Friday, February 15, 2019

Screams of a Winter Night (1979) review


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), William Ragsdale (Gas Station Attendant)

Directed by James L. Wilson

The Short Version: Released theatrically in a 90 minute version, this exclusive 2 hour cut reinstates an additional story that has never been seen until now. This first-time feature from director James Wilson and writer Richard Wadsack is more competently made than your average regional  horror. SCREAMS is a late-night styled spook-a-thon with an old-fashioned, Amicus anthology ambiance; a touch of slasher shenanigans; and a helping of pre-EVIL DEAD devilry in its wraparound. It's not entirely successful but packs enough shudders in its ghostly campfire concept and ample shivery sound effects to ensure there's just enough chill in the air on this WINTER NIGHT.

College prankster John and nine of his coed friends head up to Lake Durand to spend a quiet winter weekend at his family's isolated cabin. Unknown to most of his guests, the remote retreat is built on property alleged to be haunted by Sha-taba, an evil Indian winter spirit said to be responsible for numerous violent deaths. That night, John and his friends gather around the fireplace to tell four scary stories till the wind picks up and a terrifying howling crashes their party.

James L. Wilson's Louisiana lensed fright-fest gets off to an unsettling start with a total blacked-out opening sequence made up of spooky sound effects, a shrill, unholy howling, and the sounds of a family in some undisclosed time period preparing to do battle with a wind demon. Cut to our ill-fated, van-full of weekend travelers stopping at a gas station--encountering several characters that would fit right in with the folks from DELIVERANCE or even the eerie crowd of LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.

This oft-used, rural horror set-up the chill in the air once the college students make it to their final destination at this isolated, and sinister, cabin in the woods. Night sets in and the cast settles down around a fireplace to raise some goosebumps with four stories (only three were seen in SCREAMS theatrical release) dealing with urban legends, ghosts, and murderesses. What many of them are not aware of is that their location is steeped in folklore of its own--tied to several violent tragedies over the years.

Shot in Natchitoches, Louisiana during the summer of 1978 at a cost of $300,000, SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT was one of many examples of regional horror films mass produced in the 1970s (and into the 1980s) outside the major studio production lines. Some of these are held in high regard (like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, and THE EVIL DEAD) while others have moderate to middling followings among fans (like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE and TOXIC ZOMBIES).

SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT was a success during its theatrical release in 1979, although the film had no staying power and fell into obscurity like numerous other titles. Over the years, it has managed to amass a meager cult following. It's a surprisingly strong little picture, showcasing a level of skill that defies the inexperience of its first-time writer and director (both of whom produced together). Unfortunately, it was James L. Wilson's and Richard H. Wadsack's first and last time behind the camera. Apparently, the experience in dealing with the distributors at Dimension Pictures was too frustrating; and whatever aspirations he and writer, co-producer Richard Wadsack had of becoming successful filmmakers in Hollywood had soured.

Curiously, the quartet of stories are the weakest parts of the movie; while the wraparound portions deliver the bulk of the shivers. The stories are decent enough, just very rudimentary and basic. The segments at the cabin (shot in and around Black Lake, Louisiana) provide the tension the tales mostly lack. 

Some of the exterior shots create the proper mood--such as wide shots of the van traversing the winding road deeper into the woods; and imagery of the placid lake where a palpable evil is about to make its presence known.

The finale, for example, is eye-opening in the way it methodically builds a substantial amount of horror so quickly; making one wonder why the previous 90 minutes had tiptoed around its shock value so cavalierly. Still, storytelling is the film's strong suit as well as its central theme. The reliance on weaving spooky tales as opposed to using a single one as a springboard for a series of gory killings will have greater appeal to those who have participated in the ritual; that being the audience that will find greater appreciation for the sort of yarn the filmmakers are spinning.

The focus on telling scary stories and local legends reminded me of when I was a kid in the cub scouts--eating S'mores and telling ghost stories. There's very little blood on-screen so adolescents are safe with this picture (although it's suspenseful enough in places to give some of them nightmares). The appeal of SCREAMS will mostly be with nostalgia buffs, anyway; rather than hardened horror fans expecting more than this PG terror flick is offering.

Now let's take a look at what all the screaming is about....

In the first segment, Roger and Estelle run out of gas on their way home from a school dance. Since this is a horror movie, Roger makes two mistakes--leaving his date in the car while he walks to a gas station alone. What they don't realize is a moss-covered, cackling creature is stalking them.

Based on the urban legend, "The Boyfriend's Death", this story's antagonist is cited by reviewers as being a Bigfoot type monster. To contrast, the malevolently chortling thing recalls something more in the vein of the Blair Witch. The creature doesn't even look that big--what you get to see of it--nor does its description match the hairy hominid predominantly "found" in the Pacific Northwest. Fairly brief and unremarkable, the story does have a minor chill effect due to the scratching noises on top of the roof of the car moments before the shock reveal. If you're familiar with this urban legend, you know what that is.

