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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Silent Scream (1980)
Silent Scream (1980)
Scorpion Releasing // R // November 24, 2009
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Cameron McGaughy | posted November 24, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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"I'm not a violent person by nature,
but if there's a room here I'm ready to fight for it!"

The Movie
What's this? A slasher from the genre's heyday that I haven't even heard of?! And it stars the plucky Rebecca Balding of The Boogens?!! Horror icon Barbara Steele is in it, too?!!! And it's (partially) written by the men responsible for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Pitch Black, The Fly II and The Birds II: Land's End?!!!! (...of which Jim Wheat says: "We have done a lot of films with Roman numerals after the end of them, and somewhere in the heavens Alfred Hitchcock has a gun with our names written on it...") Silent Scream, where have you been all my life?!!!!!

Okay, calm down, Cammie. No more exclamation points, I promise. Thanks to brand new company Scorpion Releasing, this baby gets to see the light of day after being virtually forgotten for nearly 30 years. It probably didn't help that the film took a long time to get off the ground, with major re-shoots and story restructuring forcing the filmmakers to piece things together like Frankenstein's monster. While the film was initially shot in 1977, new blood was brought on board to invigorate director Denny Harris' vision, with the film finally getting a release in 1980. (For reasons I can't explain, the "The" has now been dropped from the title.)

That timeline is important, because it shows the film was free of a lot of the slasher influence that soon swept the industry in the early '80s. Harris started this project before Halloween was released, but it still owes a little to that film's success in 1978--which certainly paved the way. That isn't to say Scream doesn't have plenty of familiar elements in it--you'll have thoughts of Psycho dancing through your head on more than one occasion (but that isn't something to be ashamed of).

It's the beginning of the semester and California cutie Scotty (Balding) finds herself in a bind--because she transferred schools at the last minute, on-campus housing is no longer available. She's given a list of potential off-campus renters with the following caveat: They're not approved by the housing committee, so no one can vouch for their quality [insert dramatic music cue here]. So Scotty heads off in her convertible and finds a big beachside house (hey...who's that peering out from the attic window?!).

The place is run by the Engels family, who just recently opened their home to college students. Oddball son Norman...excuse me, Mason (Brad Rearden)...speaks for his rarely seen mom (Yvonne De Carlo), who spends most of her time in her room (please be quiet if you walk by her door--she doesn't like to be disturbed). Mason is a bit peculiar, too, spending most of his time watching (and probably doing other things to) violent television programs (including one that necessitates roles for "TV Rapist" and "TV Rape Victim", the latter played by Annabella Price in her debut; the character was clearly invaluable for the young actress, who learned from the experience and went on to play "Abuse Survivor" in the made-for-TV gem Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story).

But I digress. Back to Scotty, who is assigned the cheaper room upstairs. "I'm glad you like it," notes Mason. "It was my sister's room..." [insert dramatic music cue here] Apparently sis Victoria has moved back East; and with daddy dead, that leaves Mason and mommy all alone in the house. Scotty wants to store her bags in the attic, but Mason thinks the basement is a much better idea. Joining the co-ed in the boarding house are three more students: smiling gal pal Doris (Juli Andelman), preppy Peter (John Widelock in his only role) and the groovy, motorcycle riding Jack (Steve Doubet), who soon works his magic on Scotty.

It's a happy-go-lucky gang straight out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and unfortunately for them, they're about to face something a little more horrific than The Ghost Clown. We know things end terribly, thanks to the opening shot where the cops arrive on a gruesome scene at the house. But whose bodies do they find in the attic? You're gonna have to wait to find out, and that's part of Silent's fun.

What's also fun is watching comic actor Avery Schreiber--he of the crazy mustache and about a billion TV and movie appearances, including Match Game and The Muppet Show--in a (sort of) serious role. He plays Sgt. Ruggin, who works alongside partner Lt. McGiver--given tough guy swagger by Cameron Mitchell (another acting vet who, like Steele, is no stranger to the works of Mario Bava). The two cops are called to the beach shortly after Scotty arrives when one of her new housemates meets an untimely demise. That puts everyone on high alert, and as the cops start to investigate the Engels family, the remaining youngins try to move on.

I know you'll be shocked, but hormones prove to be a good distraction, lending the film one of its funnier moments as Jack (or should I say Jack's Johnson) tries to sway Scotty back to the beach just hours after their new friend is slaughtered:

Scotty: "Didn't what happened last night kind of dampen your enthusiasm for beaches a little bit? It did me."
Jack: "Hey Scotty, don't get me wrong...I think what happened last night is about the worst thing I've ever seen or heard of, but I'm not gonna let it change the way I live. The whole reason I took that place where we're livin' is cause it's got a nice beach down below!"
Scotty: "Uh, yeah...but you wanna go swimming at that beach?"
Jack: "It happens to be a terrific beach! What do you say? C'mon, let's do something!"
Scotty: "Well...okay!"

