The Sound That Kills

Movies about people who murder with weapons or their bare hands are nothing out of the ordinary but what about a film where a man can kill with his voice? It might seem preposterous but The Shout (1978), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, takes this concept and turns it into something that is both plausible and unsettling.  

Based on a short story by Robert Graves, the author of I, Claudius, The Shout is a visually elegant and often oblique psychodrama with a dash of surrealism and the supernatural. The film, which takes place at a cricket match on the lush grounds of an insane asylum where some of the players are inmates, relates in flashback the story of a married couple, Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel Fielding (Susannah York), whose quiet, sedate life in the Devon countryside is interrupted by the arrival of a strange man named Crossley (Alan Bates). He invites himself to lunch one day and then stays on to dominate the couple through occult powers he has acquired while living with an aboriginal tribe in Australia.

John Hurt (background) is disturbed by his mysterious guest (Alan Bates) and his effect on his wife (Susannah York) in The Shout (1978), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

The narrator of the bizarre tale is none other than Crossley himself, who is now an inmate at the asylum and intent on recounting the recent turn of events to fellow cricket scorer Robert Graves (Tim Curry). Whether Crossley’s story is a clear reflection of his madness or the revelations of a man with truly mystical powers remains an enigma up to the end, despite some indications that he is exactly what he claims to be. Yet Skolimowski’s approach is deliberately ambiguous and one which plays mind games with the viewer while conjuring up a place and time that merges the real with the metaphysical.

Alan Bates plays a strange visitor with an expertise in aboriginal magic in The Shout (1978), based on a short story by Robert Graves.

Much ado was made about the complex and striking Dolby sound mix of The Shout prior to its release and, for those lucky enough to see it in a movie theatre, it was a marvel of aural distortion and separation, particularly in those sequences where Anthony, a composer of electronic music, was experimenting in his studio. The real showstopper though was Crossley’s deafening shout which has the power to kill and does so, striking down a farmer and his entire flock of sheep in one disturbing sequence.The Shout was the eighth feature film for Polish director Skolimowski, who became an international film festival favorite after Rysopis (aka Identification Marks: None), his debut feature in 1964 (he had previously directed several short films). In addition to Rysopis, Walkover (1965), Barrier (1966) and Le depart (1967) are considered key early achievements but his later work, when he dabbled in international productions such as The Adventures of Gerard (1970) and King, Queen, Knave (1972), an adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel starring David Niven, Gina Lollobrigida and John Moulder-Brown, has been more erratic.  There were a few extraordinary exceptions, however, such as Deep End (1971), an inspired coming-of-age tale which combined quirky black humor with obsessive sexual longing; it was poorly distributed by Paramount and overlooked at the time, though it is now considered one of Skolimowski’s most personal and innovative films.

Alan Bates plays a mystery man who may be insane or a deadly conjuror in The Shout (1978).

After more than a decade of middling success and commercial failures, the director surprised everyone with The Shout; it won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and was his biggest critical success since le depart eleven years earlier.

One of several strange and intense sequences from the 1978 film, The Shout, starring Alan Bates (on the right).

An independent film, distributed by The Rank Organization, The Shout was distinguished by an intelligent, literate script by Skolimowski and Michael Austin, which at times exudes the sinister atmosphere of a Harold Pinter play (The Birthday Party, The Servant). It also sports an avant-garde music score composed by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford (two members of the rock group Genesis), stunning cinematography by Mike Molloy (Scandal [1989], The Hit [1984]) and an impeccable cast headed by Alan Bates, who is appropriately intense and menacing as Crossley.

Susannah York plays a married woman who falls under the spell of a mysterious visitor in The Shout (1978).

Cast in the role of the bewitched Rachel, Susannah York was already an internationally acclaimed actress for her work in such films as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? [1969] and Images [1972] but John Hurt as her baffled, rational-minded husband was just beginning to emerge as a major film actor which would be confirmed by the end of the decade in such films as Midnight Express [1978], Alien [1979] and The Elephant Man [1980].

John Hurt plays a composer of experimental music in the offbeat thriller, The Shout (1978), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

Tim Curry, trying to broaden his range after being stereotyped by fans as Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975], and Robert Stephens make the most of their small roles and, if you watch closely, you’ll notice Jim Broadbent in the cricket match scenes as an inmate who goes bonkers during the lightning storm at the climax; it was his first credited film appearance.

Robert Stephens (left) and Tim Curry co-star in Jerzy Skolimowski’s bizarre thriller, The Shout (1978).

Producer Jeremy Thomas deserves major kudos for bringing The Shout to the screen. It was only his second film production (1976’s Mad Dog Morgan starring Dennis Hopper marked his producer debut). He has since gone on to become one of the most adventurous and creative movers and shakers in independent and world cinema with a filmography that includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), David Cronenburg’s Naked Lunch (1991), Bob Rafelson’s Blood and Wine (1996), Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2005), Wim Wender’s Pina (2011), Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal (2017). When The Shout was released in the U.S., it was admired by many critics and dismissed by others as pretentious. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film “a vivid, piercingly loud movie as well as an almost totally incoherent one…it becomes so full of loose ends, contradictions, cryptic symbols and close-ups of objects that, at the moment, have no meaning, that one eventually tunes out of the narrative…” He did, however, find things to praise: “Charles, played by Mr. Bates with the great looney relish he brings to such roles, is brilliant.” He also noted that it “is an elegant looking movie, nicely performed.”

A mysterious stranger (Alan Bates, left) invites himself to stay with a married couple and soon exerts complete control over the wife (Susannah York) in The Shout (1978).

More positive notices were posted by Variety which called it “gripping” and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, “What makes the movie terrifying is the way in which the outback magic is introduced so naturally into the placid fabric of village life.”

A climatic scene of chaos during a cricket match from The Shout (1978), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

The Shout had a brief run on the art house circuit in the U.S. and then disappeared but its reputation has improved considerably since that time thanks to repertory screenings and reappraisals by film scholars. Skolimowski, who also occasionally works as an actor in such films as Volker Schlondorff’s Circle of Deceit [1981] and Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls [2000], has enjoyed other critical successes since The Shout as represented by Moonlighting [1982] starring Jeremy Irons, Success Is the Best Revenge [1984] with Michael York, Anouk Aimee and John Hurt, and Cztery noce z Anna [English title, Four Nights with Anna, 2008], which won the special jury prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and garnered three awards at the Polish Film Festival. His last film to date, 11 Minutes, is an offbeat thriller that toured the film festival circuit in 2015 but received a limited theatrical release and went directly to DVD.  To date, there have been precious few movies about people being killed by a sound although there was 1982’s The Bells (aka Murder by Phone) in which a psychopath develops a device that sends shock waves through phone lines that slay his victims with a combo of electricity and high-pitched sounds. That unintentionally funny, low-budget Canadian thriller which starred Richard Chamberlain, actually fits much better into horror movies where the phone is a conduit for evil – When a Stranger Calls, Don’t Answer the Phone, Black Christmas, 976-EVIL, Scream, One Missed CallThe Shout remains unavailable in the U.S. in any format though you can purchase a Blu-Ray copy of it from Amazon UK if you have an all region Blu-Ray player that can handle PAL conversions. 

*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other websites of interest:,-SUSANNAH-YORK-AND-JOHN-HURT,-UK-BLU-RAY-RELEASE.html





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