Story #2 is about fraternity pledges who have to spend the night in an abandoned hotel with the stipulation not to go past the first floor. Naturally, this being a horror movie, they go past the first floor.

There's some light comedic moments in this spooky segment with the three frat boys believing the bumps in the night they're hearing on the floor above belong to their fraternity brothers trying to scare them. This one manages some light terror when each of the three young men disappear one after the other. The final image is unsettling, and one of the more memorable of the entire film. The setting inside an actual abandoned apartment building adds to the atmosphere of dread.

The third tale concerns the legend of a witch named Lorraine, an outcast who lived in the woods on the outskirts of town; an evil woman said to haunt an old Catholic cemetery and desecrate its tombs. One night, two high-school kids decide to see if the stories are true. This being a horror movie... of course they are.

Cut from the film at the behest of Dimension Pictures executives for reasons of time so as to fit more theater showings, this story is as simplistic as the others; but falters a little bit due to the flying witch creature that's as scary as a Halloween decoration. Despite its silliness, the filmmakers retain the spooky aura of the preceding stories.

Story #4 is about "Crazy Annie", an anti-social, sexually repressed female psychopath who seemingly dislikes men and women equally--and especially if they're having pre-marital sex. Annie's free-spirited roommate has posters of Robert Redford and other men affixed to the walls on her side of the room and, one night, borrows Annie's shawl without asking. After a heated confrontation, and with this being a horror movie, viewers know Annie is going to snap.

The final yarn in this creepy compendium abandons the ghosts and goblins, settling on a human monster in the form of the withdrawn Annie. The most thematically complex of the tales, it also does the least with its premise. As for Annie's psychosis, it's ambiguous if her trauma began from nearly being raped by a date at the outset, or if she was already crazy. What makes this short subject special is Beverly Allen's interpretation of the orthodox, unsophisticated Annie who, when set off, lets loose those pent-up frustrations. One minute her face displays a refined innocence and the next she's smiling murderously at the camera. It's an effective final stab before the wrap-up rips your guts out.

The acting is also worthy of mention. Not only do the actors in the wraparound play the parts in the stories they're telling, but virtually everyone turns in believable performances. Granted, some of the cast have little to say, but for the most part, the delivery is better than what this sort of picture normally offers. Matt Borel, Gil Glasgow, and Patrick Byers are especially good. Borel's portrayal of John is arguably the most pitiable of them all; being the lonely practical joker whose hobby is studying legends and scaring people half to death. When all Hell literally breaks loose at the end, he gets one of the best responses after timidly uttering with apprehension, "It's just a story..."; that response being what was used as the movie's tagline, "How do you think those stories get started?!"

Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly, aside from Gil Glasgow, most of the cast did little to nothing afterward. If you're a fan of FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)--and likely you are, you'll spot a young William Ragsdale as the peculiar, inquisitive gas station attendant near the beginning.

The acting is particularly effective in the explosive finale. Everyone plausibly captures a feeling of fear; that death is about to take them. There's also an air of familiarity about the climax just before the wind demon makes its appearance. I wondered if Sam Raimi hadn't seen the picture and been influenced by it before making THE EVIL DEAD (1981); and not just in the cabin setting. The scene where Ellen Sandweiss begs for the tape recorder to be shut off just before a window shatters is similar to Beverly Allen's finale freak-out in SCREAMS after her friends begin this bizarre taunt and chant routine as the wind pounds outside and the hellish howling grows louder.

Overly ambitious for a low budget picture, the filmmakers utilize some solid editing and even some helicopter aerial shots to tell their story. The score isn't entirely successful, but a few cues deliver the creeps. For a first-time director, James L. Wilson displayed an assured hand for this type of material. A shame both he and his co-producer and writer Richard H. Wadsack never did anymore horror features.

If regional horror appeals to you, SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT is a well made, if occasionally rough hewn example of low budget horror made with a level of passion that shows onscreen. Those desiring a fast-paced splatter flick will be left out in the cold; unlike the warm fire that awaits those seeking a modest, old-fashioned spookshow populated with wind devils, witches, ghosts and graveyards. 

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: Exclusive 2K scan of the original negative of the never before seen 120 minute version; 90 minute theatrical version; interview with star Gil Glasgow; TV spots/trailers for SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT, BLACKOUT, THE FIFTH FLOOR, STREET LAW, THE DARK, CONQUEST; Running time uncut version: 01:58:44; Running time theatrical version: 01:31:29

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