There’s an old song by Crosby, Stills & Nash which sagely urges that “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” With so many horror films in recent years failing to deliver the sort of thrills that made us genre fans in the first place (Consider the bulk of this year’s theatrical output, if you need proof!), the Schlockfinder General has long labored to heed the advice of those old hippies and try to love even the least lovable of contemporary scare screeners. Of course, some movies are just so awful that they’re destined to be shunned and ignored until they fade from existence. Another old song declares that “you’re nobody until somebody loves you,” and some celluloid stinkers wholly deserve to remain nobodies forever. But often, even the most seemingly indefensible clunker has merits which can be appreciated – and even savored – by an open-minded, fun-loving fright fan. For this reason, I give you THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE… today’s defendant in this court of public opinion? THE SILENT SCREAM!
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE #4: THE SILENT SCREAM (1980)
I know it’s going to happen. That’s why, as a big fan of THE SILENT SCREAM, I’m taking a cue from the arena of foreign policy and launching what could best be described as a pre-emptive strike.
Cute college student Scotty Parker (Rebecca Balding) arrives on campus too late to secure housing, so she has to look for someplace else to stay for the fall quarter. She can’t believe her luck when she finds a cozy little room available in a beachfront boarding house owned by the Engels family. Sure, Mrs. Engels is a spooky old bat who spends most of her time in her room, and looks a lot like Lily Munster (only in part because she’s played by Yvonne DeCarlo). Sure, her son Mason (Brad Rearden) is a creepy little geek who watches ultraviolent TV shows when he’s not busy watching the nubile tennants. Sure, the house is old and creaky, and someone upstairs insists on playing the same haunting 1950s doo-wop ballad over and over again. Sure, no one seems to know what happened to Mason’s sister, Victoria, whose room Scotty now occupies. But the place has a great ocean view, a handful of fun-loving tennants, and very reasonable rent. Our heroine thinks she’s got it made. Then one of the boarders is found hacked to death on the beach…
It’s true that THE SILENT SCREAM takes a while to get to the wet stuff, and gets just a bit maudlin when the horrible secrets of the Engels family are revealed. It’s also true that this film has excellent production values, great cinematography, a couple of very memorable set pieces, a lot of atmosphere, and, above all, a very appealing and convincing cast. Balding in particular (who is hot in a “young Margot Kidder” – or, for you younger readers, “Robin Tunney on THE MENTALIST” – way) makes an amiable, sympathetic horror heroine, worthy of being remembered alongside more famous scream queens of the period. It’s a pity that her only other fear film role came in another obscure 80s flick, THE BOOGENS (a film I’ll definitely be discussing in a future DEVIL’S ADVOCATE installment!), because she brings just the right measures of innocence, sexuality, and inner strength to her performance here. Rearden (who would later go on to accost a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger in THE TERMINATOR) is certainly credible as the disturbed Mason, DeCarlo could play this sort of role in her sleep, and veteran thespians Cameron Mitchell and Avery Schreiber do their best to make the superfluous cop scenes interesting. The victims are definitely cliches of the genre, but they are well-essayed by Steve Doubet, Juli Andelman, and John Widelock, respectively.
But the real star of THE SILENT SCREAM is legendary horror siren Barbara Steele. Ordinarily when I devote a full paragraph of THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE to an actress, it’s because I’m enamored with her anatomy. If I ever mount a spirited defense of I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (and if I do, Mr. D, it’s probably time to cancel this feature!), it will be for two reasons and two reasons alone – Jennifer Love Hewitt. In this case, however, it’s not Miss Steele’s bewitching beauty that I must gush over, but rather her manic ferocity. Without giving too much away, let me just say that the First Lady of Fear is so intense and terrifying here that when she’s on-screen, the film almost lives up to its promise to out-shock the first installment of the Crystal Lake chronicles. Steele has always lent an air of class and quality to every project she does, and in this already very polished production, she gives a bonafide star turn. I’d stack her few, unforgettable scenes in THE SILENT SCREAM up against those of Donald Pleasance in HALLOWEEN or Betsy Palmer in FRIDAY THE 13TH (whose “Jason was my son” monologue is my favorite scene in cinema history, bar none) for crazed, bone-chilling intensity. I can’t watch her blood-curdling performance here without wondering just how this film got lost in the shuffle of so many inferior slasher flicks of its day. That GRADUATION DAY and FINAL EXAM were available on DVD before this superior, Steele-showcasing shocker is simply a crime.
I don’t want to spoil the movie’s best moments for those of you (which, I suspect, is most of you) who haven’t had the chance to see it yet, so I’ll have to keep this edition of THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE brief. Suffice it to say that if you can put aside your ADD and your need for instant gratification, you’ll find plenty to love about THE SILENT SCREAM. It’s a well-made, atmospheric chiller, featuring eminently likable characters played by even more likable actors. It also has a few genuine shocks, presented with a degree of technical and artistic skill generally absent from films of this type made in the immediate wake of the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. Most importantly, it features a bravura performance by arguably the greatest horror actress of all time. I’m looking forward to replacing my “unlicensed” copy with the upcoming DVD release, and I highly recommend that fans of the Golden Age of slasher flicks at least add it to their Netflix queue or pick it up from their local Redbox. It might just be the perfect cure for your post-Halloween, horror deprivation blues.
NEXT ON THE DOCKET: The Schlockfinder General takes some Dramamine and opens up the BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2.