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March 15, 2019

Movie Review: "Screams of a Winter Night" (1979; Full Moon Pictures/Dimension Pictures/Code Red)


…ah, yes…having recalled ever so fondly, it was a starry, crisp and brisk Friday the 13th evening, when back in ’79, this budding film collector/reviewer (…then, a snot-nosed sophomore in high school…and yes, doing my very first movie reviews for the school newspaper, at the time) and his jaunty, rag-tag band of school chums, jam-packed ourselves into a weathered rag-top Jeep Renegade, and barreled down the road to the northern parts of downtown Pasadena, right smack dab in the greater San Gabriel Valley area…the destination?? The slick, brand new, freshly carpeted hole-in-the-wall Mann’s Hastings multi-plex theater therein, just up a suburbia-fettered hill, on the darkened outskirts of the town’s street-lit main drag. You see, we were unanimously dedicated to that particular theater, on this fine summer evening, especially after having been privy, for nearly a week previous, of an irresistibly creepy little TV broadcast movie trailer, advertising an obscure, lil’ under-the-radar horror flick, alluringly called “Screams of a Winter’s Night”…

…hell, after having merely seen the trailer, and the brief flashing scenes of absolute chilling fervor, coined from film…well, underlining our outward cinematic courage, we still couldn’t help but cautiously take note and silently wonder what the ‘@#$%’ we were getting ourselves into, in hitting the screens, and baring witness to this film (…you gotta understand, considering the liberal ratings board, this was back when PG was a fairly respectable rating for an on-the-cusp edgy horror film, at the time…it’d probably be PG-13, nowadays…and this was about a year before I double-dog-dare jumped from watered down PG-rated ‘wine coolers’, to mind-blowing 150-proof Tequila shooters, when we ventured out a late other night, to experience for the first time, Lucio Fulci’s unrated classic, “Zombie”…but that’s another story); but nonetheless, the challenge was set before us…the gauntlet, deftly thrown down…way too compelling to ignore. And so, we stepped up to the box office, got our tickets, went in, copped some flat Coke & some stale ‘corn at the counter, bravely sauntered into the designated half-lit auditorium, and plopped our butts down in the seats…

…now, in anxious anticipation of having the lights go down, and the movie kicking itself into gear, it would be quite easy to say that my friends and I were getting…eh, relatively comfortable, in the interim, talking randomly about horror films, as well as what we were about to see…our conversation, adding to the nervous murmur, scattered about the theater auditorium. However, over the mass random whisper of conversational chatter…listening carefully…wait, do you hear it?? Off in the distance?? Yes, a faint and weak, though curiously discernible ‘sound’ was heard in the back of the theater, just over the rampant vocal drone…a crackled and guttural, incoherently spoken ‘something’…not really a word or phrase per say, but sort of progressively ending a bit high-pitched, as if it was a question…and definitely enunciated at a level, to illicit…well, at the very least, curiously negligible attention, initially…

…”…n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee??”…

…with a shoulder-shrug, we furthered our conversation, uninterrupted…that is, until seconds later, we heard the strange sound again…only closer…

…”…n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee??”…

…and second later, we heard it again…and again…and again…getting closer…and closer…and closer…as the lights slowly dimmed in readiness of the feature film, about to start…

…now, this reviewer’s best friend at the time…we’ll call him ‘Chris’…was seated in the aisle seat, with the rest of us alongside…and before Chris knew it, a shaky, grotesquely wrinkled and gnarled hand reached out, and cupped itself atop his left shoulder. Without warning, Chris jumped in his seat shockingly, and let out…well, a rather unmanly high-pitched shriek…you know, kinda like how Ann Robinson sounded, when the Martian grabbed her shoulder from behind, in the 1953 sci-fi classic, “War of the Worlds”. Anyways, Chris’ glance shot immediately toward his left shoulder, and meeting him face-to-face…as grotesquely wrinkled and gnarly as the hand that grabbed him…an old woman’s crazed, aged face…truly, she had to be at least 273 years old…severely hunched over, and wearing what appeared to be several old and tattered lounge dresses. Stringy and sparse slivery-white hair, atop her head…her eyes, madly widened, like saucers…a slight trickle of drool, stringing from the corner of her mouth…the contoured cracks in her face were countless, and deeper than Hell’s pitch-black, abysmal pits…her other hand, with the same shaky, wrinkly and gnarly fingers, was held out to Chris…cupped out, up and open, in a beckoning, almost pleading manner…

