For a horror fan, I’m actually fairly unschooled in the slasher film subgenre. The problem is that during the subgenre’s late 70s/early 80s heyday, I was too young to see the films by myself and my folks weren’t about to take me (heck, even now my mom won’t read my reviews because horror movies aren’t her cup of tea).
The Silent Scream is one of those movies I missed, though I vividly recall the TV ads. It took me 30 years but I’ve finally seen it, and while it’s not a great film it’s a fairly nifty slasher that puts a spin on some of the subgenre’s clichés.
School’s about to start at a California college, and students Scotty (Rebecca Balding), Jack (Steve Doubet), Doris (Juli Andelman) and Douchebag (not really the character’s name, but you’ll be calling him that too, trust me) are left out in the cold thanks to a housing shortage. They all end up at one of those creepy-yet-beautiful Victorian homes, which is owned by reclusive Mrs. Engels (Yvonne DeCarlo) and her nerdy son Mason. Despite Mrs. Engel’s proclivity for mysterious silence and staring, and Mason’s predilection to spy on the guests and watch movies with rape scenes on his TV, things are going well for the four students until one ends up stabbed to death on the nearby beach.
There’s no motive, suspect, or evidence, as local detectives (played by Cameron Mitchell and comic actor Avery Schreiber, in a nice dramatic turn) admit. But over the next 24 hours things will get ugly for the remaining three students and some ghosts from the Engels’ family’s past will make their presence known.
The Silent Scream isn’t notable for its number of kills (low) or their explicitness (tame by today’s standards). It stands out from cliché’d slasher fare in more subtle ways. The students don’t have a great deal of characterization but they’re believable and (with the exception of Douchebag) likable; they’re also not dumb as posts. (The screenplay wisely takes the first killing outside the house and then has events happen quickly, so that the characters have a reason besides plot convenience to stay in the house.) The coastal California setting is a nice change from the typical Centerville, USA locale. The stalkings are suspenseful and the attacks are sudden – indeed the victims don’t have time to scream. And it was refreshing to see characters not get punished for having a healthy sex life.
The most captivating thing about The Silent Scream, though, is the presence of Barbara Steele, horror icon (primarily from European films of the 1960s). As a mysterious member of the Engels family, she says not a word yet commands the screen every time she’s on it. She’s a hypnotic presence, taking a fairly routine film a notch higher.
The film has flaws, to be sure, but those are mostly outweighed by the positive assets. For example, aside from an ill-advised credits sequence that had me hopelessly confused for a while, the scenes with the detectives are story filler that is nonetheless enhanced by Mitchell and Schreiber, who have a genuine chemistry in their performances.
It’s a better-than-average film that’s handicapped by the conventions of the subgenre, but has enough good qualities to make it worth a watch.
Extras include featurettes and interviews that cover the film’s odd production history (originally shot in 1977, all but 12 minutes of the footage was deemed unusable and the film was more or less redone), trailers, and TV spots. It’s a fine set of features for an often overlooked film.