Oh boy. This is a challenging film. I’m hoping one of you will come along and make an epic-length comment on it because, although I’ve seen it many times, it always seems to mean something different to me. Serendipitously (or perhaps not) that’s also an experience that is relevant to the story.
The Shout is a story-within-a-story, in a way similar to the short story “The Turn of the Screw.” It begins with Alan Bates and Tim Curry in a scoring hut at a cricket game for upper class insane people. Well, it’s at a hospital for said insane people, anyway. There are some people from the town there playing against the inmates, who either are not all of the dangerous kind, or else it’s one of those asylums they loved to put in movies in the 60s and 70s where the doctor was experimental and let the patients be free-range.
Bates is an inmate, but described by the doctor as brilliant, and Curry is a friend of the doc’s who has arrived to help out. Doctors and nurses as well as ordinary people from the town are playing along with the patients. Bates soon convinces Curry to keep score for both sides so he can tell Curry his fantastic tale, one that changes, he says, every time he tells it. Bates points to John Hurt, who is batting for the non-inmate team, and says that Hurt once had a woman who loved him, but lost her. And then we see the tale as he tells it.
Hurt is an experimental musician married to Susannah York. The two are napping on the beach near their house when they both awaken from the same nightmare; York is missing the buckle from her sandal when they wake up. The next day, Bates shows up outside the church where Hurt plays the organ and, apropos of nothing, starts a forced conversation about the soul. Hurt brushes him off and goes home by way of a dalliance with the shoemaker’s wife, but when he finally arrives home, Bates is waiting there. Bates manages to ingratiate himself into the couple’s lives and steals York from Hurt by way of aboriginal voodoo using the buckle.
But what of the title? Well, Bates can do a “terror shout,” at least in his story, that will kill anyone who hears it. The shout is terrifying, at least to me, as I am capable of being far more affected by sounds in horror films than sights. Hurt does not die when the shout is demonstrated, because he uses earplugs to lessen the intensity, but he is injured by it. Listen for yourself and see what you think.
The story is involving, and filled with beautiful scenery of a seaside town, as well as crammed with visual symbols: bees, mirrors, spilled milk, a bird trapped in a house. But what does it mean? Bates is revealed at the end to be an unreliable narrator, which we should have guessed, but then the last shot of the film suggests that he was not completely delusional. And of course, it’s left open for us to interpret, making this one of those elusive but valuable art/horror films. It even won the Grand Prix de Jury at Cannes.
I think it’s a story about marital problems (based on a short story by Robert Graves which I have not had the pleasure of reading) with supernatural elements thrown in for symbolic reasons, but it’s a story I only enjoy because of those elements. If this was just a drama, which it largely is anyway, it would not be as compelling. I suppose you could remove the supernatural and and keep the ambiguity and the beauty and the bees and mirrors, as long as you retained the insanity. I can’t say I am confused by the film, even though I don’t have a concrete explanation for all the events, because we aren’t meant to be able to nail it all down, but I do experience it more as feelings than as thoughts.
Perhaps most challenging to me this go round is that the frame story has a comedic tone, with cows in the playing field and a crazy guy screaming and stripping while others quote Shakespeare and the the authority figures just roll their eyes, while the inner story is dark. And I don’t mind telling you that it’s York who scares me far more than Bates, even though she’s meant to be one of his victims. She has the mad but dead eyes of a possessed person. Have any of you both seen the film and read the story? What did you think?