…”…n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee??”, she muttered…

…with the snack time concession ads, opening theater logos and movie trailers, booming in the background, the rest of us looked toward Chris…our mouths agape in WTF…and well, Chris…clearly unable to find the words to respond, just sat there, gaping at the old woman, all wide-eyed…yeah, that all-too familiar ‘deer in the headlights’ look. However, having not elicited a response, the crazed senior citizen feebly hobbled and rocked herself further down the theater aisle, stopping at each of the remaining rows, with her starting appearance and incoherent utterance…

…”…n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee, n’hom-melee??”…

…and well…the last we saw of lil’ ol’ raisin biddy, right before the open credits of “Screams of a Winter Night” scrolled…she’d hobbled and rocked herself towards the emergency exit, coolly lit next to the flickering silver-matte wall…stopping halfway for a moment, to gaze up at the bright projection, directed on the movie screen whitewash…shakingly raising her right, balled-up fist at the screen, and letting out an annoyed, grating and phlegm-guttural “…a-a-a-ck”, before finally making her way behind the exit curtain, with the heavy exit door slamming closed soon after…echoing through the darkened auditorium, as a parting, albeit chilling epilogue to her little visit…

…uh, now that the proper mood was set, we then re-adjourned ourselves back to the screen, for…uh, for…

