The Shout Review

The Shout appeared at my local Odeon in 1980 as part of a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing and, in retrospect, the two films seem to signify a fascinating period in British cinema. Following the demise of Hammer and Amicus, genre lines were being blurred, unconventional projects found financing the most unlikely movies were given major circuit releases. Both Roeg’s film and The Shout are, to my eyes at least, quite obviously horror films in both spirit and specifics but they don’t have the trappings of the genre and neither film received coverage in the specialist press. They are the best kind of genre films; thoroughly disturbing, they linger in the mind and force the viewer into a state of considerable discomfort. Indeed, in the commentary track on this DVD, Stephen Jones describes The Shout as one of the best British horror films of the 1970s and I can’t in all honesty disagree with his verdict.

It’s a film which appears, at first, to be very small-scale but gradually assumes epic implications. The central situation is that of a triangle between husband and wife Rachel (York) and Anthony Fielding (Hurt) and a stranger named Crossley (Bates) who arrives at their cottage on a Sunday afternoon and refuses to leave. He takes control over Rachel, perhaps with the use of Aboriginal magic, and deliberately humiliates and sidelines Anthony. Crossley, who appears to be a vagrant, tells a story of how he killed his children in the Australian outback and goes on to inform Anthony about his ability to use a shout which is powerful enough to kill. Taking Anthony out onto the beach near their North Devon home, Crossley demonstrates his power. But the film presents the story from the point of view of Crossley who tells it to a stranger, Robert Graves (Curry), during a cricket match at an insane asylum. How much of what he tells is truth and how much fiction is left for the viewer to decide.

It’s a very ambiguous film which is made in a deliberately disorientating manner by the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. He doesn’t go as far as, for example, Nic Roeg but he does use strange and powerful images and has a fine line in unnerving camera set-ups- notably one framed by a door during which Crossley seems to enter out of nowhere. Skolimowski was a graduate of the Lodz film school who achieved notoriety for his collaboration with Polanski on the film Knife In The Water. Like that film, The Shout is heavily influenced by the work of Harold Pinter, not least in the pervading atmosphere of slightly indefinable threat which lingers even when Crossley - the source of tension - is absent from the scene. Skolimowski’s career contains a few real high points such as this film, Barrier, Deep End,the very funny Nabokov adaptation King, Queen, Knave and the superb Moonlighting. But he seems to have fallen quiet since Ferdydurke in 1991 and it remains to be seen whether his long-announced adaptation of Susan Sontag’s America ever actually gets made.

Skolimowski is very strong on intimate relationships and the moments at which acquaintance becomes commitment. As such, he’s the ideal director for this kind of chamber drama and he brings a real intensity to the scenes between Bates, Hurt and York. We never question that something is at stake in these relationships - a single beach scene manages to evoke the marriage between the Fieldings, while the presumptious body language of Crossley is just as revealing as his more explicit naked romps with Rachel. In this, he relies heavily on the superb cast, all of whom are at the peak of their form. Alan Bates uses his ability to dominate a scene to memorable effect - all those Simon Gray plays honed his talent for devouring the centre stage - and John Hurt is convincingly put-upon without seeming unduly weak. As for Susannah York, well she’s so believable and so sensual that one yearns to see her given a decent role in the twilight of her career. Yet all three of the main cast, along with the director, recognise the absurdist comedy in this situation and there’s something very comic about Crossley’s casual domination; not least because it’s placed in such a familiar English setting with bad food, endlessly langorous Sunday afternoons and cricket on the lawns. The moment when Susannah York prowls across the kitchen to find the man who now owns her is both scary and blackly funny - and everyone involved gets the tone absolutely spot-on.

It’s perhaps this awareness of the comedy inherent in the drama that allows The Shout to become very scary indeed at times. All good horror films contain elements of comedy, usually black and absurd, and the height of terror in The Shout comes when Crossley takes Anthony out to the beach and demonstrates the shout. It could have been a terrible moment had it been mishandled but the visual imagination of the scene and the astonishing use of Dolby on the soundtrack makes it an unforgettable set-piece. The scene achieves something very significant - it makes us believe Crossley and makes his threat completely real. We suddenly believe in him and his terrible, fascinating history. The fear is never quite resolved, even with the framing device questioning the veracity of his tale, and so the nature of Crossley and his gift remains deeply unsettling. Equally fascinating is the business of the soul and how it is embodied - perhaps in a buckle from a sandal or in a stone.

There’s so much about The Shout which is unsettling that it baffles me how anyone couldn’t identify it as a horror film. For instance, I’ve never been able to cope with too much of that electronic sound which Anthony Fielding produces in his studio - the marbles and the water give me the creeps for some reason. Every location is well chosen for how it typifies a certain kind of Englishness; as has often been observed, foreign directors tend to do very well with English location shooting.

The Devon beaches here are just as eerily suggestive as the wilds of Cornwall in Straw Dogs or the Holy Island of Cul-De-Sac. It’s all so odd and troubling that the ending - which explains why Crossley is at the cricket match in the first place - seems a little too neat and prosaic. But the film is packed with deliberate ellipses and suggestions which are never quite resolved - the time scale may well have you scratching your head - and in this, as with so much else in this most impressive of movies, Jerzy Skolimowski’s control is masterly.

The Disc

The Shout has been available before on a Region 2 disc from Prism, but Network DVD’s new release is a definite improvement.

The film is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The picture quality is generally very good. There is a small amount of print damage, mostly in the form of small scratches, but artefacts are at a minimum and the level of detail is pleasing. Colours are particularly strong throughout. The main flaw is a slight softness throughout. The soundtrack is a Dolby Stereo mix which replicates the original theatrical presentation - if you were lucky enough to find a cinema which could provide it back in the late 1970s. It’s a strong track which comes to life at the most important point - during the scene on the beach where the shout is demonstrated - and keeps the dialogue clear and crisp.

The extras are particularly pleasing. As expected, there is the original trailer, which is rather too explicit for its own good. For some reason, in the 1970s, a trailer wasn’t considered acceptable unless it gave away at least three vital plot points. There’s also a photo gallery which is small but does include the superb artwork created for the theatrical poster. Most impressive, however, is a commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. As usual, they are enthusiastic and brimming with knowledge. However, I have to point out that, contrary to Newman’s assertion, Knife In The Water was clearly not an influence on Pinter’s early work since it was written four or more years after his early shorts and The Birthday Party were first performed.

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