CAPSULE: THE SILENT SCREAM [AKA SILENT SCREAM] (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Denny Harris

FEATURING, Rebecca Balding, , Yvonne De Carlo, Brad Reardon, Avery Schreiber

PLOT: College students rent rooms in a mysterious mansion by the beach only to find that the landlords are a tad invasive.

Still from Silent Sc4ream (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Silent Scream is not a particularly weird movie.  Instead, it is a  dated relic of the “Unusual ’80’s” horror movie phenomenon.  The 1980’s produced a glut of highly conventional, large-draw slasher flicks such as Friday The 13th and the Halloween sequels.  The decade also produced a couple of dozen unusual and distinctive efforts such as Fade To Black, My Bloody Valentine, Grandma’s House, and Motel Hell.  Odd films like these dwell on a darker, more rarefied level, one that hasn’t been visited much in the intervening years.  Newly released on DVD after 29 years, The Silent Scream is a noteworthy entry in this later category of period horror.  Until last year it had been lost in the mysterious, silvery mists of screen-scream antiquity.

COMMENTS:  Barbara Steele stars as the villain in this dated ’80’s American-made shocker.  Good character development, strong performances, and relatively little gore distinguish this effort from the usual slasher fare.

Here’s the setup: Cute and saucy Scotty Parker (Balding) transferred to her university a couple of weeks late and missed out on the fun of bunking with a bunch of freaks she doesn’t know in the dorms.  Challenged to find accommodations, she gravitates toward the old Engels house, a foreboding, sea-side edifice.

The creepy Engels place is run—on behalf of his very reclusive MOTHER! (De Carlo)—by a wrapped-awfully-tight, real-life Milhouse Van Houten character named Brad (Reardon).  Brad harbors a wide variety of deeply seated personal issues.  (Hey, who’s that looking through my air vent?)  Three more hormonally bloated students sign rental agreements and the school year is off to a beer and bodily fluid saturated start.  For most of them, that is.  The fratboy/ playboy roomie barely gets out of the starting gate before he is found filleted rather than fellated on the beach.  A psycho is roaming the dunes.  Worse yet, there is something sinister going on in the Engels House, something really F ‘ D-UP in the attic.  SOMETHING TERRIBLE!!!!!

Creepy 50’s music is mysteriously wafting down through the air vents, and who’s burning that light bulb up there and thumping around at night?  The cops show up and an erstwhile detective (Mitchell) starts keeping an eye out the desolate beach.  But with more secret passages, hollow walls, trap doors and concealed rooms than H.H. Holmes’ Chicago Murder Castle the real danger, don’t cha know, may be creeping through the crumbling walls of the old mansion itself.

The Silent Scream is variously reminiscent of The Unnameable (1988), The Shuttered Room [AKA Blood Island] (1967), Black Christmas, (1974), American Gothic (1987), Psycho (1960), and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, (1987).  With plot elements of all of these movies, The Silent Scream could be an unremarkable horror yarn, but instead it manages to add a fresh twist to the genre, and establishes itself as one of the more memorable “old scary house at the top of the lonely hill” movies.

While not the bloodiest ’80’s slasher piece, The Silent Scream offers genuine tension with a distinctive and offbeat feel.  There’s plenty of atmosphere for a small budget (but well-produced) ’80’s horror flick and a few stylishly shot, memorable scenes that will stick with you.  (And yes it is a “flick” in very since of the word.  No, not a film, a flick.  Write that down.)

Not so much a horror story as a thriller about a seriously dysfunctional family, The Silent Scream’s plot falls a bit short in that it misses out on some chances to include more twists and turns, but it’s still a good ride for nostalgic ’80’s horror fans.

PRODUCTION NOTES:

Barbara Steele is especially noted for her giallo and Euro-thriller characters.  Despite Yvonne De Carlo’s tremendous body of dramatic work, viewers may remember her best for her role as Lily Munster in The Munsters television series.  Cameron Mitchell appeared in numerous horror and thriller films in the 1980s, and Rebecca Balding may be familiar to audiences from her part as “Trish” in The Boogens (1981) as well as for a gigantic volume of television work.  Jim and Ken Wheat are the writer/producers behind films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Pitch Black, The Fly II, and The Birds II.

The Silent Scream was first filmed in 1977 by Denny Harris.  The original project was scrapped, then rewritten and reproduced by Jim and Ken Wheat who constructed new sets around fifteen minutes of salvageable footage filmed at the original location house.  A more appropriate house in Highland Park was used for the exterior shots in the re-shoot.

As a side note, The Silent Scream is one of the first horror movies to use CGI editing techniques.  According to old timers (those antiquated souls who were coming of age in the 1980s) “everyone wondered how they did that.”  Apparently general audiences weren’t that computer savvy in the nearly pre-silicon, medieval 1980s.

Utilized in establishing shots under the opening credits, the CGI created the illusion that the action in each frame was halted abruptly for a moment and frozen in time.  This same result was achieved with freezes during the opening credits in the 1979 Chuck Pierce film, The Evictors.  In that instance good old fashioned film lab printing techniques were applied to frames in the opening sequence to give a sense of antiquity to the past events they portrayed, and to emphasize the significance of those shots to the plot’s subsequent events.  Today, CGI editing is overused and abused so much that we take it for granted.

Thanks to the newly established company, Scorpion Releasing, The Silent Scream has been re-released on DVD in high definition after 30 years of obscurity (as “Silent Scream, not “THE Silent Scream“).  The soundtrack has been remixed in true 5.1 and 2.0 stereo, with bonus featurettes, audio commentary and interviews.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When the mystery actually begins unraveling in the film’s final third, The Silent Scream becomes far creepier and more compelling than it has a right to, helped greatly by DeCarlo, Rearden, and the “mystery member” of the Engels family. A few skittish turns into over-the-top land help solidify this one’s status as a cult oddity.”–Tom Becker, DVD Verdict (DVD)

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