Looking back at the mystical nightmares of one of the oddest films of the 1970s.
The Shout has always felt like a film that stands alone. It is a horror film and yet simultaneously isn’t; a movie too odd to be mainstream yet too conventional to be an arthouse film. It’s an oddly disturbing film that appeared as the British horror film of the 1970s – indeed, British cinema as a whole – was gasping for breath, with Hammer and Amicus long gone and even the new mavericks like Peter Walker struggling for direction, and it has little in common with the genre films that came before it. rather than exploring either the gothic or grim suburban nightmares, it instead takes elements of the then-popular Australian aboriginal mystical dramas like The Last Wave mixed with an MR James style story (the shorts of John Hurt scrabbling around in the sand dunes for a mysterious artefact immediately bring to mind images from the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, or perhaps the more recent reboot of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, also starring Hurt) and the suggestion of pagan carnality to create a curious, unique and fascinating film that – despite its reputation for unstructured weirdness – is a gripping and fast-moving story. It’s the sort of film that transcends genre as we know it – and today would probably be called ‘elevated horror’, sitting as it does outside its contemporaries and straddling the line between art and commercial cinema – but don’t let that put you off. This is a film with big ideas and a sense of deliberate ambiguity but you never get the feeling that it sees itself as somehow above the genre that it works in – this is a different approach but it’s not the work of people who have contempt for the form.
The film opens with a cricket match that we slowly come to realise is between villagers and the residents of a local insane asylum – it remains ambiguous who exactly is who in many cases, right to the end. Robert Graves (Tim Curry playing the author of the short story on which the film is based) arrives to keep score and is paired with Charles Crossley (Alan Bates) – another patient at the hospital, who begins to tell him the story that makes up the main body of the film. So already, we are on our guard, knowing that this is a story from a mentally disturbed individual who happily admits to changing the facts each time he tells the tale to “keep it alive”.
This framing device sets up many of the themes of the film, namely the English class system and sense of respectability that permeates the story, as avant-garde musician Anthony Fielding (John Hurt at his twitchiest) meets Crossley outside the village church where he has been filling in for the organist. It’s not a chance meeting – Crossley has let the air out of Anthony’s bike tyre and engages him in a theological conversation as he pumps it up. When Anthony arrives home, Crossley is outside waiting for him. He seems aware that Anthony has been having an illicit affair with the wife of the local cobbler – his reason for being home late, an excuse about ‘bike problems’ sounding entirely unbelievable – and uses the information to wangle an invitation to lunch. Here, he meets Anthony’s wife Rachel (Susannah York), and the three of them have a very awkward, very British meal, as Crossley talks about his eighteen years in the Outback, where he married an Aboriginal woman and murdered his children shortly after birth. The married couple is unsure how to react to this, and Anthony finds himself reduced to ludicrous small-talk as Crossley expands on his arcane knowledge of shamanistic rites before apparently collapsing.
It’s clear immediately that Crossley is tricking his way into their lives, and the meal becomes an overnight stay. When Crossley takes Anthony out to the sand dunes to demonstrate the lethal ‘shout’ he has learned, it shatters the man’s cosy existence. The intruder starts to take more control of the household, using his alleged powers to seduce Rachel, making her his sexual slave while the insipid Anthony is left helpless.
There is much more to The Shout, of course, but to describe it would be to spoil the twists and turns that the film offers. Suffice to say that the narrative remains questionable throughout, and even the ending is suitably ambiguous as to keep us guessing.
The Shout is a puzzle of a film, deliberately confusing and open to interpretation. Director and co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski had played with ideas of the outsider and the interruption of a cosy society before, in his screenplay for Knife in the Water and his film Deep End, for instance, and here ties it to both a mystical, supernatural story and an almost comedic outsider’s look at British society and middle-class politeness. The scenes of Hurt and York trying to make polite conversation with the man who has entered their lives uninvited and tells such outrageous offensive stories – because asking him to leave would be rude – are cringe-worthy stuff, as is Hurt’s bewildered reaction to seeing his wife kneeling next to Bates, licking his hand. Rather than be angry, he just seems oddly embarrassed, and you half expect him to apologise for intruding.
Given that the film is essentially a three-hander, it requires solid performances from all the leads and thankfully has them. Bates is on top form – maybe his best form – as Crossley, both the story-telling and increasingly unhinged version and the cooly confident character in the story (the discrepancy between the two characters perhaps being a hint that this story is a fictional one), while Hurt is excellent as the nervous, self-absorbed musician (we see him locked away, creating experimental sounds yet somehow fearful of the genuinely unique noise that Crossley offers to show him) who is slowly replaced by the intruder. He’s a character who isn’t entirely sympathetic – he is, after all, cheating on his wife and so perhaps deserves little sympathy when the situation is reversed – and makes a good counterpoint to the earthy Crossley, who seems to be unleashed animal sexuality. But it’s York who impresses the most, as she moves from sheepish housewife to sexually passionate woman under Crossley’s magical influence. York gets several nude scenes – something unusual for an actress approaching 40 at the time and even now – and brings a real sense of uncorked passion to her character. You rather wish she had more to do in the story, but what she does have, she seizes with both hands. As a side point on her performance – I first saw The Shout when it was shown as part of our school’s film society and York’s nude scenes caused a predictable sensation amongst the kids in attendance who certainly didn’t seem to care if she was as old as their mothers. I suspect that showing the film to a bunch of schoolkids now would result in outrage – but it was a different time.
With an impressive audio design and a moody score from Genesis men Anthony Banks and Michael Rutherford, The Shout thankfully sounds as good as you would hope from a film where the sound is, after all, a major element of the plot – and Crossley’s fabled shout, when we hear it, does not disappoint. The idea of a deadly shout could easily be rendered laughable and the fact that the film pulls it off so well is admirable. The production doesn’t just sound good, though – it looks fantastic, its washed-out bleakness and dry, dusty atmosphere perfectly matching the narrative.
The Shout wasn’t a box office success – of course it wasn’t. For many years it wallowed in obscurity – a VHS release kept it alive but otherwise, it was the sort of film that might turn up on BBC2 or Channel 4 in the arty movie slots that both British TV channels used to have. It’s a film that has grown in reputation, though, especially with the rise of interest in folk horror, a genre that it seems to sit on the periphery of. It’s a curio, certainly – but despite not a lot happening, it moves at a surprising pace, and has a lot of atmosphere. It’s a film that might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy the more off-kilter and intimate British horror films – from Don’t Look Now to The Wicker Man – then this will prove to be an extremely rewarding experience.
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