Cult Criterion: “Silent Scream” and Atmospheric Slasher Movies

Cult Criterion is a series that focuses on cult, horror and exploitation films that are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Though some well-known titles may be given attention, some that tend to get ignored will also get attention

The 80’s era slasher movie usually falls into two categories. At one hand, there are the ultra gory types: titles like like Pieces, The Mutilator and The Intruder revel in the rending of human flesh and bloodshed. These films are usually for those that are in the mood for something with buckets of gore and the occasional gallows humor instead of anything that will stimulate any suspense. They can be fun, but many of them aren’t scary.

Then there’s category two: slasher films that are more about atmosphere and suspense than they are gory set pieces. Movies like Just Before Dawn, which like the original “Friday the 13th” manage to make the outdoors seem like a descent into hell. Or The House on Sorority Row, which is more interested in building things up than it is showering you in viscera.

These kinds of slasher movies are for those that actually want a few goosebumps instead of just sitting around, hooting and hollering at the next kill. They want to to either wait a little or get to know the surroundings, all while trying to make you feel uneasy instead of excited over the killer and his actions. They usually want to scare you.

Silent Scream (Scorpion Releasing/Ronin Flix) is definitely of the latter category. Written and produced by Ken and Jim Wheat (who went on to work on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4”, “The Fly II” and “Pitch Black”) and directed by one timer Denny Harris, this was actually a box office hit when it came out, which was a surprise for a low budget indie of it’s type. It also was released in 1980, just when the slasher cycle was getting started with the likes of “Halloween” and the aforementioned “Friday the 13th”, meaning it came out in a time where you weren’t being drowned in an endless flood of out stalk and kill movies.

The story? Well, it goes like this: co-ed Scotty (Rebecca Balding) just can’t find housing on campus, when what do you know, she finds vacancy in a mansion turned boarding house. Said mansion is run by Ms. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo, mostly known for playing Lily on “The Munsters”), who along with her son seem nice enough on the surface, but this being a horror movie it isn’t that simple.

You see, fellow boarders a starting to turn up murdered, and as the body count rises, things start to seem a little bit off, what with things like Ms. Engels son Mason (Brad Reardon) turning out to be a bit of a creeper himself. Can two detectives (genre mainstay Cameron Mitchell and comic Avery Schreiber in a rare serious role) solve the case before it’s too late? Oh, and is that Barbara Steele I see?

From the get go, “Silent Scream” is a creepy little gem clearly indebted to “Psycho” and Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas”. It’s also far more Gothic than it’s contemporaries, with it’s bizarre family drama and dank, decrepit vibe of it’s surroundings. Speaking of which, though it was his sole directorial effort, Harris proves to be a strong director himself. He understands how to use the mansion location and how to direct his actors, creating a world that from the beginning feels off. Sure, it seems normal at first, but it soon becomes a world populated with horrific family secrets, cobweb filled attics and the inevitable fact that murder no longer seems too far off. Almost nothing is really normal, and nearly everything feels like it could have come from some circle of hell.

Also worthy of note is how the movie eschews gore for a dread fueled atmosphere. That’s actually fitting though, as things like graphic disembowelment scenes would distract from the overall vibe. Instead, this is a movie filled with long, eerie silences accompanied by a haunting score and drifting sense of unease. None of the murders here are the type you find in a “Friday the 13th” movie, where you see people being decapitated, impaled and dismembered by a hulking maniac. This is the kind of movie where the killer is more hidden, and more of a presence than they are a force of nature or blood thirsty maniac.

Though it was a hit, it’s something of a shame that this movie, while not forgotten, has fallen through the cracks for some. Movies like Prom Night or the aforementioned “House on Sorority Row” are the kind of atmospheric slasher movies that tend to be more celebrated, yet “Silent Scream” is only sometimes mentioned in this vein. That and for some, a movie like this can easily feel eclipsed by something gorier or more tongue in cheek.

Nonetheless, I heavily recommend “Silent Scream”, and not just for slasher fans. Fans of the more haunting variety of horror should hopefully get a kick out of this movie, as it comes from a time where Slasher movies weren’t heavily known for their over the top, Tom Savini created or inspired gore effects that would become in vogue as the years went on. Splatter is great, but if you ask me, it’s also nice to watch a slasher movie that actually wants to creep out and then scare it’s audience instead of just showering them in blood. I doubt that’s too much to sometimes ask for.

 

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