Damon Smith on The Shout
“Thus I found myself in a strange country.” —Donald Barthelme
In my formative years, I had the impression that contemporary England was a place of inveterate strangeness. This was likely owing to my near-nightly communions with the surreal antics of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the more louche slapstick of The Benny Hill Show. Those inklings were further perverted, if you will, by Jerzy Skolimowski’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning 1978 film The Shout, an elaborately weird psychological puzzler about a man who claims he can kill with the sound of his voice. A critical success for Skolimowski, a Polish émigré working in England after a long decade of personal misfires (The Adventures of Gerard; King, Queen, Knave) and underappreciated work (Deep End), the film almost literally screamed “art-house” in design and form, yet drew acclaim with its outré premise and an exemplary British cast of Alan Bates, Susannah York, and John Hurt. I first encountered it in the summer of 1982, after landing a housesitting job for my wealthy neighbors, the only people in my quasi-rural Texas burb who could afford the premium hookup to Cinemax and The Movie Channel.
Maddeningly nonlinear and enshrouded in gauzy layers of ambiguity, The Shout was a sterling example of genre-crossing European art cinema, about which I knew nothing. I was simply mesmerized by the jumbled way in which the story unfolded, if also frustrated and ambivalent about the anxious feelings it was giving rise to. I watched it repeatedly over the course of a month, looking for clues that might help me make sense of it. Was this England? In fact, this not-quite-horror film brought me to a distant but very specific place—a coastal village in North Devon, to be precise—and immersed me in a milieu of sorcery and lunacy, erotic mystery and hermetic intensity, an especially potent concoction for a young person ceaselessly looking to be anywhere but home.
Adapted by Michael Austin and Skolimowski from a 1929 short story by Robert Graves (author of I, Claudius), The Shout hinges on the fragility of narrative and rational comprehensibility, a theme explicitly announced at the very outset of the drama—a kind of bifurcated prologue that leaves no indication as to whether we are in a dream space or someone’s remembrance.
The framing device for the film, a cricket match on the bucolic grounds of an insane asylum, unfolds as Robert (Tim Curry) arrives to help score a match at the invitation of the head doctor (Robert Stephens), an odd person who introduces him to a learned, well-traveled patient, Bates’s Charles Crossley, confiding under his breath that while he appears sane, this fellow “believes his soul has fractured into four parts.” As they chat in the scoring hut, Crossley tells Robert he is interested in “the psyche” and claims to make up dreams packed with symbols to keep the doctor guessing. Skolimowski’s cutaways to various asylum inmates frolicking on the field (including a very young Jim Broadbent, who smears himself with shit in the film’s finale) destabilizes our already addled sense of normalcy. When a local man, Anthony (played by Hurt), appears on the pitch to bat, Crossley suddenly seems fixated (“there you are,” he mutters) and darkly informs Robert, “He had a wife who loved him once.” Offering to elaborate, Crossley muses that he’s told this tale before: “It’s always the same story but I often switch the sequence … I like to keep it alive, you see, alive.”
Crossley’s far-away look and the dreamy, measured cadence of his voice suggest a narcissist hypnotized by his own storytelling and foreshadows his role as a figure of intelligent menace in the lives of the married couple, Anthony and Rachel (played by York), he’s begun to tell us about. His yarn concerns a cleverly played home invasion and seduction by a charismatic and mysterious stranger who happens to be Crossley himself, the teller of the tale. To my mind, attuned though I was to accounts of disordered mental states (Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe, Pink Floyd), The Shout was especially haunting owing to Bates’s masterful evocation of ominous portent, as when he squashes a bee with his thumb while spouting existential dictums about the mysteries of the soul. Watching the film again for the first time in decades, I easily re-inhabited the state of unease in which it left me. Yet what I initially found so foreign about The Shout—the gorgeously desolate coast, the bizarre novelty of a cricket match—has given way to a broader understanding of how Skolimowski achieves his most unsettling effects.
