When I was a PhD student, one of my friends was working on a dissertation about a popular national cinema. We would occasionally lock horns about the relative importance of the “high art” cinema that was my major interest versus work that had no pretense to art, but which unconditionally moved audiences for an hour or two. Our friendly debate provided us (and the rest of the department) a good deal of entertainment, but at one point, my friend quietly admitted that after a while, he found it difficult to say much new about individual popular films.
The Hammer production Scream of Fear suggests why you can run out of things to say about popular cinema. A hyperbolic thriller about Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), a young woman confined to a wheelchair being driven mad by seemingly supernatural goings on, it provides 81 minutes of suitably edgy, contrived suspense and fear that keep you on the edge of your seat only to be forgotten quickly afterward. (And I mean literally forgotten. I did not remember having seen it, but my records showed that I had.)
Directed by Seth Holt and shot by one of the greats of British cinematography, Douglas Slocombe, Scream is almost a textbook example of moody, mysterious, black-and-white camerawork, with menacing shadows and movements and flickering candlelight alternating with the bright sunshine of the Riviera dancing through the palatial set created by Hammer’s reliably expert art department. The set is almost a character since it tells us pretty much everything we learn about Penny’s father, whose absence is the mystery hovering over the story.
Despite plot holes as wide as a four-lane highway, it all works, right up to the twist ending. That is the implicit issue. While the specifics of the twist are not exactly foreseeable, that there will be one is because as the suspense tightens and the pace picks up, it is clear that, short of an unhappy ending, something will have to give. In this limited situation, that “something” is not exactly a revelation when it occurs, although the filmmakers do top their twist with a final, sharper surprise that, thoroughly unbelievable as it may be, satisfies emotionally.
That is the problem with the film and with popular cinema generally, the emotional manipulation built on an unspoken guarantee that all will end well. Thrills are de rigeur but they do not have to pass the plausibility test as long as they entertain and order is restored by the end. When the film is over, you can smile at yourself for being enjoyably duped one more time, but you can also dismiss what you have seen as the bag of tricks it is. There is nothing beyond momentary diversion; indeed, the results are meant to be forgettable. The desire for and implications of disposable entertainment are the fundamental questions which more people than my friend and I will continue to debate.