The moldy scent of pointlessness has shuffled into the living room. I’ll do what I can to help.
Screams of a Winter Night is a PG-rated, low-budget anthology horror film from first (and only) time director James Wilson. In the years since its limited theatrical release in ‘79, the film has built up some reputable steam, often cited as a dependable provider of late-night spooks. I’ll be the first to admit that Screams sets up dozens of possibilities for solid, low-budget creep-outs. Unfortunately, reality soon sets in. Here’s an amazing example of a film that has everything going for it, but can’t seem to get past the front porch. No beginning, no middle, no end. What’s that spell?
After a very unnerving opening credit sequence, things kind of go downhill. A group of thirty-something nerds arrive at an old cabin, which is said to have been haunted by an Indian curse. Everybody talks at once, usually over-dubbed, always annoying. Head “knuckle-brain” John decides to scare everyone with beer-soaked tales of urban legend terror tales. He presents three directionless anthology tales, which star the same actors from the wraparound footage, only in different roles. Just for fun, the stories go a little like this: “The Moss-Point Man,” in which a “little person” Bigfoot terrorizes a girl and her date; “The Green Light,” where three frat boys in their thirties are elected to spend the night in a haunted hotel; and “The Girl Next Door,” which features the homicidal tendencies of a woman scorned. After the stories are over, John and a pal scare the girls with a gorilla mask, the Indian curse rocks ‘em like a hurricane, and the ladies screams a lot. A LOT. Matte explosion. Fin.
Derivative, yet varied in its mashed-up presentation, Screams isn’t without its strong suits. Several scenes definitely induced the shudders — the clever opening sequence, the bizarre “green” room, and the co-ed dorm room slaying, to name a few. Then the mood-killers kick in. The events in each story dig ditches of emptiness, lacking both suspense and decent pacing for such compact sequences. A majority of the film is padded with awkward incidental dialogue (“Don’t be such a turkey,” “You’re as crazy as a damn jaybird,” and my fave Steve Martin crib, “Well excuuuuse me!”). Laughable smooth jazz dominates the soundtrack and plot confusion runs amuck. The wraparound story relies on the same tired concept over and over until the film ends, piling on annoyance in steady increments.
Screams is here and willing, but it doesn’t have a lot to do. It just exists. Unless you’ve got a really active imagination and some spare motivation, that’s just not enough.