To me, there are few things in the history of television more effective than the opening five minutes of The Screaming Woman.
The movie introduces us to Laura Wynant (played by the great Olivia de Havilland) through a conversation with her groundskeeper Martin. Martin tells her how glad he is that she's has returned to her estate, and how happy her horse must be to have some exercise again. But the charming and apparently self-possessed Mrs. Wynant is more interested in making sure the furnace in the estate's greenhouse is made ready for the coming cold.
There's something about Mrs. Wynant's conversation that disturbs Martin: though it seems to us perfectly reasonable and easy-to-follow, poor Martin seems flustered. In turn, when he reminds Mrs. Wynant that he will be going away in the afternoon — it being Sunday — she seems equally lost. "Sunday?" she muses. "Oh: yes... Sunday." She suddenly seems to lose her composure; without another word, she sets out for her morning carriage ride.
We get the impression that neither of them has understood a word of this simple conversation. The explanation comes immediately afterwards, when Mrs. Wynant's son Howard appears. Martin confides to Howard that Mrs. Wynant has completely forgotten that the greenhouse was destroyed in an accident the year before. It seems Mrs. Wynant has been suffering from some mild dementia, and has just returned from a less-than-successful period of treatment.
Unaware of the extent of her lapses, Mrs. Wynant rides serenely through her acreage. Her pleasant, leisurely ride is interrupted when she comes across a strange dog pawing at the ground near a pile of rubble. "Scat!" she says — realizing almost at once that that's what one says to cats, not dogs. Climbing down from her carriage, she tries to get the dog to come to her, speaking to it (as most of us do) as though it could understand every word she says. When the dog seems far too upset for small talk, Mrs. Wynant is ready to leave him to his digging...
And that's when she hears the voice.
"Is... is someone there?" she asks. But the muffled moan, which she's heard twice before she gets up the nerve to reply to the empty air, does not come again. Mrs. Wynant furrows her brow and starts to hurry away — when suddenly, more clearly than before, the disembodied voice speaks again: "Help!" it cries.
Mrs. Wynant can scarcely believe her ears: the voice seems to have come from the ground itself. Slowly, fearfully, she moves over to a little mound of construction debris. She kneels next to the mound and peers between the cracks in the rubble...
... when all at once her face twists with horror, and she begins to scream: scream, as though her soul was being torn out — scream, as only an actress the caliber of Olivia de Havilland could manage. As she turns, ignoring the carriage, to run back through the forest in sheer blind panic, the camera unexpectedly dives down, deep under the ground... where we're shown the face of a woman, disfigured by dirt and blood. Her lips move, soundlessly now, as she repeats again and again: "Help me... please help me!"
I never saw The Screaming Woman on TV when I was a child, and I'm glad I didn't. If there's one thing that scared the living hell out of me as a kid, it was movies about people being buried alive. I can remember being traumatized by several films that featured a coffin lid being thrown open too late, revealing the badly-decayed corpse within: The Pit and the Pendulum, for example, and Macabre... Seeing the face of this woman, buried under a ton of brick and dirt, gasping for help with her fading breath, would have left me a wreck for weeks.
I know this, because even seeing the opening of the movie today, as an adult and a seasoned horror fan, makes me feel a peculiar tightness in my chest. It's amazing how quickly the movie carries us from the mild tickle of unease, as we discover that Mrs. Wynant's calm, smiling face masks a disintegrating mind, to the stark gibbering horror of a woman buried alive! With an opening like that, how could you not want to find out what happens next?
Before the opening credits are even over, we have a pretty good idea what we can expect. A woman's life depends on Mrs. Wynant being able to get back to the house and bring help. But... Mrs. Wynant is known to be slightly scatterbrained. Her grasp of reality seems a little tenuous. Even under the best of circumstances, who is going to believe her story?
And as the credits end, we discover that Laura Wynant does not live in the best of circumstances.
Waiting in the house are Howard, his shrewish wife Caroline, and the family lawyer George Tresvant (Joseph Cotten!). When Laura Wynant bursts into the house — Ms. de Havilland looking as though she's just run every inch of the distance through the woods in a single take — she goes into hysterics. Howard grits his teeth, and Caroline rolls her eyes; while Tresvant calmly pours her a glass of sherry and waits for the storm to subside. None of the three are prepared to take her seriously. And when she finally does calm down, and tells Howard there's "a woman buried in the basement of the smokehouse — and she's alive!"... Howard's worst fears are confirmed. "The smokehouse was torn down years ago," he reminds her.
Well, yes; of course she knows that. But, Mrs. Wynant protests, the smokehouse foundation is still visible, and it's from under the wreckage of the old house that the woman's voice had come.
Howard and the others are unconvinced. If she was under the ground, how could she still be alive? And how could anyone above hear her call for help? Mrs. Wynant eventually convinces Tresvant to come with her to investigate. Howard comes too, shaking his head in disbelief.
But for Caroline, this little interlude has been a godsend. She wants her husband to get his mother declared incompetent, so her wealth and property will be handed over to her — er, them. Now that Mrs. Wynant's own family lawyer has seen the depths of her madness, the competency hearing is bound to go their way. Soon the Wynant land will be theirs, and they can sell it to developers for millions. Howard is aghast at Caroline's scheming, but lacks the strength to challenge her.
In the meantime, a man (whose identity we'll discover shortly) has showed up at the ruins of the smokehouse to retrieve the dog. He's arrived too late to see Laura Wynant; but noticing the dog's claw-marks on the ground, he takes a few moments to rearrange the dirt as a precaution. Soon, the ground looks undisturbed... and just to make sure, he even fills in the hole where Laura had knelt to listen (being sure to leave some of the larger debris on top, to make everything look exactly as it had). Thus, when Laura shows up at the site with the others, and goes to the spot where she believes the woman spoke to her, she's confronted with a layer of unbroken earth.
