Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 10, 2014
A number of years ago, for reasons that seem a bit hazy to me now, I began a pseudonymous film blog called Arbogast on Film. (I’m often asked why I chose the name Arbogast, an obvious allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I have always just loved that name and back in the 80s I thought of throwing down a ‘zine with that name as a sort of catchall for the obscure and weird. Never got around to doing that and yet the name popped back into my mind when I was dicking around on Blogger and thinking to myself “I don’t have a personal blog, but if I were to have one it might look something like this…”) I already had the Movie Morlocks working for me and back then I was blogging twice a week rather than once, so it’s not as though I was itching for more work. No, as I recall, I wanted to do some writing apart from my established community, well away from the blognoscenti, where I could please myself and throw down some chancy stuff. I didn’t expect anyone to follow me and yet the site turned out to be popular. I kept it going for four or five years before pulling the plug. I was just too busy and couldn’t really afford to indulge myself in a spate of free writing… especially not when I had already dedicated several Octobers to a series I called “31 Screams.” I was bored with all the horror blogs that pulled out the same old titles year after year for the requisite Halloween Top Ten lists and so I thought it might be unusual and fun to review, not movies themselves, but some of the greatest screams in genre history. And so I did that, 31 of them every October, year after year, with the final tally being somewhere in the low triple digits. I think some of that work is among my best and it always kind of killed me that, as I’d sworn myself to pseudonymity, no one would ever know it was my hand moving the pen. So now, with your indulgence, I offer a look back at some of the great screams of all time, along with my eggheaded observations, inane asides and occasional bad language…
1. Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, PSYCHO (1960)
Some day someone will write a book- and maybe it’ll be me – placing Marion Crane up there with Jay Gatsby and Tom Joad and Johnny Tremain in the pantheon of great American characters. She’s not only one of us, she’s the missing link between us and Norman Bates. She shows us how you get from here to there. Sadly, tragically, operatically, she dies at the moment she has decided to turn back, to embrace light, to do the right thing. I’ve always imagined, as I’ve rerun the shower scene in my head (and I do that a lot), that once Marion gets over the shock of being ambushed at her most vulnerable (by an attacker she can barely see through the glare of the bathroom light and the veil of shower spray) her reactions are less about terror than about panic and frustration at the bad timing.
2. Andrea Rau as Ilona Harczy, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)
So bewitching are the accumulation of events, so unexpected their fulfillment, and so sumptuous the mise-en-scène that the quotes from other films don’t detract, don’t knock you out of the picture. Instead they feed the story, as ancient folklore continues to inform our collective consciousness – whether we are aware of its presence or not – and is manifested in our fears and nightmares, both dreaming and cinematic.
3. Carol Ohmart as Anabelle Loren, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Annabelle’s scream is an instant classic, orgiastic and operatic, the perfect banshee ululation for this modern woman in Gothic dress who combines a contemporary hunger for freedom with an atavistic, feral cunning. She is the polar opposite of Carolyn Craig’s sweet but sexless office drone, whose cuntless, Aqua Netted sterility will become the norm for American women through the 1960s, begetting the horror genre an assembly line of pudding headed mundanes ripe for the slashing – the kind of pep pill popping dress mannequins that Fuad Ramses chopped up for chum in BLOOD FEAST (1963). Annabelle Loren deserved to win, because she wanted it more.
4. Arthur Storch as The Guy Who Gets His Nuts Crushed by Pazuzu, THE EXORCIST (1973)
Truth be told, the carpet drop is thematically consistent with the fates of other characters in THE EXORCIST, who are all brought down… Burke Dennings and Damien Karras propelled out of out Regan’s bedroom window, Lancaster Merrin sent to the floor with a fatal heart attack, Chris MacNeil with her face shoved down there… making all of Pazuzu’s victims fallen ones. So this effect is somewhat justified. But still, the moment leaves you thinking about this guy when your mind should really be on the poor kid with the Devil inside her. Watching him scream out, I can’t help but flash forward… every time this guy whips it out until the day they read the kaddish over his cold clay he’s going to think of Regan MacNeil.
