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Film Review: The Shout (1978)

Aboriginal mysticism meets quintessential English village framed by a lunatics v doctors cricket match… No seriously, I’m not making this up. If you haven’t seen (or more aptly heard) The Shout then you really have been missing out.

Put it this way if there was an award for the weirdest film ever this little bundle of fun would be right up there. Throw in a myriad of themes and symbolism including Francis Bacon and it just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Though often classified as a horror movie, Jerzy Skolimowski's 1978 flick is a taut psychological thriller; intense, disturbing, unsettling, The Shout is all these things and more, but to classify this as just plain old horror actually does the film a gross injustice.

As subversive as it is sexy, in many ways this film is an archetype of the 1970s independent British film scene and as such takes its place neatly alongside a continuum with The Wicker Man at one end and Straw Dogs at the other.

The main narrative opens in what would have been termed pre-political correctness as a lunatic asylum, and where the staff and inmates are playing their annual cricket match. It’s all so very ordinary, so very… English.

Clad in their cricket whites, it’s never entirely clear who are the lunatics at this particular institution and who the staff, at least not until the film’s conclusion.

Into this rather odd situation enters Tim Curry (patient or staff?) who finds himself scoring said match alongside the mysterious Carsley (Alan Bates). “If you score the game, I’ll tell you a story of which every word is true,” says Bates with a faraway look in his eye, adding the crucial proviso, “although I do change things around to keep up interest…”

The art of the storyteller.

How does an audience react to this information? This is a lunatic asylum after all, the home of the misguided and the deluded and the character of Carsley does look as if he’s seen (and maybe even done) unspeakable things.

As a framing device, Bates is then both unreliable narrator, yet also, in the words of Shakespeare someone “wise enough to play the fool.” But that’s The Shout all over: nothing is what it seems.

A baby-faced John Hurt plays avant-garde sound engineer and church organist Anthony Fielding, a man for who the term mild-mannered by might well have been coined.

While nubile wife Helen (Susannah York) wafts airily around the interior of their rustic Devon cottage, Anthony, it seems, is more concerned with extracting the frustrated sounds of jam jar entrapped bluebottles for his latest composition.

Meanwhile an aboriginal warrior clad in a Royal Navy tunic stalks a nightmarish landscape of sand dunes. With its nod to that other seventies Brit-flick Walkabout all ominous silences and close-ups of seemingly mundane objects, Nic Roeg himself could have directed this.

Into this subtly repressed atmosphere enters Bates, a wide-eyed Rasputin-like figure oozing intent, mainly sexual. Where he came from and precisely why he chooses the Fieldings we know not. In keeping with the supernatural motif Bates simply materialises, literally out of thin air.

How do you deal with a guest who has overstayed their welcome? That’s the dilemma facing the Fieldings. Furthermore, what if said guest casually alludes to killing his own children over the roast beef? Tricky.

To their credit Hurt and York play it to perfection, a mixture of repressed disgust and good old fashion inertia. When their guest goes on to mention his aboriginal past and in particular his ability to produce what he terms his ‘aboriginal death shout’ things take a turn towards the sinister.

The scene in which Bates demonstrates his thunderous shout is both funny and horrible. Eardrums exploding, Hurt rolls down the aboriginal haunted sand dunes. Meanwhile various farm animals die on the spot. Look out for a sheep that gets instantaneous rigor mortis.

Thereafter the flashback structure takes us back and forth betwixt past and present. How the Fieldings have ultimately ended up at the same cricket match is just another of this film’s many loose ends. Are they also patients at the asylum, driven to distraction after playing host to the guest from hell? All very odd.

Yes, The Shout is one of those films with which it’s better not to delve into the internal logic too much. Hurt is out there on the pitch padded up and swinging his bat. Why? Because.

Not that such details should detract from what is an otherwise exceedingly intelligent and highly watchable film. Bates is mesmerising. And it’s easy to see why York’s Mrs Fielding falls under his spell.

“I’m going to finish my meal,” casually announces Bates while York sits fawning at his feet, “and then I’m going to go to bed with your wife.” Suffice to say Hurt is flabbergasted, but utterly powerless to intervene. Usurped by another male, more potent, more virile – The Shout certainly taps into the fragility of the male psyche.

A thunder and lightning climax on the cricket field is a suitably odd way to close, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘this strange eventful history.’ It’s certainly as chaotic a scene as you will witness in cinema.

At this point in the film one is inclined to wonder if Bates has been simply making up his tale of aboriginal sorcery. After all he is mad. And he did warn us of his propensity to rejig the narrative when it suits.

Was The Shout just a figment of a very fertile imagination then, a way of passing an otherwise boring day at the cricket? Maybe, maybe not. Something did occur at the Fielding’s cottage, precisely what remains fragmentary, enigmatic and teasingly unresolved.

Eclectic, bizarre, but undeniably original, The Shout is an utterly compelling film precisely because of its definition defying oddity.