Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Shout (1978)

A woman wanders down a Kubrickian tiled hallway and uncovers a body laid out on a slab. Then, a solitary devilish figure wanders drunkenly out of focus through a sand covered landscape during the film’s opening sequence. As the theme music gains clarity through near deaf ears, the figure comes storming into focus and reveals himself as an Aborigine shaman brandishing a sharp, threatening object that is soon to be seen again. He is, at once, an imposing presence and although only exposed to him briefly, one is reminded of his powerful impact when cricket player Robert Graves (Tim Curry), is forced into the confined space of the mysterious and chilling Charles Crosley (Alan Bates). 

“He’s not entirely normal” Graves is told, prior to the meeting and normality is defined via the form of two different trees, one symmetrical and aesthetically sound (a symbol of the traditional mainstream filmmaker)  and one twisted and strange (this film’s visionary director, Jerzy Skolimowski). The Shout (1978) is a film of curious parallels. The murderous titular roar happens in the middle of the film and its narrative effect can be read back to the films beginning, or the film’s finale because the shout itself reverberates, mirroring events both before and after it. In visual terms the film could be explained like this… Start((((SHOUT)))))End.

As Graves meets Crosley, the two become framed by the glassless window that dually captures the cricket match underway outside. Crosley begins to tell the story of how he came to possess the supernatural powers that enable him to kill people with one single, powerful shout. His story itself is  told within the cricket match and proceeding events unfold via the imagination of our admittedly unreliable narrator. From hereon in, the film unfolds in the annals of Crosley’s memory, where he tells how he came to impose himself on a husband and wife in a sleepy and remote coastal village. Crosley tells Graves and us, his audience, not to trust his account and confesses to changing the story each time he tells it, thus placing scruples on the audience as well as the characters he proceeds to terrorise.

Antony and Rachel Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York) wake up on the beach, startled from a dream and with a buckle missing from a shoe, they head off home via the cobblers. Distracted by the shoemaker's wife, who is also his mistress, Antony rushes off home with Rachel. He is reminded of their relationship as two workmen carry a mirror from a building and pause before them, framing their reflection, a virtual wedding photograph of the “happy” couple and a weight on the conscience of the philanderer. Later, following a frolic with his mistress, Antony is surprised when he finds Crosley waiting for him on his doorstep. He invites him inside for dinner where Rachel is introduced to him. He stands before her with a decorative wasp, circling his head, halo style, before spotting a real wasp on their window pane which he promptly crushes beneath his thumb, eradicating any false praise or positive judgement one may have associated with his character. After a timely migraine attack at the dinner table, the guest of horror ends up staying with the couple for a few days. It is not a comforting scenario as Crosley tells of his life in the outback for eighteen years and brazenly confesses to murdering all of his children, a statement which disturbs Rachel, but only due to the shame of her own infertility.

Antony, a sound effect specialist and church organ grinder, is fascinated by Crosley’s claims of a magical shout and agrees to follow him into the sand dunes to witness the deadly effect for himself. Here we are presented with a collector and creator of sounds and his clash with the real deal. Bates is incredible as Crosley. He is monstrous and charismatic in equal measures. The Shout subverts all we know of the actor. Following the intensity of his shout, we see a shepherd and his equally lifeless sheep lying dead on the sand almost as if director Jerzy Skolimowski, is somehow attempting to bury Bates’ former memorable self (his famous role as Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)) whilst presenting the viewer with something completely new and refreshingly unique. Both physically and in the intensity of his gaze, Bates frightens fellow characters and the audience as the protagonist, he lurks behind corners or at the foot of the bed spying on Antony, his presence sends a shiver down the spine, as does the savage tone of his unpredictable words. 

Polish director, Skolimowski who was also responsible for the brilliant British / West German drama, Deep End (1970) fortifies a composition that is both intelligent and intricate. Perception is manipulated throughout, as on many occasions characters are captured whilst framed by windows, mirrors and door-frames. A photograph of the Francis Bacon painting, Paralytic Child Walking On All Fours in Antony’s sound-studio, which is brought to life on a couple of occasions with cricket player (Jim Broadbent) and Rachel, recreating, without boundaries, the suddenly frightening pose.

Francis Bacon's painting and Suzanne York mirroring the pose.

The framing often acts as a cage for Crosley’s untamed beast and it unnervingly toys with the viewer’s acuity of events. Discomfort is created via the film’s surreality and the countless layers of ‘looking’ that encapsulate the viewer into the film’s very heart. Initially we watch Crosley, watching the cricket, he then invites viewers into his mind and hypnotically so, as his eyes fade away to reveal what’s going on beyond them. American Novelist, Arthur Herzog once said, “The Universal narrator knows all and can enter a character’s head any time he chooses.” Thus bringing the focus back to Skolomowski, whose vision, which takes the vein of the strange and twisted tree, dominates all. Within Crosley’s thoughts there are scenes of Antony, ostensibly alone but in recalling that this is Crosley’s account, we consequently know that he is in fact being watched, then as a lone arm lurks around a corner to let down a bike tyre, the audience is pushed back to spy on Crosley. Therefore, for the duration of the film, the audience is forever in bed with the unreliable narrator, with the universal narrator ensuring that it is always bewitchingly uncomfortable. 
Examples of "framing" within the The Shout. 

Regardless of its title, The Shout is a very quiet masterpiece that lays dormant beneath the noisy legacy of films of a similar guise such as Don’t Look Now (1973). Stylistically, both films complement one another perfectly, with the latter perhaps relying more on assertive shock-value to bring the scares. The Shout, on the other hand is more subtle in its approach, and opts to tickle the deep psychological fears of its audience, creating insidious chills. Void of traditional shocks, jolts and jars associated with the horror genre, The Shout, filmed in a British realist style reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson (If (1968) Britannia Hospital (1973)),  is a more formidable and sinister affair that, thanks to Bates’ disturbing performance and Skolomowski’s scrupulous direction, creates the strange impression that you are not only watching the film, but Crosley, in a pseudo-spiritual guise is somehow watching you too. And then, once more, completing the film’s loop, a woman wanders down a Kubrickian tiled hallway and uncovers a body laid out on a slab.

Don't Look Now (1973) and The Shout (1978)

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