5. Sandy Descher as the Ellinson Girl, THEM! (1954)
The girl’s scream is primal, as animalistic as the food chain mishap her innocent eyes have branded upon her young brain.
6. Brenda Bruce as Prostitute as Dora, PEEPING TOM (1960)
… these first frames of PEEPING TOM destabilized their intended audience with the seediness of the setting, with a prostitute depicted in the plying of her trade (the camera even rudely frames her ass, packed into a tight red skirt), with the woman undressing on camera and with her murder onscreen; this just wasn’t done. Michael Powell was pilloried by the critics, whose coverage of the film read like a complaint list of medical symptoms: nausea, revulsion, disgust. In their wounded response, these arbiters of the public taste were letting Michael Powell know that he had crossed a line.
7. Candice Hilligoss as Mary Henry, CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
A lot of horror movies are a journey-to-self, with the protagonist learning by the final fade out something essential about him or herself. Mary learns a hard lesson – that she never had a chance, that she was screwed from the get-go. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this final scream from Mary. I don’t think she’s frightened. I think she’s simply fed up with the world and the chump’s game that is life and she can’t contain her primal scream any longer.
8. Haley Hudson as Stevie, THE PACT (2012)
Hudson’s character describes in what amounts to less than ten minutes of screen time a highly effective arc, from barely cognizant interested party to scene-driving savant to pathetic victim of occult powers, wrung out like a dish towel from her experiences and disinclined to continue. She gives the film just the energy spike it needs at the midway point and then fades back into the woodwork. We move on with the plot but we never forget her, sustained in our catechism that Hell really is other people.
9. Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, THE TINGLER (1959)
This sexual subtext makes THE TINGLER more than just a gimmicky hoot ‘n’ holler. Produced in the interval between the buttoned-up Eisenhower era and the branding of Nixon’s “silent majority,” the film argues passionately for hysteria, for catharsis and release, putting forward the notion that not only do we all go a little mad sometimes but that we had damn well better.
10. Richard Dysart as Doc Copper, THE THING (1982)
When you notice an actor’s dental work, they must really be screaming up a storm.
11. Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
Her terror reduces her to something like a one-celled organism. She is no longer fully human. She is 95% scream.
12. Beverly Garland as Nadine Storey, NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)
One of the reasons Beverly Garland gives such good scream… is that she projects such an air of confidence, of resourcefulness and courage in extremis that such a reaction is literally her last resort, her mental fail safe. She’d rather run or fight than scream but, denied those avenues, she does what she can.
13. Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl, THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
Seeing the film for the first time many years ago, I gravitated toward Sandweiss, whose Semetic good looks ran toward my aesthetic preference for exaggerated features — long noses, wide mouths, prominent teeth. She is the one I would have gone for, had I been a character in THE EVIL DEAD, and her suffering remains personal to me, as her gradual corruption and consumption by the forces of ancient evil breaks the heart I would have offered her. In this scene, Sandweiss is resisting that corruption. She’s fighting a losing battle, of course, but nonetheless opposing that influence with all she has. In some ways, it’s the ultimate horror scene, it is primal, and her screams are more than just a reaction of terror — they represent her animus, her soul, going on the defensive, fighting back. Clearly, she is not going gentle into that bad night.
14. Lone Fleming as Betty Turner, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971)
Among horror movie screams, this one’s a beaut. A handsome more than pretty actress in the Maureen O’Hara mode, Lone Fleming was never all that memorable in subsequent roles (as another character in this film’s immediate sequel or in de Ossorio’s EXORCIST clone DEMON WITCH CHILD) but here she is unforgettable as her scream of abject, unendurable horror carries her off as one swept away by a flash flood. It is a perfect illustration of someone who has met her breaking point and has nowhere left to go. It’s almost as if Betty screams to clear a mental logjam that just won’t budge – never has a scream seemed to me to require so much conscious effort.
15. Joanne Woodward as Carol Cutrere, THE FUGITIVE KIND (1960).
She has seen a literal vision of Hell but given that Carol came in crazy she can only leave closer to sane than she has been in a long, long time… I don’t suggest that’s a good feeling.