There's something quaint and old-fashioned about Silent Scream, I can't help but love it. By most standards, it's slow and tame--there's a low body count (so low that some of you might not even qualify this as a "slasher" film) and very little in the gore department (blood splatter is pretty much all you get), so don't go in expecting to be shocked or disgusted. Save for some mild aggression and a quick flash of boob, it comes across like an extreme made-for-TV movie. But I image that for its time, it was probably creepy--and it still can be if you're in the right frame of mind. The opening grabs your attention, the middle has a few solid moments and the finale is satisfying even if it's entirely predictable. And that's the film's biggest fault--despite the pretense at mystery, there's no doubt about what's going on. I was a little surprised at how obvious the script and some of the shots were--they unnecessarily strip the film of suspense from a story perspective. Why not tease us a little longer?

Some of the acting and overall production values also veer toward the amateurish--but acceptably so. The ending sequence is a tad ambitious for the low-budget effort: There's a lot going on (including a search, some stand-offs, revelations and a flashback), and it doesn't all make sense from a common sense perspective. The film can't pull it off quite as effectively as possible--it's a little too careful and clumsy, which lessons some of the impact. But it's so much fun, you won't care. And Harris has a few great shots up his sleeve throughout the picture (the introduction of one character around the 55-minute mark had me transfixed to the screen). Sure, the script is silly in spots--but you get the sense it knows it's being silly (a few shots involving a record player were hysterical).

The cast is either good or bad--the worst actors get killed first, and in Rearden's defense, Mason is supposed to be a little peculiar. Balding is perfect in the lead role, a great mix of brains and beauty with a dash of sass. I wish she stuck with acting longer; I bet she had a few more horror gems in her future--she's the perfect slasher heroine. You get behind her instantly, and her charm goes a long way in selling the film (the line "What do I do with the beer?" is an instant classic).

If I could change one thing, it would be the two murder scenes in the film's mid-section--they are far too abrupt and have nowhere near the tension and suspense they should. Silent Scream would be better with some restraint and patience (with its revelations, not its pace); it's a little too frantic in a few key spots. The editing is also a tad choppy at times (the action sometimes lingers too long or cuts away too quick) and the music is often too heavy handed and jarring, ruining the mood (although the sultry theme that accompanies Scotty and Jack's scenes together are amusing). That partially spoils potentially scarier moments in serious need of some subtlety (the soundtrack thankfully goes silent during one key sequence).

But given all of the crazy behind the camera (the four young actors are the only ones to appear in both versions of the film, and this final version is mostly made up of newer footage), it's amazing that Silent Scream flows as well as it does--and it holds up surprisingly well considering its age and sensibility. The film isn't anywhere near being a genre masterpiece (how many films are?), but it also isn't anywhere near the disposable sleaze that soon flooded the market. It lies somewhere in between, an old-fashioned, slow-moving yet reliable vehicle that's fun--yet takes itself just seriously enough to make the horror fans proud.

If I saw this when I was a kid, I guarantee it would have stuck with me. Thanks to Scorpion Releasing, I got to experience that old-fashioned '80s slasher thrill all over again. Silent Scream ends with a cool '50s inspired ditty playing over the closing credits, an appropriate original song that perfectly captured the film's odd mix of elements: "I love you baby, oh baby I do!" Truer words were never spoken.

The DVD

Video:
You can't expect too much from a low-budget effort shot in the late '70s, and there's plenty of grain, specs and contrast issues in some of the shots here, along with a dull color scheme. But for the most part, I was surprised at how nice this transfer (mastered in high definition from the original "InterPositive") looks--more detail than I would have thought, some nice use of color and an overall crisp look that was more on than off.

Audio:
You get to pick from a new 5.1 track and a 2.0 stereo option, and there isn't too much different between the two. Rear channels aren't used too much, but most of the dialogue and effects here are crisp and clear (in some cases too crisp, with minor sounds blown up a little too much). Once again, a better effort than I was expecting.

Extras:
Wow...there are actually extras for this oft-forgotten, low-budget slasher? And they're good?! Thanks to the presence of co-writers/producers Jim and Ken Wheat and actress Rebecca Balding, there's plenty of back story on the film. The three get nice and cozy on the couch (gotta love how they drink wine!) for conversations about the film and their careers that are broken into four segments (all in lower quality full-frame video).

