Monday, June 1, 2009

Review of The Shout

When a trailer uses the hyphenate “soul-shattering” multiple times, it’s clear the film isn’t going for a soft sell. I have to admit to possessing a perverse pleasure in such hyperbole. How can one not be amused, for instance, by William Castle’s overkill showmanship, like his advertisements for “Macabre” (1958) that claimed, “Any member of the audience is insured for $1000.00 against DEATH BY FRIGHT during the performance of this terrifying picture!” Considerably less risk was involved than the ambulances Castle would park right in front of theaters. Another fine example is the early William Shatner Esperanto film “Incubus” (1965) whose shortsighted trailer predicted that “Time can not fade the brilliance of… THE INCUBUS!”

But my favorite overblown trailers hit a hypnotically bombastic cadence with the title functioning as a portentous refrain. That actually applies to “Incubus” rather nicely. One of the most iconic is the “Zardoz” (1974) trailer which opens with "BEYOND 1984. BEYOND 2001. BEYOND LOVE. BEYOND DEATH.” and includes largely fanciful interpretations of the plot like "...AND THEN ZARDOZ CREATED GOD... AND IN THE END ZARDOZ RE-CREATED MAN!"

This is my long way of getting around to how much I liked the trailer for “The Shout” (1978), which is where the aforementioned cases of “soul-shattering” cropped up, as in, “Greater than the frightening power of exorcism. More mystifying than any omen of reincarnation. The soul-shattering experience of... the SHOUT.” In case you were concerned, I managed to escape a viewing with my spiritual essence intact, but I highly approved of the film as a whole and especially the fact that one of the main characters quite literally does get his soul shattered. Since you are probably wondering, it breaks into exactly four pieces.

The plot comes from a 1929 short story by Robert Graves, who is played by Tim Curry in the film. Graves encounters a mysterious madman (Crossley, played by Alan Bates) while scoring a cricket game at a scenic asylum. Crossley relays the story of one of the patients, Anthony Fielding (John Hurt), and his wife Rachel (Susannah York).

Some years previous Crossley shows up at the Fielding’s remote house along the English coastline. Despite being a rather abrasive stranger, Anthony invites him to stay for a time. At dinner, their unusual guest claims to have spent the last 18 years living deep in the Australian outback, ritually practicing the aboriginal right to slay his offspring. Rachel, who has been unsuccessfully trying to conceive with Anthony, is visibly disturbed, and Anthony soon has even greater cause for discomfort. Crossley describes having studied sorcery during his sojourn, including a monstrous power called “the terror shout” capable of killing everything within hearing. Soon Crossley is using his black magic to seduce Rachel and Anthony’s only recourse lies in destroying the physical manifestation of Crossley’s soul.

The material seems suited to the likes of Roger Corman or Hammer Film Productions, but with director Jerzy Skolimowski at the helm, the film is considerably more compelling than it might intrinsically deserve. For one thing, he chooses to film the horror story with genuine gravity and coaxes performances from his cast that are surprisingly devoid of cheesiness. The directing and acting are so good it’s easy to forget the film has hardly any budget and an almost absolute absence of special effects, action and gore.

Alan Bates overwhelms the screen, cutting a disquietingly dark profile with his chaotic hair and black overcoat. His bearing has the casual assurance of a man fully aware of his powers while his soft-spoken voice somehow dominates every exchange. Skolimowski uses sudden close-ups of his glowering eyes, unshaven jaw and deliberate hands to capture the uncomfortable intensity of his mere presence.

Other visual tactics contribute to the brooding, unremitting atmosphere, including excellent use of the cold, windswept landscapes. Rarely have grassy knolls and lonely beaches and ever seems so haunting and unpleasant. A liberal smattering of Francis Bacon prints, one briefly reenacted by Rachel (who even turns black and white for a few frames), certainly doesn’t help one feel warm and fuzzy either. However, the unique effectiveness of “The Shout” comes less from its visuals than from its sound design.

I have to confess to being rather unskilled at dealing with music in my reviews. I can’t play any nor can I easily recognize even relatively famous bands and I don’t know the jargon for describing it accurately. I do honestly believe that film is first and foremost a visual medium, but I doubtlessly neglect the audio unduly and don’t pay close enough attention to it. Today will be an exception.

It is probably not surprising that a movie about a fatal cry places conspicuous emphasis on sound design, but “The Shout” is really in a league with few other horror films save “Eraserhead” (1977). Eschewing the classical arrangements of creaky floorboards, slamming doors and maniacal laughs, the film instead opts for unearthly resonances; vibrations that hold the tense energy of something about to buckle… or explode.

