JULY 4 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SHRIEKER
When I first saw this movie several years ago, I was severely disappointed by what I saw as the unimaginative use of some intriguing ideas in a script that spent most of its pages wasting time and spinning wheels. Now, rewatching it, my assessment isn’t exactly laudatory, but it’s not nearly as harsh. One possible explanation is that I’m better equipped to allow for budgetary restrictions and appreciate the work done despite the handicaps. Another is that I’ve been bludgeoned by so many spectacularly bad movies in the interim that I can no longer honestly assess one that’s only moderately bad. And I may have just said that same thing twice.
Whichever it is, Shrieker is the handiwork of some of our favorite Full Moon pseudonyms, “Victoria Sloan” (I’m not exactly sure why Dave deCoteau didn’t just direct under his own name here) and “Benjamin Carr” (which everyone but Neal Marshall Stevens seems to agree is really Neal Marshall Stevens). This movie also introduced the world to Tanya Dempsey, who later shucked the brunette in favor of blonde and was featured in a slew of flicks for Full Moon and other low-budget genre filmmakers. It also features a two-headed creature, a gibbering college Communist, and killer tattoo designs. What’s not to like?
Since most ooky-spooky movies require a premise that confines the pool of protagonists, novelty in that aspect of the story is always appreciated, and here we have that novelty, even if it goes largely untapped: Clark (Dempsey) is a college freshman who’s been invited to live with a number of other students as “urban pioneers,” squatting for free in a long-abandoned hospital, with jerry-rigged electrical power and cell phones for outside contact. Since the entire movie is confined to the hospital (with the university remaining a hypothetical construct somewhere over the horizon) and since there’s a certain whodunit aspect to the plot, here’s Clark’s roster of housemates:
- Zak (Jamie Gannon), the nice guy who brings Clark in and wants to get into her pants;
- David (Parry Allen), the ultra-capitalist who first moved into the hospital;
- Tanya (Alison Cuffe), the strident college-communist cliche and David’s main foil;
- Mike (Chris Boyd), the fellow so good-looking that he introduces himself with “I’m not gay”; his electrical engineering background is what enables them all to have power;
- Elaine (Jenya Lano), the quiet pre-med student.
Clark has barely unpacked when she discovers that the rollcall above isn’t complete; investigating a strange shrieking noise in the basement, she finds a strange circular pile of ashes as if someone had been conducting a ritual, and then discovers one more person living in the hospital: Robert (Roger Crowe, imitating Christian Slater as hard as he can), who’s been there the whole time. Robert’s also something of a seeker, a dabbler in occult lore, who cocks an eyebrow and tells Clark something of the mysterious history of the hospital, which had been shut down after a massacre conducted by something dubbed “the Shrieker” in the press. We don’t get a very good look at Robert’s digs, but you just know that he’s got a well-thumbed complete set of first edition AD&D manuals around there somewhere.
Clark agrees to keep Robert’s presence a secret while she helps him decode the symbols left in the burnt circle. Unfortunately, her secretive behavior in doing so starts to earn her the suspicion of the other residents. Especially when something starts roaming the hospital corridors at night… and people start disappearing.
Unfortunately, the “urban pioneer” angle isn’t explored nearly as much as it should have been. In a better version of this movie, it would be brought home forcefully that these intelligent college students have gotten themselves into a heap of trouble by placing themselves in a position where they are unable to seek any help from outside the chainlink fence. Their isolation should be front and center as they realize their predicament. Instead, they just act like the case of every other cheap horror movie, wandering around with flashlights and bickering. Rather than being an intriguing element in their situation, the “squatting” idea seems to have been more a contrivance to maneuver student characters into a hospital property that the producers had access to.
As a counterpart to the setting, the Shrieker itself is a criminally underdeveloped beastie. As you may have guessed, it shrieks from time to time, when it’s not huffing and moaning. The monster costume is imaginative with a second head (the shrieking one) sticking out from the side of the main head. But no reason for its appearance is ever given. In fact, there’s precious little rationale for its existence at all. It originally appeared at the hospital because… um… And it killed people then because… um… And it disappeared because… um… And now someone’s re-summoned it because… um…
Yes, that’s right, it’s been summoned on purpose this time. According to Robert’s arcane texts, it takes five lives as offerings and then becomes subject to a sixth person, who arranges all of the previous deaths. And how? By the unwieldy and arbitrary method of planting somewhere on that person or in their possessions or rooms a complicated symbol drawn on paper. Once that individual has “received” that symbol (as arbitrary as such reception can be — it can even be hidden in a laundry hamper and still count!), that person is irrevocably marked for slashings and gnashings by the Shrieker.
That whole mythology, by the way, was explained to us once during the opening credits, and then all over again when Robert and Clark go about their investigation. I guess that just because all of the characters are college students doesn’t mean the filmmakers thought that the audience would be very quick studies.
So between the underused setting and the underexplained Shrieker, the movie has a feel of being unfinished and only partially formed, as if there were too few dots and no lines connecting them. That may actually be a consequence of production problems; chunks of footage here and there look as if they were inadequately lit when shot, and had to be digitally lightened in the editing (although J.R. Bookwalter, who edited it, remembers no such adjustments). And if they were scrimping and making do with that kind of footage just to complete the post-production, there may well have been plenty of other connective footage which, thanks to similar technical problems, was unusable for the final edit.
But I don’t think any lost footage can account for the central problem with the film: It’s structurally a whodunit, but as a whodunit it sucks. A good mystery is one which appears unsolvable from the front, but makes perfect sense in hindsight. This one, though, only shows the seams and zippers in retrospect, with characters taking actions which turn out to have been for no rational reason except to set up the mystery, the misdirections around it, and the “shocking” twist revelation at the end.
And that kind of severely-flawed story design is something I can’t really forgive on the basis of budgetary restriction. So while I’m not nearly as hard on this movie as I once was, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the sense of disappointment it gives me.
Some Notable Totables:
- body count: 7
- breasts: 0
- explosions: 0
- dream sequences: 0
- ominous thunderstorms: 0
- actors who’ve appeared on Star Trek: 0