CAPSULE: THE SHOUT (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Jerzy Skolimowski

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A stranger wanders into the lives of a British composer and his wife, demonstrating powerful magic he learned from Aborigines in Australia as he torments the man and takes his wife hostage.

The Shout (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like many British horror tales of the 1970s, The Shout flirts with weirdness at every other step, but in the end we have to reluctantly conclude that it only gets as weird as necessary to tell its unconventional tale. Tim Curry, the man who gave the world Dr. Frankenfurter and its most memorable Pennywise, sits here in a sweater, as passive and conservative as a judge—making that two weirder movies you’ve seen Tim Curry in right there.

COMMENTS: Robert Graves (Tim Curry) visits the grounds of a mental hospital to referee a cricket match, when the Chief Medical Officer introduces him to Charles Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley tells Graves the story of (another?) man named Crossley, who possesses a strange, magical power. Crossley invades the lives of a local composer and sound engineer and his wife, Anthony and Rachael Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York). Anthony Fielding is now a patient at said hospital, and Crossley tells his tragic tale.

It turns out Crossley is a world-weary traveler who spent eighteen years in the Australian Outback, where he communed with Aborigine natives and learned their most powerful magic. Crossley, helping himself to the Fielding household, regales them with tales of his adventures punctuated by such shocking claims as having sired, then murdered, his children. But he has many more surprises, as he demonstrates with an Aborigine spell called “the shout,” which has the power to knock all who hear it stone dead. Crossley, an intimidating alpha male pulling primate rank on the too-polite couple, soon employs his dark magic to shatter their marriage. The couple are clearly no match for Crossley, who toys with them like a cat pawing at mice, for about the same reasons.

The story from there on out gets a little muddled, since it’s largely told with symbolism, atmosphere, and cut-in scenes which may be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Anthony is more Foley sound engineer than musician, and we’re treated to several scenes where he manipulates objects to produce bizarre sounds for recording in his studio. These scenes and their sounds punctuate the story. Another scene shows the couple asleep in their bed, while their sorcerer visitor appears in the mirror over their bed. Anthony wakes up and looks around, but doesn’t see Crossley. Was he there and disappeared, does he have the power to blank Anthony’s mind, or was Crossley only suggested in the mirror or perhaps even Anthony’s dream? The cumulative effect of all this muddling about is a film which is not like a conventional narrative, but instead like the memories as a real human brain, faulty and prone to distraction, would remember them. The pacing may be low-gear at times, but thanks to the excellent direction and hypnotizing performances, we’re too entranced by every detail to notice the time.

Lovingly shot in the British countryside of Devon, the film feels like a dreamy faerie tale in the old-fashioned Grimm style, with lots of Freudian subtext and horrors coming out of the sexual closet rather than from under the bed. Mr. Fielding is just about the victim of cuckoldry, overpowered and exiled from his own home by a master of dark forces. Early on, Mrs. Fielding finds a large bone in the sand and quickly buries it before her husband can see it, and there’s your symbolic foreshadowing. At the same time, we have the classic “unreliable narrator” puzzle. The story is told to us from inside an insane asylum: we are left to wonder how much is true, how much is a delusion, and how much is simply a lie. Perhaps this is nothing but a fanciful exaggeration of a cheating-wife story? The shifting structure of the film, given to us in layers and flashbacks, doesn’t help us settle our minds about it, but does mirror the presumed mental state of the characters. A widely-praised film of its time, which won Jury’s Grand Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, The Shout deserves a second look by any British horror fan looking for a peer to The Wicker Man or Don’t Look Now.

The Shout was formerly available on video-on-demand but those contracts seem to have expired. It’s currently only available on British import DVD or Blu-ray so Americans will need an all-region player.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Robert Graves’s weird story becomes a weird movie…”–Adrian Turner, Radio Times

(This movie was nominated for review by reader jason slicker, who called it a “very creepy atmospheric cool piece of film.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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