Monday, September 3, 2018

"Oh, Sweetie, You're Hysterical" - Scream for Help (1984)

Written by Tom Holland and directed by Michael Winner, Scream for Help (1984) has a more "respectable" pedigree than most films we cover at Senseless Cinema, but that does not mean it is less of a classic. This dramatic thriller provides all the thrills an audience expects from top-notch cinema: a plucky teenage girl heroine, a set of despicable villains, death traps, and a Polaroid camera.

Not everyone in your universe appreciates Scream for Help. For example, reviewer Jonathon Dabell writes, "While watching Scream For Help, one can't help but wonder if the film is intentionally inept or just hopelessly inept. The overbearing music, the ridiculous acting, the laughable plot developments, the risible dialogue--all these things surely point to some kind of bad joke at the audience's expense courtesy of director Michael Winner?" ("Intentionally inept or hopelessly inept?" What about "Not inept. Not inept at all"?) Reviewer Wizard-8 writes, "I just finished watching it now, and yes, it has to be one of the worst movies of its year. Or any year, for that matter! The script for the movie is unbelievably stupid, with characters making idiotic decisions at an incredibly rapid output." Similarly, reviewer lebong-2 writes, "The acting is uniformly amateurish, as if the cast just memorized their lines minutes before they were shot. As with most Winner movies, it's shot haphazardly and unimaginatively."

Clearly, these reviewers are unable to appreciate true drama and thrills, a deficiency I do not share. Read on for a detailed appreciation of Michael Winner's Scream for Help...

“My name is Christina Ruth Cromwell. I’m seventeen and I live in New Rochelle. I think my stepfather is trying to murder my mother.”

A shocking musical sting follows this voice-over revelation and then the film cuts to a building that looks like a church, or perhaps the Independence Hall. The camera moves through a small town, finally reaching the bedroom window of Christina Cromwell. Like most teenage girls, she is staring out the window and then she continues writing in her diary. She needs to write her story to document her stepfather’s murderous behavior. Thus, the film flashes back to show her story.

She wakes up to a sound downstairs. Instead of waking her parents, she investigates. As she walks down the stairs, she hears a sound that must be a monkey, but she is not surprised.

Her stepfather is downstairs smoking. She tells him, “I heard a weird noise, like some kind of banging on the pipes.”

“Well,” he says, “that must have been me. I was in the study doing some paperwork.”

Of course this is convincing, as paperwork and banging on pipes are almost the same activity. Christina remains suspicious, however, because she did not find him near his study. After he goes back up to bed, she explores the house, which from the inside appears roughly the size of the Overlook Hotel. In one of the wings, she opens the door to the basement, clearly sensing something is wrong. In voiceover, she says, “I should have sensed something was wrong that night, but I didn’t.”

The next day, she returns home to find the entire police force of the town in front of her house. “What happened?” she asks, panicked.

A police officer nonchalantly says, “Just an accident.” Then he ignores her.

She runs into the house to find that a meter reader for the power company electrocuted himself. Dozens of policemen are milling around in the living room. Suspicious, Christina goes down to the basement, apparently the scene of the death, which is completely empty. She finds a puddle of water on the floor.

Instead of saying anything to the police force gathered in her house, she runs to her best friend Jamie’s house, only to find her friend in bed with a boy. After the two get dressed, Christina explains her suspicions to them. She believes her stepfather, Paul Fox, fixed the electric box to kill her mother, but the electric company worker was killed instead.

She has been suspicious of her stepfather for a long time, to the point of seeing a therapist about it. “I found the love letters Paul Fox wrote Mom. They were mailed while she was still married to Dad.”

Perceptively, Jamie says, “That doesn’t make him a murderer.”

The next scene is a thrilling chase, as Christina rides a bike to keep up with Paul Fox’s car.

Unfortunately, she loses his car, but (apparently for reasons of narrative inefficiency) she trails him the next day from the exact same point, and then again on the next day from a point slightly farther along his path. Finally, she sees where he goes every day, a house with a mailbox that says Bohle. He appears to be having an affair with a woman who lights his cigarette. She overhears him say, through a window, “It won’t be long before we’re together all the time.”

