Screams of a Winter Night

Crudely directed, under written, poorly acted… say what you will, SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT casts a long shadow in my psyche regardless. Slinking out of Louisiana circa 1979, this micro-budgeted, PG-rated horror anthology may be amateurish in its execution but I think it exudes a strange dark aura as well. My slant may be stained by sentimentality but even as I chuckle during a re-watch at its dated hokeyness and ragged edges, behind my condescension lays a bubbling feeling of unease. This oldster caught SCREAMS in the theater at a young age and it did something more exotic than yank-scare me with the grotesque, it quietly contaminated me with the serious creeps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the rules of horror echo the rules of real estate… location, location, location.

Plowing ahead of many a future horror film to an isolated cabin locale, SCREAMS also paves the roadway in anticipation for the type of open canvas, paint-your -own nightmare horror of THE BLAIR WITCH. Perhaps budgetary restrictions are to thank but this is a movie that shows you very little and lets your imagination do the maniacal math. The opening credits establish the schema; we are shown a black screen and hear terrors unfold with howling winds badgering in the background. Much of what we witness throughout the rest of the film is almost equally vague, elusive or inconclusive. Fittingly the tales in this anthology are not preoccupied with physical violence but spiral around the dread of insanity. Death takes a back seat to losing your mind.

Five couples hit the woods for a weekend. Gas station loitering locals (including a young WILLIAMFRIGHT NIGHTRAGSDALE ) do their best to shoo them off with scorn and warnings. Once snug in their crusty cabin abode the couples entertain themselves swapping stories of the uncanny. The stories get the best of them and some elemental Indian wind demon comes to pay a visit. I know it’s very slight and to be honest the stories exchanged are pretty weak but they’re just weird enough to bite. The first is a hoary urban legend crossed with a Bigfoot tale, the second a standard haunted house bit with an unnerving payoff involving a green light bulb (?!) and the third is an antiquated, sexual repression makes ladies bonkers riff. Still, as presented, with the cabin dwellers playing double duty performing in the vignettes, an accelerated tone of dread is subtly established. The wrap around story’s conclusion, complete with whipping leaves and screams weaving into howling winds, makes for a chaotic lingering close.

Horror tends to be a lot like humor. You can claim your tastes and try to sophisticate your palate but there’s a knee jerk response that bypasses the intellectual. What I really think it comes down to is identification. Why do I find BLAIR WITCH hypnotic and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY a snore? If I take a step back my best guess is that I recognize the people occupying BLAIR and the characters in P.A. may as well be holograms from another planet to me. When I went to go see SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT back in the day, I did so with a group of my older cousins and with their large glasses, plaid shirts and wonky seventies hairdos; they resembled the characters that I saw on screen to a tee. No, I did not want an iron chandelier to fall on my cousin Audrey’s head like what happened to the Audrey avatar in the movie.

Another element of SCREAMS that I appreciate is the anecdotal aspect and the way it understands how a well-spun tale can alter the air in the room. My father was (and is) a great storyteller who could leave you hanging on his every word and he took some joy in freaking me and my brothers and cousins out with his nutzo ghost yarns. Even as an adult I am hyper aware of the way a group of people can whip themselves into a paranoid froth exchanging ghost, U.F.O. or local mugging and crime stories. You get to the point where you are afraid to walk home or if you are home, you might find yourself having to watch a sitcom to settle down to Earth before you hit the sack. Oh, I love that feeling. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more likely to change the subject and whistle past the graveyard thinking, “If we keep talking this way, it’ll happen to us! We’re attracting disaster! We’re next!” That’s what I think this movie captures that I love, frumpily tacked together though it may be, it ensnarls that weird feeling you get when you’ve freaked yourself out over nothing…

SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT has sadly never materialized on DVD and I’m thinking most VHS copies have probably found permanent homes. Luckily it is available on the YouTubes as we speak but for who knows how long. Stand warned though, this bargain basement production is a gritty watch and its PG-scares are more implied than all up in your grill. On the other hand if you have an inclination towards seventies era drive-in fare and can look past the cracks in the plaster, it warrants a dipping. I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same unease that I did way back when (not to mention two days ago) but maybe it will bring back to your mind a scary story of your own.