…that is, four young couples, and two tag-alongs…all college students…couples Cal & Laurie, Steve & Sally, Harper & Jookie, Alan & Elaine, and singles John & Liz…take a school break opportunity to road trip themselves deep into a wind-whistling forest wilderness, on suggestion that John…the lead adventurer of their motley group…knew of a quaint and seclusive backwoods cabin, where they could relax, fool around and rough it, a bit. Despite being sternly warned on route by some backwoods local okies, working a shanty rustic gas station and general store, the kids nonetheless swiftly skid away, loaded for bear…or rather, loaded with beer…eventually making their way off the main road, and roughly bumpily-bump, four-wheel-driving themselves down a barely discernible dirt road, leading miles into the mass tree-thicketed sticks, and towards the supposed lakeside cabin site…
…after a long drive, and invariably thinking themselves lost, the couples do eventually arrive at the cabin, after which they proceed to unload their packs & set up residence in the shack…wiping away what appears to be years of dust & cobwebs...and settle in for their stay. John…who giddily prides himself in telling scary stories, to the point of being a nuisance…suggests venturing off into the woods with a beer can totting Cal, to gather some firewood. On the way, he kicks the scary mood into gear, telling his buddy a shuddering story about an ancient Indian legend in these parts, involving a monstrous demon wind spirit that reportedly doesn’t take too kindly to heathen interlopers, invading these hallowed woods; despite actually showing his unsuspecting companion a reported cemetery site where an adjacent cabin had been struck and burned down, and it’s occupants killed in a most bloody and gruesome manner, Cal nonetheless laughs off the spook story as wholly unbelievable, and with a shoulder shrug, along with an armload of kindling, the both of them head back to the cabin, where their friends await…
…returning to the cabin, just as night falls and the winds begin to whip up an unearthly high-pitched shrill amongst the trees, John continues to relate and emphasize the local demon wind legend, and in raising an intriguing query amongst the group, as far as what truly scares people, he challenges his companions to come up with a scarier story than what he had suggested. Taking up the dare, several of the group begin relating their own tales of terror, as the rest of the captivated lot sit intently together, listening to chilling stories that unfold, involving:
-         *** A young couple, having drunkenly left the festivities of a local school dance, get lost while driving through a supposed shortcut, and run out of gas in the middle of some deep dark woods; the boyfriend gathers up a gas can from the trunk, and stumblingly tracks himself back to the main road, in hopes of finding a gas station…disappearing in the distant darkness, while his girlfriend waits in the car. After some time, is it the frightened girl’s vivid imagination that’s scaring the very life out of her, as the result of monstrous winds (…or is it something howling?) viciously rocking the car…not to mention,  the sound of strangely persistent scraping, relentlessly etching across the car’s rooftop??...
-         ***For the purpose of ritually initiating themselves into college fraternity, three hapless college friends must spend the night in an abandoned and boarded-up sanitarium, with specific instructions…or rather, read 'more as a dare'…to not venture to the upper floors of the building, for their ‘safety’ (…read ‘sanity’). However, as the dilapidated building continues to creak & moan through the night, with an eerie, pulsating green glow coming from the top of the stairs, leading to the upper floors, the urge to investigate becomes too overwhelming, as one by one, the friends curiously, though reluctantly go up the stairs, and find(?)…
-         ***A shy, young and mousey bespectacled co-ed, living in a sorority house, is talked into going on a blind date, out at the local beach’s lakeside Lover’s Lane; when she is assaulted and almost raped by her forceful suitor, the hapless girl’s mind snaps, and she viciously kills her attacker. With the heinous incident brushed off by the authorities as a mere case of self-defense, the traumatized girl, upon returning to the sorority house, and…well, let’s just say that hell hath no fury worse than a woman scorned, no matter how trivially. And this particular woman…well, she won’t be taken advantage of, ever again…
.........and as each story unfolds, progressively chilling and unnerving the captivated listeners to an almost unbearable frenzy…uh, is it just coincidence, or is it the subtle, albeit escalating intensity of the stories which is driving the increasingly vicious winds outside the cabin, to wail louder and louder…beating relentlessly against the walls of the cabin, and threatening to crash through. Indeed, is it actually the winds that are yowling a monstrous unearthly cry…or is there something…or rather some thing, actually out there, in the dark…waiting??...
…without a doubt, the greatest appeal drawn from urban legends, is the wholly undisputed idea that no matter what degree, or how incredibly far the story is embellished, or alternated related…the innermost primal core of the story is more than often based upon a true incident; oh, of course, the more outrageous…even the more supernatural aspects of the gritty ‘n’ gruesome, more-than-twice-told tales…stereotypically rendered in hushed and wavering tones, around countless campfires, over the years…are invariably added to give the story’s proceedings an unnerving edge. But that’s what is so fun about these years…decades…even centuries-old macabre, hand-me-down tales of legend…and that’s just a mere faucet of what is so damn fun about “Screams of a Winter Night”, not only in the film's macabre and chilling forefront, but in the rat-a-tat brick ‘n’ board background, where the writers and filmmakers deftly weld their manipulative prowess…with we, the hapless viewers, reaping the rewards, as the result of our blood-curdling screams…
…surprisingly enough, one of the underlining cool aspects of “Screams…”, is the backstory conception of the film itself. In that it was wrought by a couple of buddy commercial marketing agents, who knew much more about exploitative advertising, than they knew about filmmaking. However, truth be known, film history is quite replant with filmmakers who knew virtually nothing about filmmaking, in the onset (…one of the best examples, I give you the young upstart writer…eh, perhaps you know him…a Mr. Quentin Tarantino, I believe??), and the fact that Richard Wadsak and James L. Wilson knew very little about the filmmaking process…well, they weren’t about to let a little thing like minimal knowledge and experience, to hamper the ambitious attempt…
