SILENT SCREAM (1980)
Director: Denny Harris
Scorpion Releasing

When first released in early 1980, Denny Harris’ SILENT SCREAM became one of the biggest independent films in terms of box office receipts (grossing over $15 million), helped greatly by an intriguingly chilling TV ad campaign (which I remember quite vividly) and the fact that thrill-seeking theatergoers ignored the negative reviews. Released in the wake of numerous R-rated “slasher” pics, SILENT SCREAM (or THE SILENT SCREAM as it’s referred to on the title card) actually owes more to the suspenseful psychological horrors of PSYCHO rather than the body count antics of HALLOWEEN and the like. Out of circulation since the golden days of VHS, new company Scorpion Releasing debuts with this long-awaited favorite, and an impressive first DVD release it is.

Desperately looking for housing, college student Scotty (Rebecca Balding, THE BOOGENS) takes a $50-a-month room in the white seaside mansion owned by the reclusive Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo, “The Munsters”) and her nerdy, neurotic teenage son Mason (Brad Rearden). Joining Scotty as housemates are fellow students Doris (Judi Andelman), Peter (John Widelock) and Jack (Steve Doubet), who she quickly begins an intense romance with. When one of the borders turns up on the beach violently murdered, two police detectives (Cameron Mitchell and Avery Schreiber) begin an investigation, uncovering disturbing secrets about the Engels family centering on tragic sister Victoria (Barbara Steele) and her current whereabouts.

With his only feature film, TV commercial director Harris was obviously more concerned with building suspense and creating characterization than raking up dead bodiess (the first killing occurs about a half-hour in) and displaying gore, though the film does have a fair share of bloodshed. So it may disappoint fans of conventional slasher films since it’s often classified as such, but I always thought it stood out from that crowd. The direction and editing are tight, the camerawork is exceptional, and the film is enhanced a great deal by Roger Kellaway's exceptional score, which accents the horrors within to perfect effect. With the Engels mansion at the center of the film’s gruesome doings, the old house produces the perfect atmosphere without having to be decrepit or intimidating – it’s actually a pleasant enough place, that is until you walk up that secret, narrow, cobweb-filled stairway that leads to a hidden attic bedroom.

Rebecca Balding does a good job playing the cute co-ed who has to fend for her life under morbid circumstances. In fact, the acting is convincing on a whole, but it’s the casting of a handful of familiar screen veterans that lends to the film’s appeal. Yvonne De Carlo was pretty much on a career downhill slide, appearing in thankless roles in one low budget film after the other, but here she is well cast as the widowed head of a very dysfunctional family. Cameron Mitchell was so commonly seen as a cop or a heavy in countless exploitation films, it’s absolutely no surprise to see him here, unlike the oddball casting of comic TV actor (and at the time, a well-recognized Doritos pitchman) Avery Schreiber as his partner. Although the majority of Mitchell’s and Schreiber’s scenes serve as nothing more than standard plot-padding, they have a sort of chemistry that works in the film’s favor (if these two buddy cops were played by unknowns, these investigation scenes might have been unbearable). And the best bit of casting by far is Barbara Steele. The British-born queen of 1960s Italian gothic horror is given one of her best roles in years, and the fact that her character is mute really presents the opportunity for the actress to play Victoria to the hilt through facial expression. For those who haven’t seen SILENT SCREAM, I don’t want to give away too much about her character, but Babs has some great, morose scenes, and she’s instrumental during the gripping climax.

For those who have only seen SILENT SCREAM on VHS or during its run on HBO in the early 1980s, this DVD will be something of a revelation in terms of quality. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the transfer has been mastered in hi-definition from the original interpositive and looks terrific. Colors are distinctively vivid, picture detail is sharp, and there is very little in the way of debris or grain, so it’s easy to say that SILENT SCREAM has never looked better. There are two English audio tracks: a 2.0 mono track and a very impressive new 5.1 surround sound track.

What most people don’t know about SILENT SCREAM is that there was a totally different earlier version of the film with a different screenplay and cast (except for Rebecca Balding and the three other actors playing the students), and this fascinating aspect is touched upon in many of the disc’s fine extras (only 12 minutes of the original cut appear in the final product). The team of brothers Ken and Jim Wheat were brought in to write and produce the second, final version of SILENT SCREAM, and they’re both present on an audio commentary which features actress Balding, moderator Lee Christian and Walter Olsen, who fills in for director Harris (who sadly passed away recently) by relaying his comments based on telephone conversations he had with him. The commentary is a thorough, well-detailed one, as the Wheat brothers were on the set for the majority of the production and are able to decipher which scenes were from the earlier version, as well as reveal some other fun behind-the-scenes stuff. Balding also remembers her experience quite well (sharing several very amusing anecdotes), and it’s obvious she was proud to star in the film. Ken and Jim Wheat and Balding are on screen for the featurette, “Scream of Success: 30 Years Later” (40:37), which covers a lot of ground about the film not featured in the commentary. The trio is back for “Silent Scream: The Original Script” (10:09) in which they discuss the earlier, abandoned version (which by all reports was something of an abomination) and the major differences compared to what eventually appeared in the final released version. The Wheat brothers then share a number of stories about some of the other scripts they’ve written in “The Wheat Bros: A Look Back” (12:14) and Balding has a brief solo interview (3:15) where she fields questions about THE BOOGENS and her time on the “Lou Grant” TV series with Ed Asner. Director Harris’ final audio interview is made up of seperate telephone conversations conducted shortly before his death. It was obvious by his voice that he wasn’t well at the time, but he manages to convey a lot from his personal experiences on the film, why he wanted to make a horror film, and how he was proud of the finished product (as well as his dissatisfaction with the film's distributor, American Cinema Releasing). Rounding out the bonus features are the original theatrical trailer and a TV spot. (George R. Reis)

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