Anthony is a part-time organist for the local church and an experimental musician whose work more closely resembles that of a foley artist (clearly not part of the original story given when it was written). He records insects buzzing about in jars, marbles rolling about in a wet pan and a violin bow sliding across a desiccated sardine tin. His interest in eerie and outlandish auditory effects makes him susceptibly curious about the terror shout (the sound bite doesn’t disappoint) and helps shape our understanding of his psychological state. The soundtrack often times feels as though it is giving expression to his introspective spells, the growing discord in his relationship and his rising fear and anxiety.

After foregrounding Anthony’s obscure hobby Skolimowski has us especially attentive to the subtleties of the background noise for the rest of the film. Within it he weaves uncanny touches like faint organ music, shrill bird cries or sudden changes in pitch as though even the wind carried some ominous message. It also helps structure the film, as the crack of a cricket ball periodically pulls us out of the flashback and into the present. The climax, a cacophony of lightning, screaming and explosions, comes as the culmination of a mounting auditory intensity that run through the entire film.

Conversely, the characters tend to talk quietly and politiely, often whispering, as if hiding themselves in a cloak of civility. This comes in sharp contrast with the primal scream of the terror shout. Anthony’s initial life consists of peaceful rural contentment, easy sexual gratification shared between his trusting wife and a breezy affair in the village and a harmless hobby where he maintains precise control over his experiments. The way sound comes to overpower this life keys us to its growing danger and intoxicating power. It grants a sense of scale, like an echo in a vast chamber, that dwarfs the Fieldings and implies the unfathomable horror that, as Crossley says, requires “imagination outside our direct experience.”

Fans of the type of psychological atmosphere horror I often advocate will almost certain enjoy. It’s a great opportunity to get more familiar with Jerzy Skolimowski, who has to be one of the most underrated directors around even compared to his Polish School compatriots. I’ve only seen a handful of his other films, the best being his spectacular “Deep End” (1970) (which has inexplicably lacked an official release), though I can also recommend “Moonlighting” (1982) with Jeremy Irons.

Walrus Rating: 8.0


bubuina said...

This review made me so very happy - I've been so lonely with this movie for years, no friend has ever seen it so I've never gotten to discuss it with anyone. I absolutely agree with what you write, the film is excellent (though when I saw it in an almost empty old theater I think the setting helped to fix the mood), and my blood froze throughout the film. The sound design is wonderful, it really creates an atmosphere in collaboration with the music. I have to say that I think music is an underrated feature in films, I'd wish to see films that really incorporate music in a way that it complements the plot, the mood and even the colours of a film (I'd prefer instrumental music). I couldn't stand for example Brokeback Mountain because of the crappy music that really made me suffer. This is one of those things that always makes me think: "If/when I make my films, then..." :)

FilmWalrus said...

I think more people would share our love for The Shout if it were released on Region 1. I watched a bootleg converted from the VHS recently and, cruelly enough, the sound was not very good on it. I'm thinking of buying the R2 DVD, which is really pretty cheap.

Music and sound are definitely integral to [post-silent] films, but I my lack of training sadly makes it something I don't discuss often. My brother is just the opposite: he doesn't watch many films but he knows all about music, plays instruments and even writes a music blog. He always picks up on songs in films. My former roommate was an ace at sound engineering for theater and was sort of the equivalent of my brother but with sound effects. Watching films with them, they would help me notice nuances I wouldn't have caught otherwise.

Anyway, apologies if it has been a long time since you last saw The Shout, but I have a question for you. [Spoilers] How does Anthony know where to find Crossley's soul stone, near the end, and why is it there at the beach? I wasn't able to follow that completely.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I saw this on video in the late '80s (I was on an Alan Bates kick for awhile) and I remember enjoying it a lot but that's about all I remember.

I'd love to see it get a DVD release so I can revisit it.

Audrey The Cat said...

I saw "The Shout" in an art house theater in Berkeley when it was first released. I too have been longing to see it again.

Why is "The Shout" so hard to find? Net Flix has no knowledge of it, nor does, etc. etc.

FilmWalrus said...

Here's a link to the Pal R2 DVD for anyone who is interested:

Considering the relatively famous cast of The Shout it is surprising it hasn't yet had a R1 release, but maybe there is just some conspiracy against Jerzy Skolimowski. Almost none of his consistently mesmerizing work is available (although much of it floats around in bootleg market).

Robert Castle said...

Excellent take on The Shout, the best I've come across. Your reflections about sound in the film are on the mark. Watching the film several times, the amount of sounds increase (e.g., the sounds of the peacock during the cricket match). One of the Bacon paintings is from the "screaming Popes" series.
I have one question: is Anthony a patient at the asylum? Rachel wears a nurse's uniform when she comes in to see the bodies. Her attachment to Crossley seems to be real, as she places the chain with the buckle on him at the very end. What do you make of this?
Again, thanks for your analysis. I found the film, by the way, in a Region 1 format -- it had been advertised as having Spanish subtitles. One can watch it in Catalan.