Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Night God Screamed, The (1971)

...aka: Scream

Directed by:
Lee Madden

Not a bad little shocker. In fact, it's better (and much more original) than a good number of inexplicably more-famous '80s slashers and probably would have a better reputation amongst genre fans if it weren't so obscure. The version I saw released by the Canadian label Marquis Video (it was also released on VHS by Guild Home Video in the UK and Trans-World in the US) is very dark and scratchy, which only adds to the gritty and creepy feel of the film. It would still be nice to see a company clean this one up and release it to DVD sometime in the near future but it's hard to tell if that's actually going to happen or not. SCREAMED is home to quite a few tried-and-true genre conventions. The first half deals mostly with religious fanaticism, a backwoods hippie cult (a then-popular theme because of the Manson murders) and psychological torment, while the second half turns into more of a home invasion thriller/slasher flick with some telephone terror thrown in. However, the film manages to pull it all off fairly well and even throws in a few genuine surprises along the way.

After drowning a girl during a forced baptism, cult leader Billy Joe (Michael Sugich) and his motorcycle-riding Jesus Freak followers break into a church and crucify preacher Willis Pierce (Alex Nicol) when he won't give up the donation box without a fight. Willis' reserved wife Fanny (Jeanne Crain) witnesses the brutal murder from a hiding spot and later testifies to convict Billy Joe and put him on death row. Billy Joe promises he'll get revenge before being taken away and as Fanny leaves the court house, she's given an evil stare-down by some of the other followers. From then on out Fanny becomes increasingly more paranoid and emotionally fragile. She starts hearing the echoing threats of cultists in her mind and believes she's being followed. The judge from the trial asks Fanny if she'll babysit his four "teenage" children; Peter (Dan Spelling - who co-wrote this along with producer Gil Lasky), Nancy (Barbara Hancock), Sharon (Dawn Cleary) and Jimmy (Gary Morgan), for the weekend while he and wife go on vacation. Fanny reluctantly agrees and arrives at the secluded country home only to find her charges harboring hostility toward her because the parents insist they all stay home for the entire weekend.

At nightfall, Fanny starts receiving heavy-breathing phone calls, which soon turn into threatening ones as the voice on the other line utters some very familiar sayings; the same ones she heard from Billy Joe at the trial. Not long after, a dummy is left in the yard with a death threat attached, the (25-year-old-looking) "kids" start seeing glimpses of hooded people sneaking around outside from the window, the phone goes out and the power goes on and off. It seems that the surviving cult members have followed Fanny to the home and are now going to get the revenge. Even worse, some of the cultists have managed to sneak inside the home and start murdering the kids one by one... Everything leads up to a twist ending that I personally didn't see coming at all.

Not a particularly violent film, this relies more on suspense, twists and exploiting hard-to-see or barely-glimpsed images in the pitch dark to achieve its horror. It also benefits from a quality lead actress in the main role. Crain (an Oscar nominee in 1950) does a very good job and helps to offset some of the weaker performances from the lesser-known actors/actresses in the cast. Apparently this title rubbed some people the wrong way, so the film had to be retitled simply SCREAM to play in more conservative areas. Check it out if you can find it.


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