Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In short: Screams Of A Winter Night (1979)

A group of friends travels out into the winter woods of Louisiana to spend the weekend in a cabin. It's quite an interesting area, with stories about people being ripped apart by a spirit of the winds that is supposed to haunt the area each winter promising quite a bit of excitement.

The friends soon start to tell each other their own spooky tales, first a real old chestnut about a pair whose car breaks down in the woods, then the story of three fraternity pledges having to spend a night in a haunted hotel and running afoul of green light and lastly the tale of a disturbed young woman going slightly homicidal.

While they tell these tales, the tension between the friends begins to rise as much as the racket the wind outside makes. Even before the last story is told, it has become quite clear that the night can not end pleasantly.

Screams of a Winter Night is an atypical piece of 70s horror, consciously produced to get a PG rating and so eschewing most of the brutality and outright nastiness that dominated the genre at the time and trying to replace it with the mood of campfire tales. The three stories the anthology picture tells are of course less than original, yet some surprisingly good location work and solid acting elevate them above the drab into the realm of the slightly spooky.

The most interesting part of Screams is its framing story though. It starts out like a hundred spam in a cabin films, but slowly rises to an excellent and evocative final ten minutes, using the ordinariness of the tales the friends tell each other to make the tension more real. Simple but great sound design helps to further the film's way into creeping the more impressionable among us out and even the up until then rather unremarkable visual side of the affair rises to the occasion in the end.

For a film that is as little concerned with impressing its viewers with its artistry as this one there are quite a few neat little moments and ideas to be found, most of them, as I learned from Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA, born of financial need. I was especially impressed by the howling wind and screaming on the blackened screen that accompany the film's main titles, acquainting us with some of the wind spirit's earlier work while costing the production next to nothing. Another budget-caused advantage was the casting of the same actors in the framing tale and the anthology stories itself (playing different roles, of course). It's an unorthodox but effective way to tie the stories together and helps build the tension for the finale quite a bit.

Why this fine example of old-fashioned spook tales hasn't found its way onto DVD until now is beyond me.


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