16. Eva Axén as Pat Hingle, SUSPIRIA (1977)
Sometimes in western novels and films, a woman who has been raped will be described as having been “used.” One senses in this eye-popping opening to SUSPIRIA that we are watching Pat Hingle used up, her mind violated, her soul raked, her body pulped for the satisfaction of some demonic entity we can scarcely understand.
17. Dawn Richard as Theresa, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957)
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF flipped the script for shapeshifter stalkery, having pretty high school gymnast Theresa (Dawn Richard, Playboy Playmate of the Month in May 1957) caught off guard on the parallel bars. As troubled youth turned untroubled beast man Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) advances, Theresa finds herself at a 180 degree disadvantage. She screams, of course. I mean, who wouldn’t? Perhaps s all the blood rushing to her head by dint of gravity gives Theresa an intelligence boost, for she manages to get herself off the bars and make a right side run for it…… but you know high school gymnasiums and locked doors. Theresa doesn’t get very far. And for what it’s worth, if she were able to open that door, she probably would have found a closet full of dodgeballs.
18. Catriona MacColl as Mary Woodhouse, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)
Even though we’ve been in the coffin with Mary, the sight of her peeking palefaced out of the hole gouged in its lid still gives me the creeps. Her eerie pallor, the moist, wound-like redness of her open mouth, and the thought that coffins everywhere might be reverberating with the screaming of their inhabitants is quite literally the stuff of nightmares.
19. Valerie Hobson as Lisa Glendon, WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)
One of the things I find most attractive about British actress Valerie Hobson (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON) is that her prettiness borders on the dowdy, on the matronly. There’s a character actress beneath that veneer of alabaster loveliness and this latent tendency is nowhere more apparent (if only to me) than in the scene towards the end of WEREWOLF in which she is confronted by her shapeshifting husband (Henry Hull). Hobson’s reaction might even pass for a sneeze at first, as her mouth reacts faster than her eyes but eventually (we’re talking nanoseconds here) her whole face catches on to the horror of the situation and she lets rip with a remarkably horsey scream. Seriously, it’s the Secretariat of Screams. I want to give her an apple or a sugar cube or put a bit in her mouth or something.
20. Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Helen Cooper’s death scene is, for me, the tent pole of horror in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, worse than Judy and Tom being flame-roasted and eaten by ghouls, worse than Barbra being taken by her own brother, worse than Ben’s undeserved headshot… and the credit goes primarily to Marilyn Eastman, who is spot on in her lethal disbelief, sympathetic in her plight and unforgettable in the horrific particulars of her demise. That we don’t re actually hear Eastman providing her own screaming underscores the subtext of Helen Cooper as a women of her repressive times, in full possession of her own ideas and sensations but lacking the license to voice them.
21. Patricia Blair as Helene Delambre, THE FLY (1958)
THE FLY‘s classic POV shot is meant to represent Hedison’s perspective but it really reflects more tellingly Blair’s reaction, how, in her horror, she explodes, fragments, goes cellular. She stops being human, just like her husband. Well, at least he’s still half human… but she is all scream.
22. Sandra Shaw as Hotel Woman Dropped by Kong, KING KONG (1933)
If I were to tell you that one of my favorite cine-screamers is in the original KING KONG (1933) you’d go, “Fay Wray, oh yeah,” and I’d give you a moment to savor your own memories — and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with you, as Fay may be the Queen of them all — but I’m talking about Sandra Shaw. Shaw, you might remember, plays the sleeping New Yorker whom Kong grabs from her bed as he tears across town looking for Ann Darrow… A lot of people laugh at this scene but it really bothers me. For one thing, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time imagining a backstory for this non-character, based on what little information there is. She’s sleeping alone – is she a lesbian? A spinster? A widow? Did her husband go to see the Kong show and she, disgusted by the media hype and/or cruelty to animals angle, elect to stay at home and go to bed early? Well anyway, it’s all academic as Kong reaches into her bedroom window and plucks her from sleep, only to give her the most cursory inspection (as she screams pitiably) and then discard her. It’s awful! I hate this scene. Shaw’s horrified reaction to this unimaginable, incomprehensible tragedy is well played and honestly rendered without an ounce of camp but what’s haunting to me is the way her scream fades as she falls…
23. Sara Paxton as Claire, THE INNKEEPERS (2011)
THE INNKEEPERS progresses and complicates on the path to its Big Finish but it never really gets any better than this. The characters deserved a story on par with their personalities but Sara Paxton, whose weeny Ipswitch mouth blossoms nicely into a proper bloom of horror when she screams, is certainly welcome here.
