With the dawn of the eighties, slasher movies saturated the horror genre; spawned by the 1978 success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, scores of imitators made their way into theaters during what would become known as the Golden Age of the slasher film. Some of these films, like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, became timeless classics. Others toiled away in obscurity, only seen and remembered by hardcore fans of the subgenre. Released in 1980, Silent Scream is one of the underappreciated.
Silent Scream is the story of Scotty Parker (Rebecca Balding from The Boogens), a young college co-ed who registers late for school and is forced to seek housing off-campus. After searching and searching, she finally finds a room in a large boarding house overlooking a seaside bluff. The house is owned by Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo, better known as Lily from “The Munsters”), who mostly keeps to herself in her room and lets her son, Mason (The Return’s Brad Rearden) handle the tenants, of which there are three others: the dreamboat Jack (soap opera hunk Steve Doubet from “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital”), the rich and spoiled Peter (John Widelock in his only film), and the fun-loving Doris (Blood Cult’s Juli Andelman). However, there is one more resident of the house; Mrs. Engels’ daughter, Victoria (the legendary Barbara Steele, who worked with both Federico Fellini in 8½ and Roger Corman in The Pit and the Pendulum), is locked away in the attic. After the roommates enjoy a night of dinner and drinks, Peter is found dead, stabbed and buried in sand on the beach. Not knowing any of her new housemates, Scotty has no idea who she can trust, but she has to figure it out quickly so she can stay alive.
Production on Silent Scream (alternately known as The Silent Scream) started in 1977, which means that the script actually pre-dates Halloween. Unfortunately, inexperienced director Denny Harris found that the original script, written by Wallace C. Bennett (The Philadelphia Experiment), did not translate well into a motion picture. The screenplay was rewritten by Ken and Jim Wheat (the masters of the horror sequel, with credits like The Fly II, It Came from Outer Space II and The Birds II: Land’s End) and mostly re-shot with many of the actors recast. The film was finally completed three years later, just in time to be considered derivative of the slasher genre. And that’s a shame, because Silent Scream could have been considered an influential film instead of simply a drop in the bucket.
Although the identity of the killer is telegraphed a mile away, there are still a few neat little surprises in Silent Scream. The addition of a couple of hard-boiled yet inept cops – played by Cameron Mitchell from Blood and Black Lace and Galaxina’s Avery Schreiber – forces the film to walk the line between murder mystery and horror film. The visual effects are serviceable, but nothing fancy – about par for the course for the era. The body count is low when compared to its golden age contemporaries but, then again, even the grandfather of the slasher film, Psycho, only has two on-screen killings. Despite its perceived shortcomings, Silent Scream still manages to be a pretty freaky film.
The Engels house itself is creepy, in a Psycho-esque way, sitting secluded on a hilltop with mysterious eyes peeking out through windows covered with curtains. The mother in her room and sister locked in the attic only add to the eeriness, and these elements come into play before a single drop of blood is spilled. The film’s overall spookiness is not limited to production design, either; one of the most memorable scenes, which is also one of the most blood-curdling, features a long tracking shot through the passageways to the top floor until, ultimately, Victoria’s hands break through the wall, letting the viewer know that she is free from her attic confines. It’s a horrifyingly fascinating shot, and it’s one of the reasons that Silent Scream is an unsung hero of the slasher subgenre.
Silent Scream’s musical score is another aspect of the film that sounds derivative at first, but ends up being an integral part of the film. The score, written by Roger Kellaway (The Dark, Evilspeak), quotes familiar melodies, filtering the motifs through unfamiliar progressions making the soundtrack seem oddly comforting and ominous at the same time. Though not as iconic as the music from, say, The Amityville Horror or The Exorcist, Kellaway’s score gets the job done, and Silent Scream is much scarier because of it.
In the world of would-have, could-have and should-have, Silent Scream is a pioneer of the slasher movie craze. In reality, the film gets lost in the sheer volume of post-Halloween shockers. Any way it’s looked at, Silent Scream is worth a view, if only to satisfy the historical curiosity of what might have been.