Scream of Success: 30 Years Later (40:39) provides the meat and potatoes, with the writers taking about how they got involved and the challenges of re-writing, re-shooting, re-casting, re-location finding (and set building!) and re-editing the project together. They also share their excitement at landing Barbara Steele, and have kind words for the cast and crew--stressing that director Denny Harris wanted to make the film better than its original form. Like all of the interviews here, it's not a scintillating watch visually, and the conversational tone may bore some un-invested viewers (Balding also doesn't say too much in this segment, but her story--and demonstration--of Steve Doubet's phlegm exercises is a hoot). Still, it provides a nice history for the film and has a lot of fun stories that touch on many aspects (including the campaign that American Cinema Releasing used). "For a film that's 30 years old, it's remarkably not very dated," notes Jim. "The characters seem pretty regular people even by today's standards...I think it plays pretty well."

Silent Scream: The Original Script (10:09) has the brothers talking about the differences in the two films (more rapes! more sex!), including a subplot with an "offensively exaggerated gay character" that was quickly dropped. (Also of note: in the original, a key role was played by original Jaws victim Susan Backlinie.) The Wheat Bros: A Look Back (12:14) has the men (you guessed it!) looking back at their career in film, which also included writing Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (I feared if I shared that too quickly, you might run away). It's fun to hear their brief thoughts on their more popular projects, and why they chose a pseudonym for their contribution to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. The Rebecca Balding Interview (3:15) is far too short; she talks about The Boogens, taking off her clothes in film and meeting her husband.

All three contributors return in the best extra here, the highly entertaining audio commentary moderated by Lee Christian and including Code Red's Walter Olsen, who shares his own thoughts along with those of director Denny Harris (who Olsen interviewed shortly before the director's death in 2007). Lots of great tidbits are revealed; the Psycho influence is acknowledged, although no one here can explain how the "The" has been dropped from the title, even though it appears on the actual film (Balding notes some people confused it with a 1984 video about abortion). There's some mild repetition (trying to match the new footage with existing shots for more seamless editing is a biggie, as is talk addressing the locations/sets), but this is a great listen with lots of laughs and fond memories. It's a lot more active than the video interviews, and Balding contributes more, which really helps (of her recollection of Murray Langston, who played the original Mason: "I have to tell you, and I don't know if you're going to want to hear this...the thing I remember about him was taking and me and Juli into the bathroom to show us how big his penis was.").

The gang notes that most of the shots with extras or on location is old footage--and that they had to shoot quickly with the new cast (like Yvonne De Carlo, who was brought on to appeal to foreign markets), who they only had for two days. We get updates on the cast (Juli Andelman has passed away; no one could find Brad Reardon), and the brothers express their dismay at how the superb Halloween beat them to the box office and captured the slasher essence so well. They add that the TV spots played a huge part in the film's success (it did very well at the box office, especially for an independent film). Balding also touches upon the "threat management" she dealt with after The Boogens came out (although it did get her out of jury duty).

Also listen for funny stories about how they convinced Cameron Mitchell to come in for work, an incident at Occidental College (where one scene is shot), compliments about Doubet's body (and his reaction during a love scene) and Balding talking about having to do a voiceover twice "for the lovemaking and the coming." Her inspiration? "I had just seen Coming Home with Jane Fonda, and I thought, 'That's a nice tasteful way to do it.' ...I almost fainted, because I like was hyperventilating in that stupid little sound booth that was made up of plastic sheeting." (Don't you just love her?)

Also included is an audio interview (30:02, in lower quality but still more than adequate) with director Denny Harris, who died just days after the five phone sessions were completed in 2007. It's so sad to know what was happening in his real life, but nice that he was able to leave some lasting words; he sounds sick--especially in the last recording, where he's honest with his intentions when he made the film and his opinion of the original version. He also ends with some kind, emotional words for interviewer Walter Olsen, the project and the cast and crew. The director--who until this film was best known as a commercial director-- talks about his interest in creating a horror film, casting, memories from the shoot, the soundtrack, the genre, his commercial background and the film's success. He also shares how business obligations prevented him from tackling more movies--and about an offer he had to shoot the "third version of a successful horror film" that he wasn't a fan of, something he happily turned down (in the audio commentary, Olsen tells us it was Friday the 13th). You can tell how much it all mattered to Harris, and how he genuinely wanted to do as good a job as possible and scare people. You are missed, Denny!

The film's theatrical trailer and TV spot round out the package. After watching all of this, I have to admit I would love to have seen the old footage/film (although Harris disagrees: "The best thing to do about that first version is to forget it"), but sadly none of that is included. Regardless, a great effort by Scorpion.

Final Thoughts:
For a low-budget slasher I had never even heard of, Silent Scream is a surprisingly pleasing genre entry. The body count is low, the bloodletting is minimal, the pace is slow and there are plenty of flaws from all angles (script, editing, music, you name it!). But even with all of that, fun and fright still awaits if you're willing to embrace its vibe and the era's more innocent sensibility. And you have to love Scorpion Releasing for taking the time to give us this much bonus material (three hours worth!)--there's nothing but love from all parties involved. Here's hoping the company is with us for a long time to come. Thanks guys! (Hmmm, how about giving us The Boogens next?) Recommended.

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