Greed and gaslighting hamper a race against time.
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is based on a Ray Bradbury story and stars Joan Fontaine’s sister as an old woman who’s mistreated by her family, but I promise not to point out the irony in the review below. The Screaming Woman sees her cries for help fall on deaf ears, and a life hangs in the balance.
When: January 29th, 1972
Laura (Olivia de Havilland) has returned to her country estate after a stay at a mental health facility, and while she just wants to get on with life those around her have other plans. Neighbors hold a grudge for her past actions and rumored madness, and her own son (along with his wife) are scheming ways to get her re-committed so they can take ownership of her property. Exploring the grounds one day she’s shocked to hear what sounds like a woman screaming beneath the earth. Laura’s unable to dig thanks to her crippling arthritis, but when she begs others for help they see her only as a batty old woman.
A cursory search by her son and the police finds nothing, and an attempt to trick a neighborhood boy into helping backfires when his father discovers who she is. A consensus grows that she’s mad, and soon the family doctor is unintentionally aiding the daughter-in-law’s plot by prescribing sedatives to calm Laura. It’s not looking good for her or the woman slowly suffocating in the dirt, and then it gets worse… Laura meets the man who buried her.
The Screaming Woman first found life as a radio play by Bradbury in 1948 before being turned into a short story. He also adapted it in 1986 for his excellent anthology series, The Ray Bradbury Theater, but this TV movie is the only variation to feature an old woman as the protagonist instead of a young girl. This is also the longest version of the tale, but writer Merwin Gerard and director Jack Smight (The Illustrated Man, Damnation Alley) ensure it never feels like we’re being doled out filler in place of narrative.
It’s only 73 minutes long and never dull, but there’s a big misstep all the same. We’re told early on that Laura has had mental and emotional issues in the recent past, and when she tells other people about the screaming they immediately dismiss her suggesting instead that she’s imagining things. It’s the perfect setup for sowing doubt in viewers’ minds that maybe she is just nuts, which would, in turn, add an additional layer to the story, but the film doesn’t allow that to happen. Instead, after Laura hears the screams in the first few minutes and rushes off to get help, the camera moves down into the earth to reveal the screaming woman’s panicked face.
The decision kills any suspense that could have been gained from wondering if she was real, and we’re left strictly with the concern that she might not be rescued before she dies. That’s ultimately enough, happily, and de Havilland ends up being part of the reason why. The rest of the cast does serviceable work, but she gives a fully invested performance as she tries convincing the others, conning the boy, and excitedly clawing at the dirt.
There were a few heavy hitters behind the scenes too. Cinematographer Sam Leavitt (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones) fills the square screen with the vastness of the woods and Laura’s mansion as well as close-ups where necessary to magnify her angst, costume designer Edith Head (Sabrina, Roman Holiday) keeps Miss de Havilland looking like the grand dame she was at the time, and the score comes courtesy of composer John Williams (The Long Goodbye, The Fury) who ended his work on TV movies here.
The Screaming Woman misses the opportunity for more mystery and suspense by confirming right up front that a woman is in fact screaming, but it succeeds well enough anyway as a mild TV thriller. The presence of Joan Fontaine’s sister doesn’t hurt either.
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