24. Janet Munro, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (aka THE CRAWLING EYE, 1958)
Caught somewhere between the fight or flight response to fear, her amygdala glowing like a bedside alarm clock, Anne bunches up under her bedclothes. She’s got nowhere to go and no defense against this man who quite clearly means her the most extreme harm. She screams, leaving herself wide open. But that’s Anne Pilgrim for you – wide open, pure of heart, vulnerable.
25. Sam Lerner, voice of Chowder, MONSTER HOUSE (2006)
Any MonsterKid worth his salt, fat or thin, will see himself in Chowder. A trick-or-treat loving chubber with a penchant for the macabre and the steely reserve of a 4 year old girl, he’s no match for the Monster House, in rapacity or relentlessness.Chowder’s scream of fear will resonate with anyone who ever braved as a curious child an empty house, a length of sewer drain, a patch of eldritch woodland, a cave, a dark lake, a cobweb-laced attic, a cellar with a dirt floor.
26. Jocelyn Jones as Molly, TOURIST TRAP (1979)
This scene doesn’t represent Jones’ first crack-up in the narrative but the last. Quick to scream, she does so immediately but the result is far from merely ornamental. There’s something fragile about the actress, or at least the character she plays in TOURIST TRAP, as if she has a few less layers of skin than the rest of us. Every time she screams, it’s as if you can see her psychological seams ripping and the very fabric of her personality, her individuality, her sanity coming undone like taffeta in a tsunami. The experience of watching her psychological degradation is not dissimilar to the Grand Guignol vibe inherent in most pornography… the physical breaking down of a woman via an assault of serial slamming.
27. Yuko Takeuchi as Tomoko, RING (2006)
We don’t know whether Tomoko made a sound in her death throes and that’s part of what troubles us about it, what haunts us, and what makes RING so effective all these years later. It leaves us alone in the dark with terrible questions and the horrible weight of wondering.
28. Jitsuko Yoshimora as Kichi’s Wife, ONIBABA (1964)
Take 103 minutes out of your life and watch ONIBABA this Halloween. If you aren’t charmed and spooked by its utter simplicity – the grass, the wind, and human fragility in all its unflattering shades – then we have nothing further to discuss, you and I.
29. David Hedison as … THE FLY (1958)
Although Bey Nye’s makeup suggests dessication and age, there’s an innocence about the flyman, a seemingly complete inability to understand why this is happening, that makes him seem like a child. Your heart breaks, it positively breaks at the uncomprehending terror of this poor creature, the most helpless being in all Creation. Empathy sits cheek by jowel with revulsion as you watch this death occur and hear this thing’s dying entreaties for someone to save it, to be its hero, to spare the only life it has.
30. Charles Napier as Lt. Bill Boyle, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Napier has one of the most impressive screams in horror movie history. You can almost hear the testosterone pooling in the back of his throat as he sounds out. This guy is an alpha dog. His piss could take the paint off a brick wall. And he wants Lector to know that as he dies. It may seem a minor point in the grand scheme of things but in the last seconds of his life that’s the only ace Lt. Bill Boyle has to play.
31. Elsa Lanchester as The Bride, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Every time I watch BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN I’m struck with how short a time she has on Earth – is it even three minutes? I’m acutely sensitive to time issues, like in a Dracula movie where the Count is revived, rises from his coffin, chases a bunch of people, tries to make some girl his bride, and then gets staked or drowned or tangled up in prickers after only being back on the planet for a day and a half. What a waste, I always think. It’s Count Dracula – can a brutha get a week? Same with the Bride of Frankenstein. Would a life of ten whole minutes have been too much to ask?
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