DVD Review: SILENT SCREAM (1990) A Hidden Gem of British Cinema

While the end of the month's release schedule (this week and next) will no doubt be over-saturated with horror-themed releases that are more cheap, disposable thrills than anything else, Silent Scream has an affecting authenticity about its horrors. Based upon the life of 60s killer Larry Winters (Iain Glen) the film beautifully captures the violent and harrowing demise of an incarcerated, drug-addled man and juxtaposes his downfall against an intimate examination of the society of the 1960€™s society through the warped filter of his damaged psyche. Powerful stuff indeed, and a wonder which is now available on DVD for the first time.

Robert Carlyle quite rightly has a reputation as a fine character actor, usually in the kind of volatile roles that befit his rugged and fiery Scottish appearance (Begby anyone?), and before he was Stargate big, he made a lot of atmospheric and gritty British flicks, including the afore-mentioned Trainspotting that cemented his position as one of our greatest acting talents. Okay, so he went on to make The 51st State, and some of his choices have been questionable (even the excellent The Full Monty doesn't fully fit with his earlier work), but on the whole he has done some excellent work in some very generous roles.

Silent Scream fits in with the atmospheric, gritty work I mentioned earlier, and it is also a hidden gem of a film that I have to admit I hadn't ever given much thought to watching before now, largely because it had only ever been available on VHS since its 1990 original release. The cast features a very young Carlyle, but it his fellow actor, and star of the show Iain Glen who deserves all of the accolades for his astounding performance as Winters. He may be backed admirably by Bill Beach's very good script, but his performance is a tour de force portrait of psychological decline, to the degree that everyone else, including Carlyle effectively just evaporate into the background in the face of his on-screen power. But regardless of that, the performance is the perfect chilling antidote to all of the posturing, dime-a-dozen "horrors" that will also hit the shelves at the same time: Glen's Winters is the perfect personification of a tangible horror related to and firmly seated in the human psyche. And if you want a more lasting chill this Halloween, I would heartily recommend it.

The directing, by sometimes actor David Hayman is a triumph of substance over style, which isn't something I get to say very often: although Hayman's technical naivety occasionally shows (in the edit between scenes and the clumsy handling of some others), he should be applauded for the dexterous way he presents his ideas and for the way he frames Winters' predicament. The film deftly investigates the inhumane influence institutions have upon their incarcerated guests, drawing brave parallels between those places of control and the psychological condition of one of the killers inside. Occasionally it is difficult to follow the fractured, art-house-style timelines, but then that feels a lot like a filmic choice to recreate in some way the blurry psychosis of Winters and to make his condition and decline at the hands of the prison the most important things on show, even superseding fidelity to conventional linear plotting. This idea is reinforced somewhat by the fact that Winters' flash-backs are inspired by either drug-use or his isolation, and by the excellent use of mind-bending filmic techniques: the director wonderfully evoking a mock-hallucinatory mood using guitars that seem to wail like banshees, and an eliptical editing technique that leaves the viewer feeling a little confused as to where (or more appropriately when) they are.

In terms of sheer enjoyment, there isn't a great deal- at least not on conventional terms- as the film's rather bleak manifesto occasionally ebbs towards pretentiousness and the bias towards Glen's powerhouse performance robs the film of any kind of balance, which would have been forgiveable in a one-man show, but Silent Scream introduces characters who are then swallowed up in Glen's shadow, forced to become dispensable and ultimately a little hollow. Artistically, though the film works well- and it isn't hard to see why it is lauded as one of Scotland's greatest ever films: as a portrait of psychological disruption, and a telling indictment of 1960's institutions it is powerful and perfectly measured.

Overall, Silent Scream is a fairly unspectacular film featuring a spectacular lead performance, which will shock and disturb and which will enthral those viewers who choose to give it the chance it deserves.

Silent Scream is available to buy on DVD now.


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