Silent Scream is noteworthy as being one of the first slasher films, though it’s largely been forgotten. Made by an aspiring director, Silent Scream was a troubled production, but the film was ultimately a commercial success, leading to the rise of slashers in the early ‘80s. It’s also quite good.
Silent Scream was a project conceived by Denny Harris, a first-time filmmaker. Harris was an award-winning director of commercials and wanted to branch out into motion pictures. He created his own production company, and working on a low budget, Harris shot his horror movie in the summer of 1977. Once it was complete, Harris came to the conclusion that film needed an overhaul and brought in two screenwriters, brothers Ken and Jim Wheat. The Wheats had the crazy idea that Harris re-shoot most of the picture. Though seemingly an extreme approach, the director/financier actually agreed it was the best option.
With the Wheat’s new script in hand, filming resumed in March 1978. A number of veteran actors were brought into the fold, including Yvonne De Carlo, best known today as the matriarch on The Munsters, and Barbara Steele, who first gained fame as the lead in the Italian horror classic, Black Sunday (1960). One of a handful of actors to appear in both versions of the film is Rebecca Balding, who had previously worked in TV. Balding plays the central role of “Scotty Parker.” The character is an early example of a “final girl”, sharing some of the same traits, including an androgynous name and appearance. There’s debate in film circles over whether the “final girl” is meant to appeal to young males or young females (or both), but in this case, the Wheat brothers have stated that the “Scotty” character was designed to attract female audiences. They believed—as do others within the movie industry—that when a male/female couple have decided to go the movies, the picture they end up seeing is usually selected by the female partner.
Much of the film takes place at a creepy house on the hill—an actual Victorian home in Los Angeles, part of what is known as the “Smith Estate.”
Harris spent $450,000 on the first version of the picture, with only 15% or so of the initial footage shot making it into the finished product. There were further delays before it was ever shown on the big screen.
Considering the issues this production had, Silent Scream is a surprisingly good psychological horror film. The plot concerns a group of a young people living in a boarding house, which is owned by a secretive family. As would become standard in slasher films, the young people are offed, one by one, by a mysterious killer using a large knife. There’s blood spilled, for sure, but there’s not much in the way of gore here. Highly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho (1960), Silent Scream is suspenseful and well-acted, and the Wheats’ murder mystery keeps the audience guessing. Composer Roger Kellaway went big with the score, recalling Bernard Hermann’s work in Psycho and Cape Fear. The spooky dwelling, which evokes the Bates residence, adds to the “haunted house” vibe.
Harris proved himself to be more than capable as a filmmaker, and there’s one scene, in particular, in which his skills behind the camera are on full display. As one of the boarders is murdered in the basement of the house, two others are having sex upstairs, with Harris intercutting the simultaneous acts to great effect. It’s both the highlight of the film and a highpoint in slasher cinema.
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