The Primal Scream

I watched The Shout (1978).

It starts with a car pulling up at some institution in the countryside. Rachel Fielding (Susannah York) has been called as there has been some incident.

She is directed to the dining room which seems to have been turned into a temporary morgue, with bodies laid out under sheets on the table. There are 3 bodies and she examines the faces in turn.

We cut back in time to the arrival of Tim Curry, who is in the credits as “Robert Graves”, the author and narrator of the short story this is based on. The original story was from the 1920s but here it is updated to the 70s; it doesn’t make any difference to the central relationships.

Graves is visiting an asylum where the patients are being given the chance to play a cricket match. Outsiders have been invited to make the numbers up, and Graves will be sitting in the box to keep score alongside a patient Charles Crossley. The Chief Medical Officer warns him to beware of the stories that Crossley will tell him, and be mindful of the fierce intelligence of this obscure personality.

As the two men settle to watch the game, Crossley points out the cricketer Anthony Fielding and tells a story of him and his wife Rachel.

The Fieldings went down to the beach, not far from their nice little cottage, and both dreamt of a dark stranger. Rachel found that the buckle of one of her shoes was broken, and so Anthony needs to go on a journey to town to get it fixed. But Anthony is mainly immersed in playing with electronic music and tape edits (the soundtrack of the film uses the latest sounds), blurring it with what he could hear down by the beach. It is unclear if he earns a living from these experimentations, but the equipment must cost a fair bit. Presumably in the original text Graves and his characters simply lived off unearned income.

Anthony also helps out as the organist at the local church, though there is no sign he is much of a believer or cares for the gloomy jeremiads of the vicar, who laments modern society’s slide away from traditional faith. The figure of Crossley now appears, and it seems he contrives to meet Anthony and get back to the Fielding’s home. There he imposes himself as a guest through his magnetic aura.

Crossley tells them that he spent many years in the Australian Outback, and fathered some children that he killed after their birth because he could not stick around to support them, and under aboriginal customs it is permissible to kill young children if necessary. This is disturbing to his hosts, who have not been able to have children. However Crossley soon gives up any pretence of warmth or conciliation, simply taking a bed with no plan to leave. He tells Fielding his sonic experiments are feeble and that he can produce a shout of terrible power. Anthony asks for a demonstration out on the beach, and so we get the great performance, killing animals and an old man nearby.

Crossley now gets on with having an affair with Rachel, who is now completely captivated by this completely unappealing character. Anthony is puzzled by the role of stones and other artefacts lying around in the wake of this black-coated Magus, and this leads him to the actions that put Crossley where he is now: in the asylum, and insisting that his soul is split into 4 fragments. This takes us into the final act, as a thunderstorm suddenly comes over the cricket match. As the CMO orders everyone away, there is a scuffle with the recalcitrant Crossley, and so we end where we began, with 3 dead bodies laid out for Rachel’s inspection.

There is a theme in this of secret powers made visible to sceptical modern westerners who have lost their sense of etc. etc. Graves was also author of The White Goddess, which had a great influence on many writers who were not convinced by the traditional religion offered by petulant modern vicars. Robert Graves might also have known about the works of David Lindsay, though it’s unlikely he would have been influenced by Lindsay’s last published work Devil’s Tor (1932), since not many people read it. That book features ancient powers contained in a single stone, that has been split apart and separated: one half hidden in a chamber near Dartmouth, the other held at a monastery in Tibet, until Englishmen seeking the secret power locate them and try to bring them together. Mysterious deaths occur and great cataclysmic thunderbolts crash and smash whilst the plain ordinary people of provincial Britain have no inkling of what is unleashed around them. That could be a film as well, perhaps updated as a nod to The Shout, though perhaps all the messianic prophecy and cosmic rebirth business would attract the worst people as the only ones in the audience. Let the sleeping mysteries hidden in the folds of the English landscape sleep a bit longer.

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