Oct 6, 2011

Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

Director: James L. Wilson
Writer: Richard H. Wadsack
Producers: James L. Wilson, Richard H. Wadsack
Music: Don Zimmers
Cinematography: Robert E. Rogers
Full Moon Pictures; 91 min; color

Matt Borel (John / Ron), Gil Glasgow (Steve / Parker), Patrick Byers (Cal), Mary Agen Cox (Elaine), Robin Bradley (Sally / Annie's Roommate), Ray Gaspard (Harper / Billy), Beverly Allen (Jookie / Crazy Annie), Brandy Barrett (Liz), Charles Rucker (Alan), Jan Norton (Lauri), Bill Ragsdale (Service Station Attendant)

"Listen to the wind...."

Five college-aged couples go to a cabin for a weekend getaway, and in the dead of the wintry night, they tell each other tales of horror: a couple whose car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere are stalked by a furry creature; people meet their doom in a fraternity initiation to spend a night in an abandoned hotel; a young woman goes on a killing spree after a lovers lane rendezvous goes bad. These "urban legend" stories that the kids tell, however, become superficial once they physically experience a legendary horror that the local yokels at the gas station warned them about....

This regional horror anthology, shot in a spooky backwoods of Louisiana, is fondly remembered by genre fans who either caught it in its initial theatrical run, or back in the glory days of home video (it has never been released on DVD, which is why the old VCI VHS fetches a pretty penny on eBay). One can surely see the appeal, as the film is unique for its old-fashioned reliance upon setting and atmosphere to deliver the scares. In fact, the mood is set immediately, as the opening credits roll over a black screen, as we hear sounds of carnage, screaming and indecipherable dialogue. This is a brilliant touch, as (like the days of radio) movie audiences are given to imagine sights possibly more horrific than what a two-dimensional piece of film could muster, and because this chatter is of audio bits taken from the climax, the film begins where it ended-- these kids are on a destined path... (In another clever touch, the same actors play the people in the story they tell-- their characters thus vicariously live the tales of terror they are told.)

The stories that the kids tell don't really have a third act- there is a lack of motive or resolution in any of them, save perhaps for the vengeful woman episode. That segment is prefaced with the observation that the human monster is the scariest of all- oddly enough, all of the other tales of terror are founded upon an unknown, offscreen evil. And finally, the wraparound tale of the onscreen horror that the students face is similarly rooted in the unknowable. In this ingenious climax, the standard "dark and stormy night" setting is actually the menace, as the elements revolt against the hapless teens. Nice touch. Seeing this at a drive-in around a similarly wooded area must've been quite effective. In this regard, Screams of a Winter Night succeeds in what the overrated Blair Witch Project attempted: scaring us with the unseen, the unknowable, which exists just outside of frame, but within our minds. Rather than frighten us out of our wits with a rubber monster or mad slasher, the filmmakers cannily use those long moments of hesitation for the viewers to imagine their own monsters for what exists behind the door, or outside the cabin. Plus, the gnarled forest provides an ominous sense of isolation and helplessness.

The problem is, this clever premise doesn't completely work as not only are the acting and dialogue quite pedestrian, we don't really care about any of the characters. Because these ten people are unappealing, cackling, cruel sociopaths, it is difficult for us to be completely absorbed in their plight of being stranded in this creepy cabin while an evil presence lurks outside. Nonetheless, the final ten minutes make this amateur night worth seeking out, as all hell breaks loose, and the kids are besieged by the juggernaut of natural elements. On the surface, this is a unique movie that sustains a mood with making the surroundings as the monster, but with better writing and character development, this could have been great.

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