The year is 1980. It’s Autumn and Scotty Parker is starting school. In a crunch to find an apartment, she hastily rents a room in a grand hilltop mansion overlooking the ocean. What is it they say about things being too good to be true? She makes fast friends with the other boarders and as Scotty begins to settle in, so does a rash of inexplicable violence. One by one, the boarders are begin picked off but by whom and why?
The Silent Scream is the 1980 horror film directed by Denny Harris starring Rebecca Balding as Scotty, Steve Doubet as Jack, Brad Rearden as Mason, Juli Andelman as Doris, John Widelock as Peter, and Barbara Steele as Victoria.
The Silent Scream is buried deep within a bevvy of other more well known slasher films. Released in 1980 (following Halloween and Friday the 13th), it’s clear that the filmmakers were not-so-silently inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – from its score to its fondness for butcher knife style killings, The Silent Scream is not your typical slasher flick gore fest. It’s true that the killer, and many of the details of each murder, remain largely hidden until the final moments of the film. But where this helped build tightly woven tension in Hitchcock’s Psycho, it makes The Silent Scream feel a bit long at just 87 minutes.
Plot spoilers abound below!
The whole plot of The Silent Scream is actually (resoundingly) solid even if the premise is relatively simple: a girl registers late for school, misses out on campus housing, finds a place nearby lodging with a family that’s totally cracked. Think of it as surviving the “horror at home”.
What’s interesting about The Silent Scream is how predominantly the feminine “plight” factors into the thematics of the overall storyline. From the out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy of the Engels family’s daughter, Victoria, to the deceptions of the family’s matriarch – whose guilt and tentativeness seem to hint at darker family secrets, The Silent Scream is a film about surviving the traumas of the home.
I’m given to thinking Victoria was abused by her father – the war hero – but most of us know that I’m pretty dark so I question my intuition. It’s true we’ll never really know what happened to her. In fact, maybe it’s better we don’t. I mean, isn’t it true that what we imagine is almost always worse than the truth?
Following her botched suicide attempt, a pregnant Victoria is left mentally unstable. In the mental hospital where she is housed, they perform what sounds like a lobotomy although the doctor points at the side of Victoria’s head rather than her eye socket when he details the procedure to Victoria’s mom. Oh the horror! Is there anything more terrifying than an involuntary lobotomy?!
No. That sh*t is horrifying.
Barbara Steele’s performance is reason enough to watch the film and while the role is non-speaking, it factors largely into creating the necessary atmosphere and tension. Steele is no stranger to horror film fans.
With performances in the legendary Black Sunday, Piranha, Pit and the Pendulum and a recurring role on the oh-so-campy television series, Dark Shadows, Steele brought everything she had to the role of Victoria and I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching her dead shark eyes as she lumbers ever so slowly toward the camera and her next victim.
The Silent Scream wants to be a slasher film, but with a relatively low body count and minor use of gore, we have to face the facts. The Silent Scream is really a psychological horror film about the woman in the attic and the thing within the walls. It’s slower and more methodical pace is in tune with films like Black Christmas where the use of one or very few filming locations helps to confine its audience. But there’s a lot to like about the film and director Denny Harris does some masterful work that shouldn’t go without mention.
During a long sequential, he pulls the audience through the yard of the mansion, into its basement and up through a series of long forgotten and now unused hidden passages. Covered in cobwebs and dust, a scratching sound fades up from the silence as the camera climbs the stairs – flight after flight. As we reach the top floor, the scratching noise intensifies and we see a spoon (or is it a knife?) scratching away at the mortar between the boards in the wall. Suddenly, fingers! They tear at the boards, ripping them aside to create a hole. The hidden passage has been rediscovered, but by whom and for what reason?
The Silent Scream also features one of the most subtly awesome moments in slasher cinema. When Doris and Peter are walking on the beach, heading back to the house after a night of drinking, they come to a choke on the shore where the tide has begun to rise and now threatens to block the path. Doris quickly makes her way across and, as she finds her footing safely on the other side, realizes Peter hasn’t followed her. This one moment creates such genuine tension that I marvel at its simple elegance.
Moments like these make The Silent Scream a must-see film for any horror fan.