THE SHOUT. Intriguing and captivating horror story
On the pages of this series, I often evaluate a particular horror film in terms of its ability to evoke feelings of fear, terror, uncertainty, and other emotions commonly associated with this genre. It’s easy to defend a horror film if, while watching it, we feel scared; the story may be silly, the acting unconvincing, and any artistic expressions may be lacking, but if the work can make the viewer tremble with fear or even react nervously to the images they see, it’s hard not to consider such a film a success.
Therefore, a horror film that does not induce fear, that fails to evoke a strong reaction to what we see on the screen (and reactions that are appropriate for the genre—irritation or amusement can also be strong but unwanted responses when it comes to horror) should be immediately ignored and rejected as an example of failed craftsmanship. Emotions, however, are very subjective criteria for the quality of a film because, first of all, what terrifies one person may be a source of laughter for someone else, and secondly, the final evaluation should not be solely based on whether a particular film, in this case a horror film, has frightened us. Nevertheless, fear is the sole criterion for a successful horror film for many. Perhaps that’s why The Shout, which was critically acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival, isn’t as well-known as it should be—it intrigues, invites the viewer to a specific game, but it’s not particularly interested in scaring.
Transferred from the 1920s to the 1970s in this adaptation of Robert Graves’ story, we are taken to a mental institution where a cricket match is to be played with the participation of patients, doctors, and local residents. The task of scoring the points is taken on by the writer Graves (Tim Curry), invited by the superintendent, and Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), an incredibly intelligent and well-read man, though not entirely normal. But what is normality, the writer asks, to which the superintendent shows him two trees—one, mighty, with a lush, full crown of leaves, the other with twisted branches, nearly bare. Crossley believes that his soul has been split into four parts and that during his many years among the Aborigines, he acquired the ability to emit a deadly shout. He then proceeds to tell Graves the story of the marriage of Anthony and Rachel Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York), whom he visited one day in a small coastal village.
It’s worth pausing here because when we move to Crossley’s story, we notice that we’ve already seen the Fielding characters in the film—Anthony is one of the cricket players, and Rachel is the person who quickly entered the institution to view the dead body lying in the dining room. We don’t know who the victim is, who died, or how, but the next scene is initially difficult to understand and connect to the rest of the story. An unknown figure wearing a sailor’s greatcoat walks through a sandy area, and when we see this person up close, it turns out to be an Aborigine. All the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place as Crossley’s strange story unfolds, in which he plays the role of an intruder who believes in the murderous power of his own shout, breaking up the marriage.
The supernatural element here is the titular shout, initially considered a madman’s invention, but in Crossley’s story, it becomes the source of genuine power. However, it seems to play a rather decorative role, serving as more of an addition than a key plot element. When we finally hear the shout, it gives the impression of something genuinely inhuman, powerful, but also individual—it doesn’t change reality, but only momentarily makes it bizarre. It’s not unlike the musical experiments conducted by Anthony in his studio, where he plays with various objects to extract new sounds, and then further processes them. The boundary between what is real and what is fantastical practically doesn’t exist since in both cases, the end result sounds otherworldly.
However, the Polish director of The Shout (much like Graves in the story) is less interested in the incredible ability to shout and more in how the newcomer influences the Fielding couple. At first, he invites himself to their home for dinner, tries to prove his superiority to the husband, magically forces the wife into submission, and takes possession of her body and mind. Suddenly, the deadly shout becomes the least of Anthony’s problems as he loses his standing in the house and cannot defend himself against Crossley’s incredible influence. In this respect, The Shout resembles other thrillers where an intrusive guest disrupts the lives of the main characters—the tension arises from the gradual dominance of the outsider and the helplessness of the residents. Although portrayed by Alan Bates, the newcomer can indeed be unsettling (there is something diabolical about him, evident in his appearance, gaze, and the judgments he pronounces), it is hard to feel real horror when we remember that we are listeners to a story where certain ambiguities are evident from the start.
During the first screening of The Shout, it’s easy to pick out the turning point when horror gives way to something entirely different. Crossley begins his story with these words:
Everything I’m going to tell you now is true. Even though I tell it differently each time, it’s still the same story. Sometimes I change the order of events or the location of turning points, which keeps the story alive. I want it to stay alive.
Graves, and following him, Skolimowski, contemplate the power of the storytelling process itself, the interplay of truth and falsehood, instead of, as is typical in horror, realism and fantasy. The latter undoubtedly has a significant impact on the listener, piquing interest and causing unease, while simultaneously casting doubt on every word heard. Furthermore, both the literary original and its film adaptation introduce a real character, Graves himself, further complicating (especially in the film) the differentiation between what is real and what is fabricated. Truth fuels fiction, and fiction fuels truth, although beneath this illusion, a more honorable name for art may be concealed. After all, Crossley’s story will be recorded by the writer (the real Graves cited an actual cricket match played in a psychiatric hospital as one of the inspirations), Anthony creates his own music from unusual sounds, even attempting to replicate the incredible shout later. In one scene, a reproduction of a Francis Bacon painting hanging in his studio comes to life before our eyes. Art and life feed off each other, never revealing to the end where one begins and the other ends.
I admire Skolimowski’s work for its almost unconscious ability to immerse the viewer in the narrative world. Much like Tim Curry’s character, we listen to a strange story, captivated by the storyteller’s mastery, his audacity in bringing even the most unbelievable ideas to life, and the intriguing need for a continuous evolution of the anecdote. And although Bates’s magnetism is unquestionable, York radiates strong sensuality as always, and both the visual and auditory aspects of the film are captivating, The Shout does not excite or scare. It is too preoccupied with its own storytelling process to consider how the viewer should feel.