Release Date(s)1972 (October 5, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Television (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Olivia de Havilland is best known to moviegoers as Melanie in Gone With the Wind and for her Academy Award-winning performance as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress. By the 1970s, big screen roles were scarce for her so, like many actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, she turned to the small screen, appearing in The Screaming Woman, an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story.
Laura Wynant (de Havilland) has returned to her estate after a stay at a sanitarium. She wants to return to a normal life but on an outing in her buggy one day, she spots a dog digging. Curious, she goes over to the spot and hears a faint cry for help coming from the ground. She screams and screams as she runs back to the house to get help. A cursory search of the area by the police finds nothing and everyone believes Laura is having a relapse of her mental illness. Her son, Howard (Charles Robinson) and daughter-in-law Caroline (Laraine Stephens), are angling to have Laura found legally incompetent and committed to an institution so they can sell her house and property. But Laura is persistent. Unable to dig herself because of crippling arthritis, she goes from house to house asking for help, but she’s repeatedly perceived as a crazy old woman and her pleas are ignored.
Director Jack Smight shows Laura’s growing desperation as she seems to be constantly running. Her frustration grows as she fails again and again to convince others that someone has been buried alive. However, the director misses several opportunities to increase suspense. Shortly after Laura hears the smothered voice, Smight pans down through the earth to show a woman with labored breathing. So we know at the outset that what Laura heard is real. The buried woman should not have been shown so early. Since Laura has recently been released from a sanitarium, the viewer could have been made to wonder whether she is simply crazy or actually did hear something. Smight also shoots most scenes in the daytime, which isn’t exactly conducive to creating a moody atmosphere.
There are also some plot points that defy common sense but are necessary for the story to move forward. When a dismissive police deputy arrives to investigate her claim, Laura tells him where she heard the voice but doesn’t accompany him to point out the exact spot. When others go to investigate Laura’s claim, why does the buried person make no sound?
Veteran actors Joseph Cotten and Walter Pidgeon appear as Laura’s lawyer and doctor, respectively, and character actor Charles Drake has a role as a neighbor who once fought a legal battle with Laura. Ed Nelson plays Carl Nesbitt, the only neighbor who takes her story seriously.
De Havilland balances her performance from intense emotion to quiet, contemplation. Aside from doing a little too much running, she conveys all the horror, frustration, arrogance, and fear required by the script while creating sympathy for her character. But The Screaming Woman is far from de Havilland’s Hollywood glory days. The film is typical made-for-TV caliber—low-budget, bland, and all too predictable, and is notable solely for de Havilland’s performance.
The new 2K high definition restoration of the film from Kino Lorber Studio Classics features 1080p resolution on Blu-ray and is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Clarity and detail are very good, with patterns in clothing, delineation of individual strands of hair, and decor in Laura’s mansion sharp. The color palette is fairly subdued, and the extensive daylight filming makes everything look excessively bright. An overcast sky would have been better for mood. Interiors are bright as well, with little use of shadows and dim lighting.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is crisp and precise throughout. The series of very loud screams after Laura hears a voice from under the ground is unintentionally absurd as the screaming continues while she runs and runs. The music under the credits, by John Williams, is distinctive and a lot more suspenseful than the visuals. His memorable score for Jaws would terrify viewers just three years later and he would go on to compose scores for many big films, but The Screaming Woman marked his final work for TV movies.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, newly commissioned cover art, and a set of TV spots.
Audio Commentary – Film historian and screenwriter Gary Gerani notes that The Screaming Woman first aired on ABC on January 29, 1972. The opening shot shows a radiant Laura, seeming very much together. The opening conversation with her gardener reveals that she’s somewhat forgetful and limited physically. She’s just come back from a stay at a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown and there’s concern about her mental well being. De Havilland made 9 movies with Errol Flynn. She sued Warner Bros over its 7-year contract policy and won, receiving better roles and eventually winning two Academy Awards. She feuded with her sister, Joan Fontaine, on and off for years. In terms of de Havilland’s performance, “the old school stars deliver.” They were aware of their audience and wanted to please them. Joseph Cotten and de Havilland had co-starred in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte in 1964. Ray Bradbury, on whose short story the film is based, sold his first short story in 1941. The Martian Chronicles “put him on the map” and he went on to write Fahrenheit 451. For the movie, the main character was changed from a child to an adult to allow for the perspective of a woman doubting her sanity. There’s no music in the early part of the film because there was a musicians’ strike at the time. The score was compiled from stock music, particularly from the TV series Thriller, which ran a decade earlier. Because ABC had scored a success with its mid-week “Movie of the Week,” the network launched a second TV film series with “Movie of the Weekend.” The Steven Spielberg-directed Duel had already aired on this program earlier in the season. Teleplay writer Merwin Gerard was a pioneer of early television and wrote for Four Star Playhouse, Ford Television Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, and Playhouse 90. In 1959, he created the TV show One Step Beyond, which dramatized documented stories of the supernatural. The show predated Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone by six months.
TV Spots – Four brief spots advertising TV movies in the thriller genre are included:
- Scream, Pretty Peggy (:34)
- Fear No Evil (1:35)
- Ritual of Evil (1:38)
- Kolchak: The Night Stalker (:34)
The newly commissioned cover art for this Blu-ray release was created by Vince Evans and features a white, ghostly hand and images of Olivia de Havilland looking frightened and Ed Nelson peering ominously from the dark. The Blu-ray disc sits in a blue amaray case with this artwork, housed within a limited slipcover featuring the same new art.
Though numerous opportunities are missed to make this a truly gripping mystery thriller, The Screaming Woman offers viewers a chance to see Olivia de Havilland in a performance well after her days as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies. Not shying away from the demanding physicality the role requires, she is convincing as a fragile woman confronted by a terrifying reality.
- Dennis Seuling