Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE SHOUT (1978)

John Hurt, a musician and sound engineer, lives in a small English village with his wife (Susannah York). One day while they are relaxing on a deserted beach, York has an unsettling vision of an Australian aborigine holding a bone in his hand. Later that day, Hurt meets up with Alan Bates (pictured), a scruffy wanderer who hasn't eaten in days. Hurt takes Bates home where the stranger regales the pair with odd stories of his recent past living among the Australian aborigines; he claims to practice a voodoo-ish magic, can kill with a powerful shout, and came home and killed his children according to aboriginal tradition. The couple are both repelled and fascinated by Bates and he winds up staying in their home where he uses his magic to seduce York. It's unclear how seriously we're supposed to take his magic powers (after all, Bates also has intense charm and physicality on his side in his seduction efforts) but when Hurt asks to see a demonstration of his killing shout, Bates obliges in an extremely effective scene which results in the death of seabirds, sheep, and a shepherd (though Hurt, having worn earplugs, collapses in a daze but recovers).

Now here's where things get really tricky. The story has been related as a flashback by Bates, now a resident in the village asylum, to Tim Curry, a scorekeeper at a cricket match between the villagers and the asylum inmates. As Bates' story builds to a climax, with police closing in on Bates to arrest him for the murder of his children, the frame story also climaxes with a thunderstorm which unsettles some of the inmates. Curry, the stand-in for the audience, isn't sure how much of the story is true; Hurt is present at the game, and York is a nurse at the asylum, so is Bates' narrative real or is he a totally unreliable narrator like Kevin Spacey in THE USUAL SUSPECTS or, more appropriately, the narrator of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI? The last shot manages to have it both ways in an open-ended but still satisfying conclusion. Hurt is fine as a confused man who doesn't know how to fight off the intruder who has stolen his wife, and York is even better (very sexy in an almost oblique way), but Bates steals the show with his memorable (whether magical or just crazy) character. There is good cinematography and an interesting score, sometimes consisting of amplified electronic effects in scenes in which Hurt is experimenting with the distortion of everyday sounds in his studio. The shout scene, which occurs halfway through the film, is in some ways the climax, though it's to the film’s credit that we remain interested in the rest of the plot. [TCM]

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