Monday, October 16, 2017

"Two Dollars Worth and Forget the Front" - Scream Bloody Murder (1973)

Can people change? Or must they accept who and where they are without the ability to make changes? That is the deep philosophical question posed by Scream Bloody Murder (1973), and the answer turns out to be much simpler than you might suppose.

Of course, many revered IMDB critics from your universe miss the deep underpinnings of the film. Itsheldy1 writes, "This movie is so slow and mind boggling that I was happy for it to get to the end." The reviewer known simply as Scott writes, "This movie has a lot of things missing in it, mainly a plot and a lot of explanations." And preppy-3 writes, "The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, there's terrible overdubbing, lousy music, pathetic dialogue and Fred Holbert is awful as the grown up Matthew."

Let us step back and see Scream Bloody Murder for what it truly is, a well considered exploration of a disturbed mind with a plot that does indeed "make sense," for whatever that is worth.

Like most good movies, Scream Bloody Murder opens with a gruesome tractor accident. As the farmer tries to fix something on the front of the tractor, a young boy, who had been sitting aimlessly in the grass, decides to climb into the tractor seat and, a look of pure evil on his face, shift it into gear.

The farmer, who must be the boy's father, is graphically run over by the machine.


The boy, unable to control the tractor, jumps off, and somehow he too becomes the machine's victim, as its treads roll over his left hand. He screams, and he is bloody, and he has committed murder, so I can confirm that the film's title is in fact accurate.

As expected (though this was much more innovative in 1973), the film cuts to about 10 years later, when the young boy is a young man with a hook for a hand living in what appears to be a mental institution. He receives a letter from his mother about someone named Mr. Parsons who is helping her run the farm in his absence.

The hook-handed man returns home with a laundry bag; we do not see him leave the institution, but we intuit that his escape might involve some Blood Rage-style shenanigans.

"Mom, I'm home," he says. "It's me, Matthew." The farmhouse looks abandoned, and his mother is nowhere to be found.

Minutes later, a car with four laughing, middle-aged people pulls up to the house. The two couples get out, appearing to have arrived from one of Paul Henning's fictional towns.

Hook-handed Matthew, sitting on the porch swing, overhears the couples talking about the marriage that day between Matthew's mother and Mr. Parsons.

When his mother sees Matthew--curiously, she does not see him until she is a few feet from him--she is so shocked she begins to strangle herself.

With great efficiency, in a scene only a few seconds long, the filmmakers get the point across that there is deep family drama simmering. Matthew does not approve of Mr. Parsons, and he does not accept that his mother is married.

"She doesn't love you! I won't let her!" Matthew screams and runs away.

"Let him go," Mr. Parsons says, restraining his new wife. "He'll be all right."

Tensions continue. Matthew disapprovingly watches the married couple kissing outdoors one night. His mother, who does not see Matthew, says to her husband, "Shouldn't we be doing this kind of thing in our own bedroom?''

Mr. Parsons replies, accurately, at least from a legal standpoint, "Nothing wrong with doing it in our own farm."

Matthew fondles his long-handled axe while he watches them make out. When his mother returns to the farmhouse, Matthew follows Mr. Parsons through the exceptionally wooded farm. There are Manny, many suspenseful shots of the axe swinging as Matthew moves through the trees.

Mr. Parsons screams as Matthew axes him...bloodily. Again, there are screams, there is blood, and there is most definitely murder.

His mother catches him in the act of bloody murder. Instead of screaming, she exclaims, "Good Jesus Christ!"

Matthew holds her, trying to convince her she didn't need her husband. "Now he doesn't have to touch you anymore," he says, fairly convincingly.

She cries, "I wanted him to touch me!"

He throws her to the ground, where she hits her head on a rock--twice. More blood, on her head this time, and murder--and Matthew supplies the scream. (The film's title is correct for a third time.)

The next day, Matthew leaves town with his laundry bag slung over his shoulder. He makes it to the gas station on the edge of town, where a man in a massive automobile cryptically tells the attendant, "Two dollars worth, and forget the front." (Perhaps a historian familiar with the year 1970 could decode this odd pronouncement, but otherwise its meaning is lost to history.)