Moving in on his prey one afternoon, Crossley intercepts Anthony—an electroacoustic composer who plays organ at the local church—after a service, asking if he enjoyed the sermon (“moral stagnation,” fittingly, is the theme). Anthony begs off his invitation to take a walk, saying he must go home to meet his wife. Instead, he rushes off to rendezvous with his lover (Carol Drinkwater), the cobbler’s wife, out on the dunes. Undaunted, Crossley parks himself on the composer’s doorstep and wearily invites himself to a meal with the excuse that he’s been on an extended walking tour and hasn’t eaten for two days. At lunch he tells the couple he lived for 18 years in the Australian outback, then shockingly reveals that he murdered his own children. “Under their laws,” he sententiously declares while slicing into a piece of meat, “either parent has the right to kill their children within a few weeks of birth.” Rachel flees the table at this disclosure, visibly shaken after mumbling that she and Anthony haven’t been able to conceive.
Pulling Anthony deeper into his trap, Crossley mentions an Aboriginal witch doctor from whom he claims to have learned various forms of death magic—including the ability to kill with a horrifyingly powerful shout. It’s a chillingly clarifying moment, because we’ve caught our first glimpse of this bogeyman—an archetypal racial Other—before the main action of the film has even begun. The Shout opens with a high-angle elevated shot of an English roadster zooming along and up to the entrance of the asylum. A woman in a nurse’s uniform (Rachel) runs inside, down a hallway and into a great hall where three corpses are laid out on long wooden dining tables. With some trepidation, she removes each sheet one by one until she sees the face of the man she recognizes. Dissolve.
Over the credits, we see grainy film stock of a lone figure—barefoot, dark-skinned, and rattily dressed in an admiral’s frock—climbing over a sand dune in the distance, zig-zagging like a sick or deranged man. In his left hand is a sharp bone, which he wields like a knife as he moves threateningly toward the camera, a crazed look in his eye. This eerie sequence—a premonition, a splinter of subconscious fear, perhaps—recurs throughout the film. Prior to meeting Crossley, both Anthony and Rachel have a frightening nightmare about the tailcoated shaman, not understanding its significance. As they leave the dune where they’ve been sunbathing, Rachel finds a bone in the sand by her feet—a totem of the malevolent magician’s—and then realizes one of her shoe buckles is missing, a key to the dark influence Crossley will soon wield over her.
Roger Ebert, reviewing the film favorably in 1978, noted, “What makes the movie terrifying is the way in which the outback magic is introduced so naturally into the placid fabric of village life.” Such a statement epitomizes the conventional reception of the film—and my own early impression—while skirting past the complexities of race and culture that encrust its most harrowing representation of evil. Crossley himself makes this tension explicit, remarking to the couple that he did not see another “white man” during his time in the outback, thus marking his superior self-regard and racial distance from the presumably primitive culture that sheltered him. Anthony’s lame attempt to suppress his discomfort with Crossley’s oddly direct, not-so-English manners and even more outré experiences in the wilderness is embodied in the false mirth he displays when he asks, patronizingly, “Did you have an Aboriginal wife?” The answer is yes, and Anthony is mortified.
None of this registered with me, of course, all those years ago. I took the Aboriginal plotline at face value—it was simply creepy. Cinema had opened magic portals into faraway places I could not otherwise access, and I did not have the emotional or intellectual maturity, not to mention the life experience, to gauge the freighted quality of those representations. It’s fascinating to contemplate such naiveté from a 21st-century perspective because it reveals not only my own lack of contact with the world, of course, but also a mechanism of assumptions at the time about a presumed viewer—white, Western—that continues to play a role, albeit an evolving one, in movies today. The film’s ultimate horror is the corruption of sacred mores by “foreign” toxins. If Crossley has used his ethnocultural privilege to access knowledge that’s alien to Western self-understanding (just as the witch doctor adopts the military dress of a colonial occupier as an invocation of power), it’s all of a piece with the collapse of reason, self-identity, and reality that The Shout embraces as its central themes.
