Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 3: The Shrieking

October 3: The Shrieking (1973)

Prism's VHS release of this obscure Leo Garen exploitation pic is titled "The Shrieking"; the original title is Hex. "Hex" actually makes sense, as plenty of people in this film get hexed. I don't recall any shrieking. A confusing title isn't the only dishonest part of Prism's box art; The Shrieking isn't really even a horror movie. Can't blame 'em; this is a confusing film. IMDb says: "A group of friends who were World War I flyers ride their motorcycles across America in search of what they believe their generation lost during the war." I've seen the film, and this is news to me. Apparently, The Shrieking never saw a theatrical release. Strange, as Hex would have been a perfectly adequate drive-in flick.

The bike gang (referred to as "The Company") doesn't ride motorcycles across America, they ride them to Nebraska, and stay there. The Company finds its way to the home of Oriole (Tina Herazo) and Acacia (Hilarie Thompson), two half-Indian (no tribe is given) sisters living alone on their small ranch. An uneasy arrangement is made, yet Oriole's hospitality soon wears thin as inter-personal complications arise. Any further plot synopsis would only lead to a headache on my part, so this premise will have to do.

The film isn't about narrative. Mood is the important thing. The film has that particular dustiness of drive-in classics like Deadly Harvest and Vanishing Point. The archetypal setting could be the creepiest episode of Little House never seen; it isn't set in any immediately recognizable time period. This could be the 20s, it could be the 50s--only the bikes kept me from placing The Shrieking in the Hollywood Old West. The specific time period doesn't matter. The idyllic prairie-town only signifies an already mysterious past. The quiet pastoral languor of The Shrieking at times feels even more tranquilized than Idaho Transfer or Picnic at Hanging Rock. This isn't a bad thing: while there's a lot wrong with this picture, the image itself is confident.

The characters themselves are stock. Oriole and Acacia are opposites: Oriole the strong, dark, handsome older sister; Acacia the blonde innocent. The gang has all the typicals: Keith Carradine plays Whizzer, the idealistic young kid; Gary Busey is Giblets the unhinged madman, Scott Glenn the stoic leader Jimbang; Robert Walker plays Chupo as a Jodorowskian mute wild-card with a big beard. The histories of these two sets are left to the imagination. Most of the company are running from something, or someone, but details are absent. All we really know about Acacia and Oriole is that their "Injun pa" taught 'em how to smoke marijuana and talk to bees before he died. The dialog between these characters is painful, the yokel phrasing laughable ("Shush up!", "Makes no never-mind"); but the non-verbal interplay amongst the group is often interesting.

No character is identified as protagonist, and none as antagonist. In one scene everyone's smoking prairie-weed and playing Jew's harp, in the next Giblets is trying to rape Acacia in the front yard. The Shrieking is full of abrupt shifts in tone, usually signified by Charles Bernstein's strange electroacoustic score. The role of any character can change from scene to scene. Whether a point is being made about the nature of human interaction and game-playing I cannot say. It's just as likely alliances and loyalties shift merely to push the film to its inevitable bloody conclusion. Ultimately it doesn't matter, as the film seems to posit that fate has brought these characters to a specific point in time from which there is no easy escape.

The uneven rhythm of the film becomes uncomfortable. Long periods of cinema-hypnosis are punctuated by moments of grotesque cruelty and acid-trip surreality. Oriole as a character grows more malovolent as the film winds, performing strange rituals: she sews a lock of biker-chick China's (Doria Cook) hair into a toad's mouth, and walks around in a cow's skull like a compelled witch. Her black-magick outbursts occur whenever the pace of the film slows to a stand-still. One thing I love about drive-in movies is how strange they can often be; in an earlier review I mentioned the bizarre images in the slasher Final Terror being especially memorable.

Somehow out of all this two romances develop. Whizzer and Oriole pair off in an antagonistic, almost-violent subset, and Acacia finds her familiar in the company's runt Golly, a flax-haired kid so passive he's almost ethereal. These four actors seem the most competent but also the most mystified: they play every hokey line ("What the jim-jam are you doin?") straight, as if in a trance. The acting in The Shrieking can't be called great, but it is appropriate.

Ultimately, The Shrieking offers no explanations. Moments in the last reel point to clumsy political commentary (the company ride "Indian" bikes, after all), but the stronger point here may be an implicit assumption about the malleability of human psychology in certain situations, or in certain archetypal positions. The final scene is the most bewildering of all, and I can't find the words to assess it. Like many of the films that find a home at Dreamscape, this is a bewildering and perhaps even off-putting film. Its strangeness, however, is the glue holding it together. Like the otherworldly aura of a dream, The Shrieking is often mundane, but the mysterious collection of these mundane moments grants surprising and unqualified occult dimensions.

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