Canon Entry - The Shout (1978)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Watching The Shout reminded me of a nightmare I had once. Like most dreams, the contents of such fancies immediately vanish from your mind the moment you wake up. What I did remember was that even though the content of my nightmare had been genuinely scary yet ultimately evanescent, I remember that I had witnessed my nightmare at a distance. I was more fascinated than terrified by the dream, as if I were watching a film in which I knew that no matter how horrifying the images running in my mind were, I was perfectly safe at home in my bed.
Jerzy Skolimowski’s film reminded me of that nightmare. Based on a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout starts off in a sanatorium where, appropriately, there is some confusion as to who the “sane” people and who are the patients. One swarthy stranger named Crossley (Alan Bates) ingratiates himself with Anthony (John Hurt) , a sound engineer, and eventually his wife Rachel (Susannah York). His first encounters are strange but mostly innocuous. Predictably, their relationship becomes more and more insidious and bizarre as the film progresses.
For me, The Shout was better at invoking the feelings and associations of a nightmare rather than providing a true horror movie. Just from the aforementioned opening scenes in the sanatorium, Skolimowski and screenwriter Michael Austin brilliantly telegraphs to the audience that we are to trust nothing. Beyond just the patients who seem to delight in deceiving visitors by putting on visages of sanity, this theme of deception is embedded into the film itself. Just the fact that Anthony is a sound engineer who uses the most mundane of objects to create eerie and unearthly sounds could be thematic foundation enough.
The uncertainty of the film narrative even permeates into the most famous scene in the movie. Crossley has apparently learned how to perform a shout that is so loud and terrifying that it can kill any living being within a certain radius. (This was also one of the first movies to take advantage of the then-new Dolby surround sound system and is best played at a high volume.) The shout is definitely jarring and, I imagine in a proper movie theater with a good sound system, truly deafening and gut-wrenching. But I couldn’t help but laugh when the sheep fell over like so many meme-worthy fainting goats, presumably slaughtered by this shout.
Even if I did laugh at that scene, I don’t think that’s an inappropriate reaction to this film. (By the way, the sound that is made when Anthony is hit in the back of the head with a stone was so visceral that I almost rubbed my own head in pain, a testament to the truly masterful sound design of this film.) For the most part, Skolimowski has such a firm control of tone, visual and otherwise, that the movie doesn’t fall apart under its eccentricities, even as the plot gets more and more bizarre.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention for this movie and maybe why it is not well-known is the development of the relationship among Crossley, Anthony and Rachel. Crossley is certainly mysterious and definitely has a power over Anthony that is certainly adjacent to sexual charisma. Still, Crossley is able to disrupt their relationship so easily and effectively that the only real explanation must be that the Anthony and Rachel’s relationship was already tenuous at best before Crossley’s intervention. We don’t get much hint of their relationship before Crossley’s presence, but I suspect that it was all surface and no passion. Or maybe this is totally wrong. Again, this movie is open to many, many interpretations. One that I favor, and is no means definitive film, is that Crossley is a manifestation of the animus that exists between this couple - a dark, ghastly familiar that symbolizes their unhealthy repression of their darker urges. In fact, when Rachel prepares to sleep with Crossley after being seduced (because of his brooding handsomeness and abuse of her husband, I guess), she strips and goes on all fours in an eerie reenactment of a picture that had been in John’s study, as if her humanity had been subsumed by her animal desires.
Skolimowski’s genius is that he can immerse us in this nightmare of a movie without holding our hand through obvious visual tricks and cues. For example, he does such a great job filming this movie with tons of natural light that it lends to the movie’s confusing nature in a good way. It is hard to believe that anything filmed so brightly and clearly could be misleading and untrue, which makes our disorientation feel even stranger and deeper. When we are given rare glimpses of this relationship, we see a preternaturally picturesque English village and perfectly lovely people, which makes the presence of someone like Crossley even more jarring. Bates plays Crossley with an urbane, James Mason-like charm that is oddly enticing yet distancing. John Hurt is appropriately anodyne and emasculated as Anthony, who very well may be going through a mental breakdown. For a disjointed, fevered narrative, everything fits and works like demonic but accurate clockwork.
I had never heard of this movie before this year, but I am stunned to see how much it predicted and pre-dated so many other movies I love or at least appreciation. Berberian Sound Studio has a very similar premise with the sound engineer as a main character who cannot trust his senses. A Serious Man has a similar scene in which a cheating couple tells the cuckolded husband to simply accept the infidelity for what it is. Even the works of David Lynch almost seem derivative until you realize that Eraserhead came out a year earlier and had been brewing in Lynch’s mind for many years. Sometimes our most interesting dreams are our nightmares, as this film proves in spades.