"TERROR SO SUDDEN THERE IS NO TIME TO SCREAM."
(back of video blurb): Dark, deadly secrets kept by the mysterious owner surface as brutal knife murders occur. What painful horror lies silently at the end of a secret passage?"
"What silent terror lies within the walls of a gloomy old victorian mansion by the sea?
Dark, deadly secrets kept by the mysterious owner surface as brutal knife murders occur. What painful horror lies silently at the end of a secret passage?"
The film begins with one of those scenes shot in slo-mo: police cars speeding through the night, braking outside a shadowed gothic mansion and bursting inside with guns held aloft. The police; including a huffing-puffing Cameron Mitchell, take the stairs two at a time; bursting into a darkened room. Still in slow motion ,the camera follows their eyes to a crumpled corpse in a blue dress; and to a trail, then pool, of blood and a body mostly hidden by a door frame- only a pair of twisted legs protruding hinting at what lays beyond. The cops widening eyes follow this macabre ticker-tape trail through the door and to a revelation that is kept from the viewer. And so begins this classy, if somewhat sedate psycho-thriller, showing us a teasing glimpse of the Grand Guginol finale.... The film then continues- (but the action clearly taking place before the dramatic police raid). Rebecca Balding is a transfer student who is having no luck what-so-ever finding off campus accommodation- no luck that is until she stumbles upon the house on Timber Cove Rd; a beautiful, sprawling place overlooking the ocean.... (It is also clearly the same house from the prologue).... She manages to rent a room, along with three other students; the place being owned by a geeky teenage boy and his barely glimpsed mother (Yvonne De Carlo). It is the first time they have let rooms in the house out and it soon becomes apparent to the audience, and gradually to Balding, why. The ghostly strains of melancholic 50’s ballads descend, through ancient pipes, to fill the house with a strange sense of unease. And somewhere, deep within the cobwebbed recesses of the house a butcher’s knife whittles away at plaster board. Yep, it’s that old chestnut- there’s something lurking in the attic and that something wants out!
SILENT SCREAM is something of an enigma. Made at the height of the early 80’s slasher craze, it is kind of a throwback to the days of windswept mansions and groaning floorboards. Sure the principle characters are teens, and sure, as teens are prone to do, they meet with nasty fates; struck down with a feverish blade, but as a whole it plays like a creaky, early monochrome psychodrama. It is no small surprise then, to see the two biggest names; De Carlo and Steele- who both found iconoclastic fame in the horror genre nearly 20 years previously, return to their gothic roots. It is here where I can no longer avoid that major spoiler I was warning of: if, firstly, a film has a murderous presence lurking in the attic; and secondly the most famous person it the movie has not already been accounted for, then it stands to reason that they must be one in the same. And yes, it is Steele- playing a lobotomised ex-teen queen, who creeps down from her dusty museum of a bedroom to satisfy a craving for freshly split blood; a craving she satiates during frenzied knife attacks, which, stylistically, owe more than a nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). Steele is wonderful, in what is I suppose her BABY JANE role, as the middle aged woman trapped in a moment of murderous history which is doomed to repeat itself over and over. In her room she vacantly stares at a mirror where the glass has been removed and a photo of herself as a younger woman has replaced it; primping and preening her seething black mass of hair. Those eyes deliciously portraying, alternatively, innocence lost and a glazed, knife wielding harridan.
SILENT SCREAM seems to purposefully pay homage to Steele’s past; the gloomy cobwebbed corridors that the camera prowls could have come directly from Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960), or any one of her forays into the Italian cinema of the gothic. Unfortunately it is this over-reliance on the past that proves to be the films’ ultimate downfall. No matter how good Steele is, and no matter how classy the film looks, it cannot get away from the fact that it’s central plot point- the monster in the attic, is as old as the hills; this and gloss alone can’t really sustain the movie. I understand that criticising it for being a cliché is somewhat ironic; this after all is a site dedicated to a subgenre that gleefully wallows in the generic mudbath, but this movie was clearly aiming to be a class product and as such there just isn’t enough here to warrant such ambition- (incidentally though, this wasn’t the only slasher movie from this time to make use of such a tatty old cliche; THE UNSEEN (1981) is thematically identical).... To make matters worse De Carlo is criminally wasted as Steele’s mother- she remains pretty much silent for the first 3/4’s of the film, and when she does speak she isn’t really given much to work with. And to make matters doubly worse the film makes unwelcome forays into rom-com land during scenes where Balding develops a love interest; complete with grinding saxophone solos.
All this, bar what I said about Steele, makes it look like I hated this movie. Wrong. I was just merely disappointed. It promised much more than it actually delivered- a psycho-sandwich minus the filling ( the cheese was definitely absent; although some of the haircuts, especially Balding’s bell shaped coiffure, raised a titter!). That said, there were a few redeeming features- the impressively gloomy ambience being one, and also noteworthy are some exquisite shock moments that succeed in surprising so much because they are expertly handled and are directly at odds with the sedate mood of the rest of the movie- the first murder is a killer! The film’s wrap-around climax- where we finally get to see what Cameron Mitchell and friend saw in the prologue, provides a few jolts (one of which centred around a closet is a direct lift from HALLOWEEN (1978)). But even what promises to be a foot-to-the-floor Grand Guginol finale comes across as being a little half-hearted, even polite; and to make matters worse, by this point Steele is looking noticeably embarrassed by the knife waving histrionics!
All-in-all SILENT SCREAM is an occasionally diverting mood piece that just kinda hangs in limbo between the dramatic intensity of the best of the genre and the deliriously cheesy lows of the worst. But it’s worth catching, if just for Steele’s rare foray into horror movies since she relinquished her title as Queen of the Italian gothic screen in the mid 1960’s.
BODYCOUNT 5 female:3 / male:2
1) Male teen repeatedly stabbed in chest
2) Female teen stabbed to death
3) Female shot dead
4) Male shot dead
5) Female stabbed in gut