Once again, Laura Wynant returns through the woods to the house, in a state of pure panic. This time, though, she goes against her will...
The Screaming Woman is based on a story by Ray Bradbury, which in turn had been based on the script of a radio play. The original had not been about an old woman, but rather an imaginative ten-year-old girl named Margaret, who likes "to play pirates, and bank robbers, and cowboys". Coming home from her errands through a vacant lot, little Margaret hears the sound of screams coming from underground. Naturally, neither of her parents believes her when she insists they need to go dig her up. Bradbury builds up unbearable tension as her parents go about their dull daily routine, while all the while Margaret agonizes over the plight of the buried woman.
I'm not sure how much Bradbury had to do with the television script, if anything, but the changes are certainly Bradburyesque. The tyranny of the family is a recurring theme in his writing, and the humiliating control Caroline Wynant exerts over her husband is mirrored in several of his stories. But another of Bradbury's themes is that the overlooked — the very young, the very old, the poor, the dead — are not always as helpless as they seem to be. Certainly the core of Bradbury's story has been translated very well in the TV adaptation, while the changes make for a more satisfying full-length movie than the script of the original half-hour radio program would have done.
Some of the television version's middle act is taken up with the struggles of poor Howard, caught between his deeply-buried (!) love for his mother and his desperate need to measure up in the eyes of his scheming wife (much like, say, Bradbury's Some Live Like Lazarus in reverse). Thematic concerns aside, a lot of this is pure soap opera stuff. But even so, there are moments that almost live up to the brilliance of the opening. For instance, Joseph Cotten nearly steals the show with a single, unpromising line: "Do you realize what that would entail?" he asks Howard. The question momentarily startles Howard into revealing his true self — a magic trick we would scarcely believe if the old wizard had not spoken the magic words so perfectly.
But returning to that core of Bradbury's story: Laura Wynant, like little Margaret before her, must sneak out of her own house and go look for help. And the results are humiliating, First she goes to the police — but a crazy woman, with a reputation for seeing non-existent prowlers in the bushes, is as unlikely to be believed by the cops as a little girl would be. Then, again like Margaret, she tries to dig the woman out herself. But this proves to be as difficult for an arthritic old woman as it is for a ten-year-old kid on the hottest day of the summer. This leaves the neighbors... and when Laura starts by offering a local boy a dollar to go off in the woods with her, we know this is yet another attempt that's going to end badly.
Well, then, there's always the adult neighbors. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wynant's reputation as a crazy old bat has preceded her. And if there's anything less appealing than a crazy old bat, it's a rich crazy old bat.
But there's always that nice, cooperative man, Mr. Nesbitt, who lives down the street. Mr. Nesbitt, who's very interested in Mrs. Wynant's story about the Screaming Woman. Mr. Nesbitt, who asks who else might know her story. Mr. Nesbitt, who wonders through clenched teeth how a woman so far under the ground could still be alive. Mr. Nesbitt, whose wife is (cough) off visiting her mother... and whose dog happens to come trotting back into the room at the least opportune moment...
Mr. Nesbitt, who really and truly thought he'd killed his wife by accident during a quarrel, and who is now (if Mrs. Nesbitt will pardon the expression) in over his head.
As in the original story, Nesbitt isn't a hardened killer. In fact, he's badly shaken to realize the woman he's buried is still alive. He doesn't really know what to do... which is a pleasant change from the ruthless assassins we see so often today. Nesbitt's growing sense of panic trips him up at every stage thereafter. And, refreshingly, he does not kill the dog.
But both Nesbitt and Laura realize that something needs to be done as soon as possible. Nesbitt has to wait for the cover of darkness, and must fend off the unwelcome attention of his mistress. Laura must overcome the strong sedative given to her by her well-intentioned doctor (Walter Pidgeon!). As you've probably guessed, these difficulties bring the two of them out into the lonely field at nearly the same time, in the dead of night.
And this leads to a confrontation almost as terrifying as the opening...
Sometimes I feel a little like Laura Wynant myself, trying to convince people there's a genuinely effective horror film buried under thirty years of changing fashions and neglect. I wonder if my love for this movie isn't based mostly on my ability to remember what it was like to be a kid in the 70's, staying up to watch scary movies on an old black-and-white TV set, and (in the spirit of little Margaret) being pleasantly horrified by the things I saw there. I wonder if anybody else will be able to hear the faint screams... or if they'll just turn over a shovel or two of earth and walk away — twirling their index fingers at their foreheads, as they look back at me out of the corners of their eyes — utterly convinced there's nothing there.
But like Laura Wynant, I stick to my story: this is a damned good movie. The Screaming Woman is based on two stunning shocks, and a long slow build between them. It does not rely on manufactured scares to bring you back after each commercial break. It never tries to play clever games with the identity of the villain. It is as straightforward and economical a thriller as you are ever likely to see. And it works... works in a way that so many contemporary horror movies — the ones that rely on "unexpected" plot twists, graphic special effects, attractive teen actors in various states of undress, and astronomically higher body counts — simply don't.
And like Laura Wynant, I'm so confident of what I think you'll find that I'm even going to hand you a shovel. Since this TV movie seems to have lapsed into the Public Domain, it's currently watchable on You-Tube, in eight parts. It's waiting to be unearthed. So, as we were known to say in the 1970's: