Monday, September 20, 2021

Kino Lorber's THE SCREAMING WOMAN Reviewed

THE SCREAMING WOMAN (1972, 74m 4s; Kino Lorber): Recently, Kino Lorber has been quietly releasing a number of the horror/thriller-themed ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK offerings from the early 1970s, including Paul Wendkos' FEAR NO EVIL (1969), its sequel Robert Day's RITUAL OF EVIL (1970) and Jerry London's KILLDOZER (1974). Like their earlier releases of Dan Curtis' THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and John Lllewellyn Moxey's THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) a couple of years ago, which hailed from the same origins, these restored presentations have gone back to the original 35mm film elements and breathed new life into what had previously been available as stale, ancient video transfers, which makes some of them a good deal easier to appreciate. 

The story concerns Laura Wynant, the wealthy matriarch of an immense property, recently released from a mental sanitarium. Shortly after her homecoming, she hears signs of life coming from beneath the ground on her adjoing property where an old smokehouse used to stand. Of course, none of her relatives believe her because they are banking on her being nuts so they can inherit and sell her land from under her - even though eerie cutaways confirm the faint mutterings are coming from a battered woman buried alive by (we later learn) a violent, philandering husband (Ed Nelson) who thought her dead. Realizing that her closest relatives are useless to her, she tries to appeal to neighbors to help exhume the poor woman - in a series of vignettes mildly reminiscent of Frank and Eleanor Perry's THE SWIMMER (1968) - only to find her personal reputation an impediment.

The key attractions here are several: the star is Olivia de Havilland, in her first lead role in six years, and whose clout also attracted her old friends Joseph Cotten and Walter Pidgeon to participate); the script by ONE STEP BEYOND co-creator Merwin Gerard is based on the Ray Bradbury short story of the same title (it had previously been the basis of a classic SUSPENSE radio episode and would later be retold in more faithful adaptation on THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER); it was the last made-for-TV movie to be scored by John Williams; the costumes are actually by Edith Head (!); and the director is Jack Smight, who had just recently directed the theatrical Bradbury adaptation THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969), starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. 

Though she is playing an "older woman" with a loosening hold on reality, Miss de Havilland was 56 years old when she made this picture (she died in 2020 at 104!) and I was staggered throughout this film's relatively brief running time - thinking her to be perhaps somewhat older - by what an athletic, physical performance she gives. She's always running, climbing up and down hills, skipping up and downstairs - often in heels - her only physical deficit being her character's arthritic hands, which prevent her from digging up the half-dead woman herself. Her introductory shot is almost egregiously self-conscious and precious, but this was practically the Oscar-winner's first dramatic role since 1964's LADY IN A CAGE and HUSH, HUSH... SWEET CHARLOTTE, apart from a minor role in 1970's THE ADVENTURERS, and, when all is said and done, she earns the moment of honor. She gives a remarkable performance, really throwing herself into the part and never allowing a moment of doubt of her sincerity and, really, immense gift. Her craven children are played by Laraine Stephens and Charles Knox Robinson, and Nelson's hopeful mistress is embodied by Alexandra Hay. Nelson figures in an unintentionally funny sequence of events involving his victim's bloodstains, which I won't ruin for you - except to ask, why are killers always motivated to touch a bloodstain to verify it? 

It sure looks like blood... feels like blood... should I taste it, just to make sure?

For all its considerable provenance, the film is mostly a cold porridge of suspense, closer to something by Henry Slesar than anything we might recognize as coming from the universe of Ray Bradbury. In its defense, however, as it neared its finale I realized that what it was really missing was black-and-white. The color cinematography's main directive is to enhance production value by being colorful; it robs the film of all its potential atmosphere - and, believe me, DP Sam Leavitt's other credits (CAPE FEAR, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, SHOCK TREATMENT) suggest he could have brought a great deal more to the table. 

The 1.33:1 Blu-ray disc features optional English subtitles and also includes a few relevant trailers and an audio commentary by FANTASTIC TELEVISION author Gary Gerani. Gary has a real affection for this era and niche of production and can be trusted absolutely to bring all of the film's production notes and points of interest to the surface. 


(c) 2021 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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