December 31, 2015
There’s little doubt that Tom Holland is one of the most prominent Masters of Horror working today. He practically defined supernatural horror in the eighties as the director of movies like Fright Night and Child’s Play. Before he sat in the director’s chair, however, he did his time at the typewriter, penning scripts for underground classics such as The Initiation of Sarah, The Beast Within, and Class of 1984. With his impressive resume, there are bound to be some minor works of his that have flown under the radar. Scream for Help is one of these underappreciated gems.
Scream for Help is about an affluent teenage girl named Christie Cromwell (A Private Battle’s Rachael Kelly) whose mother, Karen (Marie Masters from “As the World Turns”), has just married a smooth guy named Paul Fox (David Allen Brooks from Manhunter and Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman). Loyal to her father, Christie is suspicious of Paul right from the start, so she decides to follow him around and snoop into his private life. She quickly discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Brenda Bohle (Lolita Lorre in her one and only screen credit), and the two of them, along with Brenda’s brother, Lacey (Donnie Brasco’s Rocco Sisto), are planning to kill Christie and her mom in order to inherit their fortune. The problem is that when Christie tries to report her findings to her mother, her friends, or even the police, no one believes her. After a series of mysterious “accidents,” Christie realizes that Paul knows that she has figured him out. Christie has to find a way to stop Paul’s plan while she still can.
Directed by Michael Winner (The Sentinel, Death Wish), Scream for Help is a very teen-centric horror movie; had it been made ten or twelve years later and with a slightly more famous cast, it would fit in right alongside Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer. The first half has an afterschool special vibe to it, with Christie riding her bike around town and peeking in windows to spy on her stepfather. Around the halfway point, when it seems as if the mystery of the movie is solved, the mood changes, and the film becomes a brutal home invasion/siege movie. That’s when Scream for Help goes from PG-13 to a hard R.
Originally, Scream for Help was supposed to have been directed by Richard Franklin (Patrick), who also brought Holland’s scripts for Psycho II and Cloak & Dagger to the screen. Franklin backed out and Michael Winner was brought in, and rumor has it that Holland was unhappy with Winner’s treatment of his screenplay. Whether it’s due to the script or the interpretation is unclear, but there does seem to be a weird schizophrenia running throughout the movie; the narrative is full of coincidences and improbabilities, and the dialogue is forced and heavy-handed. None of it kills the movie, and by the time it gets to the third act the audience has all but forgotten about the spoon-fed exposition of the previous two, but there is a definite feeling of condescension in the storyline, as if the filmmaker (either director Winner or writer Holland) thinks that the audience is having trouble following along and feels the need to dumb down the plot.
Scream for Help was shot by veteran cinematographer Robert Paynter (An American Werewolf in London, Little Shop of Horrors), and it’s done in a very bright and well-lit way that makes it look more like an action/mystery/thriller than an average horror movie. Paynter utilizes plenty of exaggerated camera techniques, using motivated zooms and functional pans to effortlessly follow the assorted car-and-foot chases or to voyeuristically peer through windows for the various peeping spy shots. These photographic tricks provide a visceral and immersive experience - so what if the immersion is into an afterschool special type of a world? Scream for Help still looks impressive for a movie that is, essentially, a teenage psychodrama.
The soundtrack for Scream for Help was composed by none other than John Paul Jones, the bassist/keyboardist for the legendary hard rock band Led Zeppelin. The score is so versatile that it almost borders on corny; the music flows effortlessly through spooky synthesizer lines, cop show-like action themes, dramatic orchestral swells, and jazzy pop standards. For some of the more rocking sections of the score, Jones enlists the help of his Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page and Yes frontman Jon Anderson, giving those segments an all-star jam vibe. As memorable and punchy as the music is, it never overpowers the movie; Jones’ score for Scream for Help functions as emotive background music, just as it should.
Through the years, Tom Holland has kept on doing what he does, working mostly these days on television and internet series. Like many of his contemporaries, he’s even been around long enough to see some of his earlier films like Fright Night and The Initiation of Sarah remade into big-budget Hollywood productions. But there’s a whole other layer to his body of work; underneath Fright Night and Child’s Play, there are a handful of cool little movies like Scream for Help.