To that end, Skolimowski employs a variety of techniques—jump cuts, visual symbols, recurrent images, a fixation on doorways and mirrors (one of the director’s favorite tropes), nonsequential editing—to dissolve our sense of time and the boundaries between mental states and real events. These tactics put him in the company of Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who declined producer Jeremy Thomas’s invitation to direct The Shout. Skolimowski was attracted to the script because of its “ambiguity and the sense of absurd” [sic], which is entirely consistent with his artistic predilections. A poet and painter, as well as an actor who collaborated with Andrzej Wajda on Innocent Sorcerers and co-wrote the script for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Skolimowski cut his teeth at the Łódź Film School, making feature-length films in the 1960s such as Identification Marks: None and Le Départ, which earned him accolades as Poland’s answer to Godard. While there are correspondences, it’s more accurate to see Skolimowski as a director who comfortably toggles between realism and a mode of surrealism that is both allegorical and rooted in materializing psychic phenomena.
In a key scene Crossley shakes Anthony’s confidence in his own reason, telling him how he’d once seen the witch doctor perform a spell to end a long drought by cutting himself along his torso with a sharp stone until “the blood flowed like a waterfall.” Anthony scoffs at this improbable account, provoking Crossley’s anger. “You haven’t the imagination to understand anything outside of your own experience,” he says. And then, sitting naked and upright in bed, he reveals just such a scar along his waistline. “I’ve heard your music,” Crossley tells him in a dulcet voice before coating it with acid: “It’s nothing. It’s empty.” That night, Crossley appears like an apparition in the ink black netherworld of the oval mirror hanging over the couple’s bed, indicating just how deeply he’s burrowed into Anthony’s psyche. Other times, Skolimowski sets the entire notion of consciousness adrift. As Rachel gradually yields to Crossley’s magnetism (and perhaps “a spell of irresistible attraction” tethered to her shoe buckle), Crossley makes his move, and their initial lovemaking is a masterfully composed sequence of erotic submission. In a direct echo of “Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours,” a macabre Francis Bacon print hanging in Anthony’s studio, Skolimowski briefly switches to black and white as Rachel scrambles naked across the floor, freezing her snapshot-style in the exact pose of Bacon’s model. It’s as though Crossley’s transgressive desires are melding with Anthony’s private mental world, which he has begun to colonize and dominate.
For Skolimowski, sound is equally rich terrain for exploring subconscious drives. At home, Anthony tinkers with a variety of musique concrète experiments (recording wet marbles rolling on a metal sheet, scraping a violin bow across a tuna can) in a studio filled with gadgets. Skolimowki films these moments in carefully composed close-ups to accentuate their disturbing auditory qualities and the cloistered oddity of Anthony’s endeavors, which he logs on a whiteboard for some unknown purpose. Even his room-size arsenal of tools—a Roland Space Echo, an EMS VCS synth, EQs and spectrograms—suggest the laboratory of a mad tinkerer. As a music-obsessed youth, I found these scenes oddly fascinating. They had an almost clairaudient aspect, hinting at the kind of rural English landscape mysticism I would rediscover in films like The Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. (These days, immersed in my own sound design projects, I find them all deeply relatable.) The eerie Moog-centric score by Genesis bandmates Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford, created in part with electronics whiz Rupert Hine, is another point of connection between the film’s rural setting and Skolimowski’s use of sound as an objective correlative for his characters’ personas.