Christina is shocked when she runs into a handyman. Unfortunately, everyone sees her running away from the house.

Back at home, Mr. Fox confronts Christina about “peering through windows.” He takes her into a room that stores cockatoo statues to calm her down.

When her mother arrives, Christina immediately blurts out, “I caught him cheating on you. He also fixed that fuse box in the basement that killed that man, but it was meant to kill you.”

“Oh, sweetie,” her mother says, “you’re hysterical.”

Mr. Fox explains everything to his wife. He was just giving the woman a “demonstration ride” (not a euphemism) because he works for the car dealership his wife owns.

“He’s having an affair with this Bohle woman. I’ve been following him.”

“Following him?” her mother says, and then asks the important question, “How?”

“On my bike.”

“On your bike?”

When her mother continues to dismiss her suspicions, Christina says, “Just wait till he kills you!”

Christina’s next plan is to blackmail Jamie’s boyfriend Josh into riding in her mom’s car with her to follow Paul Fox’s mistress, Brenda Bohle, because Christina only has her learner’s permit. This results in considerable comedy because Christina is a terrible driver, nearly causing multiple fatal accidents.

Driving too fast, Christina and Josh realize her mom’s car has been tampered with, and the accelerator and gas pedal are both broken. Instead of trying the emergency brake, they drive through New Rochelle at full speed, but then they decide to cut the engine. At the climax of the sequence, they crash into a car while avoiding a woman pushing a baby carriage from the early 1950s.

Surviving the accident, Christina next ropes her friend Jamie into driving so they can follow Brenda Bohle’s car. They arrive at a motel that looks more like a prison

Christina peeks in the motel room window, whose blinds are open, and again she can hear what is going on inside the room perfectly. “My brother keeps grumbling about all the time we’re taking,” the woman says before taking off her clothes (all attached via velcro, to judge from the sound effects) for Paul.

Christina’s plan is to get Jamie to witness Paul and Brenda having sex, but by the time Christina fetches Jamie (a matter of ninety seconds at most), Paul and Brenda are finished with sex. Paul, who is already dressed, sees the two girls and they run from him. Thus begins another thrilling chase scene, with the girls running through New Rochelle. As they try to hide in the woods, Jamie tells Christina that she is pregnant, though she plans to get an abortion.

As they walk casually along the street discussing abortion, for some reason, a car appears behind them. “I want to party and travel. I have my whole life in front of me,” says Jamie.

Of course, the car strikes Jamie but misses Christina, killing her and solving the abortion question (as such questions tend to be solved in movies).

At school, Christina has to put up with bullies who hold her responsible for Janie’s brutal death. Janie’s boyfriend Josh, who is the police commissioner’s son, defends Christina.

“Lighten up, Josh,” says one of the bullies. “We were just razzing her a little about what happened to Janie.”

She enlists the help of the commissioner to find evidence that Paul Fox is a criminal. However, the commissioner tells her, “I found out...that you’re just about the worst kid I ever dealt with.” He tells her Paul had an alibi. “I might even have believed you, if I hadn’t talked to your mother.”

He sits in a high-backed chair and awkwardly spins to the right and to the left as he speaks.

Apparently, Christina is the worst kid the police commissioner has ever dealt with because she accused her stepfather of attempting to kill her mother.

Later, Josh visits Christina alone in her house. He kisses her. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m missing Janie too, and suddenly you were sitting so close...”

She takes him to her bedroom and they undress and have sex as the orchestra swells. Christina appears to be having a difficult time. “Are you all right?” Josh says in the middle of the act.

“Sorry, it just hurts so much,” she replies. (Later, she will say she never wants to go to bed with anyone ever again.)

At that moment, her stepfather walks into her room, having walked directly to her bedroom as soon as he and his wife returned home.

“You’re not gonna tell Mom,” she says to Mr. Fox after Josh leaves.

Quite naturally, he tells her, “I’m not like you, Christie. I’m very forgiving of other people’s sexual foibles. Even yours.”

