A closer look at a rarely seen horror masterpiece
Whether it be a low, wet, growl coming from deep within in the dark, a disembodied whisper from behind a long locked door, or the skin-tightening timbre of a terrified woman’s pre-knife stuck scream, the use of sound has been manipulated since the dawn of horror cinema as a highly-effective tool to terrify those lucky enough to be blessed with relatively good hearing. Sound fills in the blanks, giving audible life to seemingly benign tableaux; people, objects and events are transformed. Sometimes sound is used to create tension, to provide the aural punch line to an unbearable set up and sometimes sound is even used to lull the viewer into a false sense of calm before unleashing whatever beast the filmmaker has heretofore kept under wraps. But in Polanski pal and Deep End director Jerzy (DEEP END) Skolimowski’s little discussed 1978 tone poem THE SHOUT, sound is used for even more aggressive purposes: to maim, to harm, to inflict agony and eventually, to kill every living thing in its path.
If you’ve never heard of THE SHOUT, you certainly are not alone. This dark, abstract sliver of arthouse weirdness has been long absent from Blu-ray or DVD on North American shores (an excellent, feature-filled British Blu-ray was released a few years ago) and the ancient, Columbia Pictures US VHS release is a highly-sought-after collectible (UPDATE: as of this writing, The Criterion Channel and other select streaming platforms have now had the film in their respective cycles).
I first encountered THE SHOUT the same way I first encountered many of my favorite films: alone, on late night television. This strange, dark and slowly paced film marked me the deepest and not a day went by that I did not think about it in some way shape or form. My fixation on it later amplified when I realized that basically no one I knew had ever seen it, let alone were aware of (or cared about) its existence and it felt as though it were mine, a secret slice of cinema whose fan club sported one member: me.
Imagine my delight one day, while sifting through the delete rack at Toronto’s sadly now defunct Queen Video, I found that very same aforementioned discontinued Columbia videocassette, lying there, faded, moldy and battered at the bottom of the shelf, being sold off for a lousy dollar. Money immediately changed hands and within seconds THE SHOUT was mine.
Let me tell you a bit more about the film itself.
Church organist and erstwhile experimental music composer Anthony (the late, great John Hurt) and his comely wife Rachel (the also dearly departed Susannah York) live a quiet, idyllic yet sexually vacant life in the English countryside. Into their pleasant but unremarkable home comes a brooding, ruggedly handsome, hirsute wanderer named Crossley (the -sigh – also passed, still magnetic Alan Bates) seeking refuge and a hot meal, which the young couple skeptically oblige. It’s not long before this belligerent, sneering animal of a man begins slowly, methodically manipulating and controlling Anthony and Rachel’s lives, both physically and mentally. Turns out Crossley isn’t just your run of the mill raving psychotic narcissist, but rather is a kind of an aboriginal warlock, a dangerous outback -dwelling monster who claims to have murdered his children in order to learn the ancient art of psychic vampirism and the ever useful skill of killing by shouting. Taking the disbelieving Anthony onto the moors one night, Crossley crassly proves his case by simply opening his mouth, drawing in air and letting loose a lethal primal shriek from Hell. Things get very nasty and, needless to say, do not end particularly well for anyone.
Told as an extended flashback to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW vet Tim Curry, THE SHOUT is the kind of lyrical, intelligent, enigmatic and frustrating work of psychological horror that the Brits were once so very fond of producing in the 1970’s and that are simply, and sadly, not being made at all anymore. Filled with deranged, politically incorrect sex (fans of the lovely York take note), haunting nightmare imagery and an aura of icy, inevitable doom, the picture plays like the bastard offspring of THE WICKER MAN, DON’T LOOK NOW and vintage Luis Bunuel, with perhaps a dash of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI; a movie of surreal, shocking, confusing, terrifying and occasionally blackly humorous power and the kind of eyeball spinning head-scratcher that stays with you for weeks (in my case, a lifetime), requires multiple viewings and asks far more questions than it provides answers to. Driven by a powerful score by Genesis alumni Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, this is truly a living, breathing nightmare committed to celluloid. It’s an essential, long thought “lost” horror movie that needs to be seen, discussed and adored.