bit, but it’s hardly jaw dropping, and the obvious Psycho lifts don’t help matters any (you can pretty much hear the writer saying “What if Mrs. Bates wasn’t really dead, and Norman had a sister too? I give you The Silent Scream!”).

But it’s still a fun enough flick. There may only be two kills, but they’re good ones, and a few of the jump scares still work. There’s a bit early on where you see someone’s shadow behind some loose wall boards, and director Denny Harris lets the shot linger after the shadow disappears, and then BAM! A hand smashes through. It’s a great little stinger. And near the climax, our heroine is being held down on one side of a door while her boyfriend investigates on the other side - a great, nearly wordless setpiece. Like Halloween (though on a much smaller scale), its not so much about the story, but how well its told, and given the troubled production, this is even more of an accomplishment.

You’ll hear all about the reshoots on the hour or so of (combined) interviews that are available in the extras. Writers Jim and Ken Wheat, along with actress Rebecca Balding, wax nostalgic as they sit on a couch and drink wine (in moderation, sadly). I wish Ms. Balding had been filmed separately, as she often butts in with dumb puns or pointless anecdotes (the Wheats discuss how they had to be careful matching angles when shooting new footage to make sure it matched with the old, she interrupts to inform us that she had trouble finding the same shade of nail polish). There’s a separate piece just about the previous version, which is odd since they spend so much time talking about it in the other interview anyway. Again, I would have liked to have seen the original cut of the film, or at least some of the scenes, but alas this will have to do. If anything it sounds like the original was more sleazy (the phrase “There were a lot of rapes” comes up a lot), though fairly similar in the basic sense. They do separate the Wheats from Balding in order to discuss their non Silent Scream careers, which for the Wheats is definitely worth a look as they wrote Pitch Black, Nightmare 4 (explaining the Scott Pierce pseudonym in the process), and (yes!) one of the Ewok movies. Balding apparently appeared in only other two things worth talking about, so hers is pretty short. Director Denny Harris provides an audio only interview conducted over the phone (he was in poor health when the DVD was being put together and died a few weeks after the interview - RIP Mr. Harris), though it’s (understandably) a bit choppy and hard to follow as it was pieced together from several phone calls. And they all contribute a commentary track (minus Harris obviously) where a lot of the information is repeated, though you will discover precisely which scenes are from the original and other little specific trivia nuggets that make it worth a listen if you haven’t had enough of these folks from the other extras.

I love finding an obscure movie like this from a period that I love so much. I haven’t been overhyped on it like I was for The Burning, nor did I discover it to be justifiably obscure like Frightmare. It’s pretty middle of the road, sure, but I’d rather see an average movie completely on its own terms than trying to concentrate on one that was really good OR really bad with nearly 30 years of other folks’ opinions distracting me the whole time.

What say you?

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  1. Wow--I don't know how I missed that one--putting it in the queue right away. Barbara Steele? Wow! What a face--that woman was made for macabre horror flicks. It sounds interested and I did enjoy "The Unseen" but sometimes I think nostalgia makes me like something more than what it really was--like "Gargoyles" one of my fall time fav's, but that's mostly because I just remember the first time I saw it. I had a mad crush on the gargoyle leader. I think that really hooked me into watching horror more seriously after that.

  2. I saw this in the theater when i was 13, and it was my first R Rated movie. I know it scared me because i had to drag my sleeping bag down to my brothers room every night for a month!!! I am sure it would not hold up to my memories, but I was glad to read this review and remember when movies actually scared the crap out of me!!!!

  3. I saw this when I was about eleven years old......I grew up watching scary movies. I never forgot the name of this one and always wondered why no one ever talks about it. I always looked for it. It scared the crap outta me. Its in my top ten for sure. Just wish I could see it again.


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