The plot jolts forward as Christina discovers Mr. Fox’s next murder plan—he has sealed off the ventilation in Christina’s bathroom using towels, and has blown out the pilot light in a gas heater, which is conveniently located in her bathroom. His plan was to suffocate Christina with gas in her own bathroom, though it is unclear how she would have entered the closed bathroom to be suffocated without either noticing or moving the towel sealing the door. In any case, now both Mr. Fox and Christina are aware that he is attempting to kill both Christina and her mother in order to inherit her mother’s fortune.

The next morning, Christina’s mother trips on some curved metallic thing on the stairs, falling to the bottom. When Mr. Fox runs to her, Christina’s first words are, “You did it! You finally did it!” However, he only manages to break her leg.

One of the film’s central set pieces occurs the next day as Christina spies on her stepfather and Brenda Bohle having sex, this time, shockingly, with full frontal nudity. In this complex sequence, Christina opens the window and inserts a Polaroid camera into the room.

Of course, the Polaroid’s flash alerts the love-makers that they are being watched, and additionally the Polaroid picture falls into the room, owing to the fact that Christina has unaccountably stuck the camera so far inside. Christina runs away, but then runs back, climbs into the house, and tries to avoid not only Mr. Fox and Brenda but also Brenda’s good-for-nothing husband (whom she lies about, saying he is her brother), and we learn the two are conspiring with Brenda to get rid of Mr. Fox after he murders Christina and her mother.

The sequence ends in a highly plausible fashion, as Christina hides in a bathtub with the shower curtain drawn while the Bohles fight in the bathroom. The audience thinks Christina will surely be found out when Brenda sits on the outside of the tub with the curtain still drawn, for no apparent reason.

In the end, Brenda’s husband discovers Christina, but instead of reporting her presence, he gives her back her Polaroid and tells her to run away.

After Christina’s mother sees the incriminating Polaroid picture, Mr. Fox, hardly a paragon of restraint, slaps her. “You think it was for your money? You think that’s why I’ve been trying to kill you? Well, it wasn’t. I’ve always hated you. Ever since I was a kid watching you drive past with your rich dad and his big car. Well, I finally got rich by marrying you, but I didn’t love you.” Then he leaves.

In the final act of the film, Mr. Fox and the Bohles march toward Christina’s house at night. She sees them approaching from her bedroom. “They’re coming to kill us,” she tells her mother, pushing her in her wheelchair due to her broken leg. “Oh my God, he’s still got his keys!” Christina says when she sees the doorknob turning.

The finale thus becomes a home invasion thriller as the villains throw (literally) Christina and her mother into the basement and lock the door. The (perhaps ill-advised) plan is to wait until two in the morning and kill them, pretending a burglar broke in and killed them—for some reason, in the basement.

The drama then turns to the three villains. Christina has told Mr. Fox that Brenda and her cohort are husband and wife, not brother and sister. This revelation results in a fistfight between Mr. Fox and the husband.

In the suspenseful finale, Christina and her mother turn off all the lights in the house, escape, and manage to stab Mr. Fox in the groin.

In the end, Christina cleverly uses Mr. Fox’s death traps against all the villains. Brenda is electrocuted in the basement and Mr. Fox blows himself up in the gas-filled bathroom. Christina and her mother are rescued and stay in the police commissioner’s house.

In the coda, however, Christina is not as safe as she believes, though the film has a relatively happy ending.

Like several classics (e.g., Battle for the Lost Planet from 1985), Scream for Help is a breath of fresh air in that it takes settings, characters, and plot devices from children's films and adds more adult content such as violence and, in the case of Scream for Help, multiple sex scenes and full frontal nudity. How refreshing! It also eliminates the tiresome sociological, psychological, and historical meaning of movies with similar themes like Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), replacing such things with director Michael Winner's specialties: clear-cut villainy, excessive cruelty, and death traps. In fact, the only negative aspect of Scream for Help, it must be said, is the musical score by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, which one might characterize as hyperbolically overblown. Outside of the score, however, this film is a highly entertaining, suspenseful, tightly plotted dramatic thriller that deserves its place near the top of 1980s cinema.