Matthew hitches a ride with the couple in the big convertible, a car is so vast that three people can sit side-by-side in the front seat.

When they see a shallow river near the road, they of course decide to stop the car, get out, and frolic in the water fully dressed.

For some reason, Matthew pictures the couple as his mother and her husband, so he cracks the man's skull with a rock. (There is blood, but no screaming this time.)

These visions of the woman as his mother and the man as his stepfather are eerily distorted and quite disturbing.

"Now he doesn't have to touch you anymore," Matthew says to the woman, and we realize he has developed some kind of murderous aversion to the idea of sex, like most rational people.

He leaves the woman face-down in the shallow water, then steals their car, likely having learned to drive while he was in the mental institution.

Perhaps the film's most frightening scene occurs next, as Matthew hitches a ride with a pickup driver and shockingly sits at the back of the truck bed, leaning in a clearly unsafe manner against the tailgate.

After the driver lets Matthew out at Venice Beach, Matthew immediately strikes up a conversation with an abstract painter/prostitute named Vera, who is played by Leigh Mitchell, the actress who played his mother. Their conversation about her painting is interrupted by a "customer" wearing a sailor suit.

Matthew has no choice but to destroy her painting using his hook hand--the first time in his murder spree that he has used the hook for violent purposes, though directed at a canvas instead of a person.

Then Matthew waits until nighttime, when the sailor pays Vera $20 for their at-least-half-day encounter. Matthew follows the sailor away from her apartment and he cuts the man's throat, not with his hook but with a palette knife from Vera's art supplies. Then he rolls the body into one of Venice Beach's canals.

Matthew's next ploy is a con game to support a lie he told Vera, whom he now calling Daisy, his mother's name. Matthew walks to a wealthy neighborhood and ingratiates himself with the maid at a mansion. He enters the house and, as the maid closes the door, Matthew looks directly at the camera with sinister intent in his eyes.

The phone is in the kitchen. Matthew pretends to make a call while the maid chops up some chicken with a large butcher knife.

Again choosing a convenient implement over his own hook, Matthew chops up the maid in an intense murder scene that includes screams, blood, and of course murder. (This is probably the second most shocking scene of the film, after the scene in which Matthew leans against the pickup truck's tailgate.)

Then Matthew is the victim of a brutal attack by the old woman who owns the house. She beats him up with her walking sticks.

Somehow, Matthew manages to fend off the old woman and smother her with a pillow, while her dog watches, apparently approvingly. (In this murder, there are a few screams, but there is no blood.)

Next, of course, Matthew must kill the dog. He takes it to the kitchen and gets it onto the butcher block, then--offscreen--he chops off its head.

Matthew is far more emotionally disturbed by his murder of the dog than his murder of any of the others he has killed, even his mother.

The next phase in Matthew's con game is to drive Vera/Daisy to his mansion in his Rolls-Royce, all the while bragging about his father's wealth. "Wait until you see the mansion, that's really expensive. It cost millions," he says.

Vera/Daisy is skeptical. "Come on. Millions?"

He shows her the house, including a sun room that can be her studio, if she will move in with him.

"People belong where they belong," Vera/Daisy says, revealing the fatalistic theme of the film. "I'm an amateur painter who turns tricks to make the rent. That's where I belong."

They argue. Matthew tries to keep her in the house. During their confrontation, Vera/Daisy falls Arbogast-like down a staircase into a charming little sitting room.

Matthew uses her fall as an excuse to tie her to a bed.

There is an amusing montage of Matthew mugging a series of innocent people to get their money, then buying groceries at a corner market with his Rolls parked out front.

When he returns to the bound Vera/Daisy, he shows her all the things he has brought her. "Who else ever bought you a steak before?" he asks her, flaunting the shrink-wrapped meat by waving it over her head.

"See what I do for you?" he continues. "I get groceries and clothes and art stuff and kill people. And do you appreciate it? No. N-O."

After a relaxing few days of being tied up, Vera/Daisy waits for Matthew to leave the house on another one of his mugging expeditions. She frees herself from the ropes tying her to a chair, then hops downstairs, her hands and feet still bound.

Coincidentally, a boy is going door to door selling candy. (The boy has nearly as much trouble balancing his box of candy while ringing the doorbell as Vera/Daisy has hopping downstairs.)

