Scream For Help (1984)

“My name is Christina Ruth Cromwell. . . . I think my stepfather is trying to murder my mother.”

Cue the sweeping strings and ominous horns. And wouldn’t you know it, the music is by John Paul Jones. Yes, that John Paul Jones.

Seventeen-year-old Christie doesn’t care for her “good-looking, nice enough” stepfather Paul. When a man from the power company gets electrocuted in the basement, Christie suspects foul play. Is it possible that Paul meant to fry her mother? Then he’d get all her money, of which there is a lot. But maybe Christie’s just imagining everything–after all, she’s been feeling resentful since her mother’s remarriage.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I’m Asian, so it means I had to do math and play piano instead. But if my mother wasn’t home when the carpool dropped me off, I’d turn on the TV—with the volume low so I could hear my mom open the garage door—and watch the after-school special. Eventually I’d get caught and would have to play an extra half-hour of piano as punishment. But I’d just do it again the next day. Consequently, I’m really good at piano. Looking back, these after-school specials were hardly worth getting in trouble over. There was one where a kid has to confront his bully after school, and another where a high school couple discusses if they want to have sex or “wait until the moment is right.” It was all so mundane. But there were some spicier specials: one where a girl, tripping high on angel dust, throws herself out the window. And one where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teaches an illiterate kid how to read. I think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could’ve taught my mother a few things. Like how to fucking relax already and let me watch my programs. How else would I learn about the dangers of drunk driving?

My point is that Scream for Help is a lot like an after-school special. It explores divorce and budding young love, and there are obvious messages about teen pregnancy and sex. There’s plenty of wholesome bike-riding around perfectly landscaped suburbs and a scene where Christie steals her mom’s car, except she doesn’t know how to drive. It’s all G-rated; it’s a family affair.

But then there’s talk of abortion. Someone in a wheelchair gets pushed down the stairs again and again. A knife gets stabbed through a hand. We see Paul sticking it to a lady from behind. There are boobs. There is bush. Christie has sex—painfully—for the first time and discovers so much blood from her nether bits that you wonder if she got her period. When a group of ne’er-do-wells hold Christie and her mother hostage, Scream for Help suddenly sheds its after-school special mask and reveals what it really is—a home invasion movie. And like most home invasion movies, there are countless moments when hostages could call the authorities or escape.

While it’s a far cry from House on the Edge of the Park or even Death Weekend, Scream for Help has its moments. The joy in this movie is experiencing the tone jump and shift without warning. It lags, picks up speed, lags some more, but then careens to a finish. It’s all over the place; a cinematic version of a drunk driving accident that, say, an after-school special would explore. But what stands out most about this movie is the soundtrack.

The music is overly theatrical and melodramatic. The strings weep. The horns moan. The percussion cry in pain from the abuse. You might even say that the entire orchestra screams for help. Imagine an extra long, tearful Oscar speech. Now imagine the orchestra playing the winner off. Now take that song and set it to an after-school special/home invasion movie. Now think of John Paul Jones because that’s who scored the movie. The soundtrack makes little sense; we just don’t need a heartfelt jazz number play while Christie rides her bike down the street. I have much respect for John Paul Jones and his contributions to music, but clearly he needed to contribute less. But this soundtrack can all be summed up by this one film credit:

“With solo synthesizer by John Paul Jones.”


From the Archives