…taking some inspirational cues, and capturing a similar rustic, thick-as-pea-soup atmosphere  from other take-a-chance-no-matter-what maverick filmmakers, who gambled their whole shooting match on equally rustic, no-budget film productions, the likes of the great Charles B. Pierce, and his “Town That Dreaded Sundown” & “The Legend of Boggy Creek”…Robert Morgan’s “Bloodstalkers”, as well as Harry Thomason’s “Encounters with the Unknown”…the team of Wilson and Wadsak struck together an eager & able-bodied film crew…along with some ambitiously young & relatively untried actors…and the whole hootenanny headed out to the wild and untamed backwood regions of Arkansas, in an effort to pieces-parts their proposed lil’ film,…
…and the result?? Heck, even after some forty years after its original theatrical release, “Screams of a Winter Night”…despite the film’s ‘punches pulled’ PG rating badge, not to mention its relative obscurity, and unjust disregard…still manages to chill and scare and intrigue, in a number of interesting ways. Shotgun right from the hip, the film assumes a great balance of progressive tension, visual creepiness and shock, in not only what is seen on the screen, but also what is not seen. Right from the get go, to counter wide eyed psychopaths, shambling hairy monsters, and grotesquely disheveled & truncated victims of the sinister ‘green light’ (…nope, I won’t say any more than that…but still…Oooooo!! So scar-r-r-r-ry!!), there are elements which garnish even greater chills, which are nary seen at all. Point in case…the unseen, frantic-sounding aural background goings-on, during the pitch-black opening credit sequence, suggesting a family…their home, and their farm livestock, terrorized and slaughtered by some unearthly wailing creature…the vicious attack, reaching a violent and blood-curdling crescendo, with ear-piercing screams & cracking bones, and then…dead silence, and a blackened screen…save, for the unsettling sound of a low- lingering wind…for what seem an eternity of seconds before the movie resumes, and opens up to our hapless and unwary group of rowdy college partiers…without a care in the world…rolling down the outstretched country highway…
…the young and, for the most part, sophomoric cast…most of which “Screams…” was their first and only movie role…play characters that are pretty much as one might expect for a film of this ilk…stereotypical characters, whereby the actors might be pretty much playing themselves, but adding and emphasizing a certain stereotypical element to their characters, which makes them stand out as distinctly varied and diversified. So, Steve is our horndog…Liz is the snarky bitch…Jookie is played as the typically progressive ‘I’m scared…I wanna leave, now’, easily frightened catatonic…Steve (Gil Glosgow, who was the only actor in the troupe, to go on to other roles) is the matter-of-fact, handsome studious jock…and so on. The most standout character, of course, is our atypical jokester and storyteller, John (Matt Borel). And in his first film role, there’s…what?? Is that…is that…well, damn if that ain’t a young William Ragsdale (…remember Charlie Brewster, from 1985’s “Fright Night??), rattling off a chaw-chomping okie accent, as one of the gas station hillbillies, trying to warn away the unwary collegiate tourists…
…and yet, surprisingly enough, most of our performers herein, are afforded an opportunity to stretch their individual contributions to the film’s structure, in that they are not only playing the hapless characters in this anthology’s wraparound, they are also seen scattered amongst the characters in the unfolding scary stories, told by our cabin occupants…
…for those having been fortunate & privy to “Screams of a Winter Night”, over the years since it's original release (…clearly, not unlike this devoted reviewer, based upon the exhausting coverage here…whew!!), and eagerly awaiting an official digital release of this unsung cult classic...well, the fine folks over at Code Red Releasing has unveiled a nice cadre of surprises and delight, in finally…after years of release announcement…getting this obscure and nearly forgotten horror anthology out to the masses. First off, the film has never looked better, what with Code Red having acquired and lovingly remastered to the best of their ability, the original 16mm print negative master…not only for the original theatrical release featured herein, but also the 124-minute ‘roadshow’ director’s cut of the film, which includes the long-rumored, applicably ‘urban legend’ 4th story (…uh, now, now…I ain’t tellin’ ya’ about it…gotta leave something for a surprise, right??), which was excised from the theatrical release, to pan out and allow for a shorter and more desired running time, as requested by the distributors. Also included…the film’s original trailer, and an exclusive interview with actor Gil Glasgow, warmly relating a plethora of fascinating facts and recollections, on the making of the film. Overall, the presentation is wonderfully sharp and clean, with just enough scratchy film strip ‘grit’ left over, to ideally moniker this film as a tried and true drive-in-style flick. So, you can now toss away those wretched, blurry, scratchy and well worn VHS tapes and DVD-R dupes into the dipsy dumpster, folks!!...
…sigh, Ohhh Kayyy!! At the time of it’s original release, “Screams of a Winter Night” might well have been unjustly stomped into obscurity, by the indomitable influx of the slasher film genre, which was taking root, and permeating the darkened cinemas, at the time. OK…so, the acting, the dialogue, the performances, and the special effects (…gotta love that cartoon explosion…but hey, the skewed, shaking and wavering tracking point-of-view shots still predated Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” by two years) were subpar…or rather, wished they were subpar. OK…so the best thing that the film has going for it, is the unbridled maverick attitude, as well as the progressively unnerving rustic atmosphere, in it’s well-intentioned execution. And, OK…the film does pull it’s punches, as far as it’s resigningly badged rating…
…hell, if this lil’ horror flick can nonetheless still readily instill a respectable amount of scares and chills…even in the passing of…good gawd, has it actually been four decades later…well, imagine if the determined and imaginative powers that be, behind the making of this ‘lil’ film that could’, were given free license and resource to go all balls fucking out

...now, that would be something to see...that is, if we actually had half the courage (...read 'rock hard gonads') to take on such a daring challenge...



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1 comment:

  1. SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT had a notorious reputation when it was released in my parts. Viewers swore it was the work of film students who were given "C" grades by their professors.

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