As is par for the course with most new college students, Scotty Parker has slacked a bit and has found herself unable to secure housing on campus for her freshman year. Armed with a list of area housing, she eventually stumbles onto a very nice seaside mansion that has rooms available for college students. Along with three other boarders, Scotty thinks she’s made out fantastically. Little do they know that the house’s owners, Mason Engels and his hermit mother, have something to hide. When one of the boarders turns up dead on the beach, the surviving students are going to find out the hard way just what else is lurking and living under their roof.
It’s always cool to discover an old-school slasher that you haven’t already seen and has that bonus of not sucking. I know I’ll catch a lot of heat from the slasher fanatics out there, but let’s face it: other than the big boys, a lot of them leave a lot to be desired, and even some of those bigger titles aren’t the greatest in retrospect; we just love them because we grew up with them. So I’d have to say that Silent Scream was a pleasant surprise. While it’s far from great, it’s entertaining from beginning to end, and while I had some reservations going in, all of those were quieted when one name flashed on-screen during the opening credits: Barbara Steele. Yes, the Gothic Goddess is present in Silent Scream, and for me anyway, is the biggest factor in raising the film above mediocrity.
But I’d be selling the film short if I said Ms. Steele was the only reason you should spend a dark, rainy evening with Silent Scream. One thing that really helps the film is that while it was released in 1980, it was actually mostly shot over a year earlier, with reshoots occurring late in 1979 to meet its early 1980 release date. Because of this, it manages to elude the complete cash-in feeling that many similar films that were released just a year or two later blatantly exude. Sure, one look at any of the kill scenes will cause waves of Psycho déjà-vu to wash over you (complete with accompanying shrill strings), but it doesn’t at all feel like a body-count rip-off. It actually really just straddles the line between psychological horror and straight-out slasher, as until the final reel, there are only two murders in the entire flick. Those that come to these types of films for the rising pile of bodies may come away disappointed, but those that are more concerned about a compelling foundation should be just fine.
The most amazing thing about Silent Scream though is that the Wheat Brothers, who rescued the film from the shelf in 1979 and decided they could so something with it, made a coherent film at all. Like I mentioned before, the film was shot much earlier, and was looked at as a complete mess, but for some reason the Wheats saw something, did some reshoots, and came out with a fairly respectable flick. The appeal of the film, for me at least, is completely thanks to them, as they’re the reason Barbara Steele is even in it. She was among the actors added for the reshoots, as was Cameron Mitchell, who worked with Mario Bava on films such as Knives of the Avenger and Blood and Black Lace. It’s the presence of these two that gives Silent Scream a feel you generally don’t get with films of this nature; add in Yvonne De Carlo, and you have a film that gives forth an air of dignity that you probably didn’t expect.
Therein lays the one glaring issue with Silent Scream though: the rest of the cast just cannot compete. It’s obvious that the young 20-somethings that make up the bulk of the cast (and have the most screen time) are new to the game, and while they definitely try their best, the difference in acting prowess is glaring. The worst offender is Brad Rearden, who plays Mason, the Engels’ son that does most of the interacting with the college boarders, who overacts like crazy. I understand we’re supposed to catch that vibe from him that something isn’t right, but he’s so over the top that it’s a wonder none of the boarders suspect something is amiss in the house. And during the end, when he throws a tantrum; well, it’s pretty damn hilarious. Luckily, these scenes look pretty amazing (it’s not hard to tell which scenes were done during the reshoot, as the cinematographer is much more skilled), as otherwise his hamming it up would have reduced the film to pure comedy.
Far from essential, but different enough to warrant a look (even from those that aren’t particularly into slasher flicks), Silent Scream is a nice addition to the repertoire of 80’s horror and important for Barbara Steele fans as it’s basically her last notable (and worthwhile) feature film appearance. For budding filmmakers and/or producers, it almost borders on must-see, as to see a film reshaped like Silent Scream was into something that actually works is pretty amazing.
Scorpion Releasing, a new label that has apparently splintered from Code Red (thank god, since CR is basically impossible to deal with; why ignore people that want to help promote your releases?), has chosen Silent Scream for their debut onto the scene, and it’s a real doozy of a release. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and for a seedy slasher that has mostly been forgotten by most, it looks really impressive. There’s a bit of print damage during the opening minutes, but after that it’s basically non-existent, and the colors, sharpness, and black-levels are very good. In a complete shocker, the disc is loaded with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track! Now let’s not expect miracles here, the only time the rear speakers ever kick into gear is for the accompanying music, but I have to admit that the few times I switched back and forth between this and the 2.0 track, the 5.1 remix and the extra front speaker gives the dialogue and sound effects a wider range of depth and richness. An optional commentary track is also available, which features the Wheat Bros., star Rebecca Balding, and Scorpion Releasing head Walter Olsen on commentary duty. The Wheats have a great memory, and are fond to point out everything they went through to get this film released, including which scenes were reshoots and so on.
The Wheats and Ms. Balding return in a 40-minute featurette entitled “Scream of Success: 30 Years Later”. Some of the same information as in the commentary is covered here, but I like on-screen interviews better, so I found this much more interesting. As stated, they go into some pretty extensive detail on how they pieced the film together from the previous shoots and then what they reshot, working with all of the actors, and other interesting tid-bits. More Wheat goodness comes in the form of a 10-minute piece which discusses the original script and the original cut of the film. It actually didn’t sound so bad, as they talk about how much nastier it was, with tons of rape and exploitive elements. Everyone already knows I’m depraved, so I’d totally like to see it! And if you haven’t had enough of these brothers yet, well…there’s more! For 12 minutes they wax poetic on their years in film, and talk about everyone from George Lucas to Vin Diesel; yes, Vin Diesel. A quick solo interview with Rebecca Balding is also included, which is harmless but lacks substance.
Due to director Denny Harris’s failing health, only phone interviews between him and Walter Olsen could be included on the release, and he sadly died just three weeks after these conversations were concluded, so no on-screen content could be filmed. The quality of these aren’t very good, but they are audible, and it’s obvious that even in his last days (and after being screwed by the system again and again), Harris was passionate not only about Silent Scream, but his work in the industry in general. Rounding out the extra features is a trailer as well as a TV spot for the flick, which are cut in that oh-so-appealing fashion that films of this nature were marketed with. It was so appealing that the film debuted at #1 at the box office, and if Scorpion Releasing can keep delivering solid packages like this, they’ll soon find themselves among the elite of genre distributors.
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