The boy loses patience and goes away, so Daisy/Vera abandons her attempts to open the front door.

She makes her way to the phone in the kitchen and manages to get it off the hook. Then, of course, she dials the operator with her tongue.

Unfortunately for our plucky painter/prostitute, Matthew returns and puts a stop to her escape attempt.

The film next presents its most surreal scene, as Matthew allows Vera/Daisy to paint, but only on a long leash.

The next complication is a house call from the murdered old woman's doctor, played by the late, great Lawrence Rory Guy, better known as the late, great Angus Scrimm, wearing thick glasses.

Mr. Scrimm appears to believe he is appearing in a drawing room farce, and the clash between his mannered, well rehearsed performance and Matthew's nervous excitement makes for an energetic scene. Unfortunately for the doctor, Matthew murders him, bloodlessly and screamlessly, by dropping a heavy statue on his head.

Eventually, Vera/Daisy discovers she can work against Matthew psychologically by demanding a bath. She undresses while he watches, which works him up so much he has to leave her alone, unbound.

As a resourceful young artist/prostitute, she pulls a hook off the bathroom door while Matthew is not looking. She leaves the bathroom wearing a towel and continues to work Matthew up. "Don't you like me without clothes on? Other men like me without clothes on."

"I want you to get dressed. I have to tie you up now," he replies.

"If we're going to live together," she says logically, "then we have to make love together."

She gets him to the bed and kisses him. He kisses her stiffly and awkwardly (though, to be fair, not as awkwardly as the married couple in Cathy's Curse). The arousal proves too much for him, and he sees his mother instead of Vera, so he begins to strangle her.

She pushes him away and he lies on the bed in shock. She runs downstairs and opens the front door, only to find Matthew there, somehow. Finally, he uses his hook as a weapon and slashes her throat. (There is no explanation of how he made it downstairs and outside before Vera.)

After he hides her body in the closet with his other victims, he is completely alone. He snaps completely, running outside and through the streets, chased by the Vera's cackling laughter.

The climax occurs in a church, where Matthew runs to escape the ghostly Vera. Inside the church, he is confronted by the ghosts of all his victims. Vera kisses him and he bleeds from his mouth. The only thing left to do is slash himself with his own hook.

In the end, we learn that the answer to the question "Can people change?" is a definitive no. Matthew was a murderous sociopath as a child and he remains so until the day he dies. Vera is a painter/prostitute and she remains so until the day she dies. The lesson we must accept is that you are who you are, and that's all that you are, until the day you die. What could be more freeing?

I must confess that some parts of the film are too complex and deep for my amateur analysis to penetrate. For example, Matthew has a "hook" for a left hand, and Vera is a "hooker." There must be some connection, but what does it mean? Perhaps only director Marc B. Ray and his co-writer Larry Alexander could explain for sure.

Speaking of Larry Alexander, a painstaking IMDB search shows he was responsible for many episodes of some of our favorite television shows, including The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, Lidsville, Lucan, Project UFO, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and, perhaps most thrillingly, one episode of the beloved Supertrain. The man was a powerhouse shaper of American culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and not just for his seminal work writing the cryptic line "Two dollars worth and forget the front" for Scream Bloody Murder.

If for nothing else, Scream Bloody Murder should be remembered for helping introduce audiences to Angus Scrimm, who appeared in Sweet Kill (1972) and this film before beginning his productive collaboration with director Don Coscarelli, known for the children's movies Jim, the World's Greatest (1976) and Kenny and Company (also 1976), as well as some other movies whose titles escape me. If Mr. Scrimm had not taken the hapless doctor role in Scream Bloody Murder, his second feature film role--at the age of 47, no less--then we might not have enjoyed his remarkable performances in the films he made between 1973 and his death in 2016.

Alternatively, however, we must consider Fred Holbert, the remarkable young actor who plays hook-handed Matthew here. Mr. Holbert has no other screen credits, which is something of a tragedy. His intensity and his ability to generate a measure of sympathy in Scream Bloody Murder are quite effective, and it is deeply unfortunate that his career did not last as long as Mr. Scrimm's. Such are the vagaries of the film business and, one must confess, of life.