When Anthony accompanies Crossley to the beach to hear the terror shout, Crossley stomps across the dunes with vigorous determination while Anthony gets a “stitch” in his stomach and struggles to keep pace—another sign of his weakness. Reaching a remote spot, Crossley sinks down into a low crouch, then rises slowly, arching back as he prepares his entire body for the scream. Skolimowski, brilliantly, cuts the sound. It’s an epic pause. Then a volcanic torrent of noise unlike any I’ve heard before in cinema emits from Crossley’s howling, wide-open mouth. Skolimowksi shoots the impact on Anthony in slow motion, his face, head, and hair jostling from the blast as he struggles to put his hands over his ears. One of the earliest uses of Dolby, the audio was built from Skolimowski’s own throat-shredding shriek (he could not find a single proxy capable of screaming continuously for 23 seconds, so he did it himself), fortified by more than 40 recordings encompassing everything from Niagara Falls to a rocket launch. This sonic assault terrorized me as a youth and still jolts my blood pressure to this day.
While Crossley’s vocal weapon is an act of appropriation from Aboriginal culture, it also resonates with a legacy of English weirdness that Skolimowski draws on to create an atmosphere of existential dread. In his hands, the rocky-fingered Devon coast is as much a psychic terrain as a real-world landscape that harbors illicit behavior (Anthony’s trysts with his lover), private troubles (Rachel’s disturbing transformation into a sex slave), and unnatural death (the anonymous shepherd who perishes when Crossley unleashes his bellow). Wind, electronic textures, musique concrète, and the human voice are all ingredients in the witches’ brew of diegetic and non-diegetic effects he uses to conjure this haunted topography. But this tonal vibe was hardly an invention of Skolimowski’s. Even today the southwest region has a reputation as a place of mystic eccentricity. Was it such a stretch for a kid in Texas to reimagine England as a quilted patch of otherworldly oddity?
The Shout maintains an air of solemn foreboding for most of its 96-minute runtime before hopscotching to an absurd conclusion with every bit of frenzied energy it can muster. The wickets Skolimowski repeatedly cuts to are a bit like chapter breaks in a book, indices of the story’s progress but also a reorientation of time and space back to the “present” of the cricket match and Crossley’s recounting of events. With a thunderstorm brewing, a harbinger of trouble ahead, tensions surface among the players and umpires. Crossley himself, furiously scraping a bone when Anthony comes to bat, seems ever more agitated by the sight of his nemesis. His climactic defeat and arrest—itself a jumble of confusing sequences involving Anthony’s visit to the cobbler and hunt for a talismanic sandstone—coincides with a sudden burst of rain at the asylum. Pure mayhem ensues as the simmering lunatics finally freak out, shrieking and running amok in the downpour as someone recites Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” employed here as a cosmic punchline.
Freud wrote that the essence of the uncanny feeling—the unheimlich or “un-homely”—is the intrusion of something previously secret or hidden in the world of normal experience. What we call odd, strange, peculiar, or unsettling is anything that makes us feel not “at home” in a situation: foreign ideas, unfamiliar places, the creep of fear that arrives when we see something familiar unnaturally distorted. Reflecting on my early fascination with The Shout, I can say the film presented me with an array of such problems to untangle as a viewer: psychosexual dynamics, inscrutable symbols, moments of circularity and jarring juxtaposition, and an explosive final act that leaves in suspension the question of whether or not Crossley’s story is real or fantasy. The film remains rich to explore for political subtext; the Otherness it uncritically invokes touches on postcolonial realities and racial demonizing at a moment when England was embroiled in a thicket of social and economic problems and anti-immigrant violence. But its dark vision of the English soul as inherently corrupted and afflicted by madness was hardly a comforting takeaway.
Watching The Shout repeatedly, I’m not sure I ever deciphered the film’s language, but I responded to its cryptic slant on black magic and the way it made England—a very strange place in my estimation—even stranger. A younger me might have asked: What kind of story am I being told? What do I know about this place? What do I know about myself? Perhaps it’s cathartic to surrender to stories that don’t attempt to reconcile what’s illogical or absurd or disturbingly manifest in the realm of human consciousness. We can locate our shadow selves there, too, in the alien latitudes of another’s imagination.