I’ve been struggling with what to say about Scream And Die since my second viewing, which took place a couple of weeks ago. I often feel this way about the films of Jose Ramon Larraz, even though he is my favorite Euro horror director. Many of his films are considered to be bad, and even the best of them are lauded for their potential, rather than for what they are. But I decided a long time ago that I am the elusive Larraz completist, even if I am the only one. It is for certain that I am South Georgia’s leading authority on Larraz. *snicker* So I will eventually cover all of his films. You can see my earlier posts on him here.
Scream and Die, or as it is usually and unhelpfully titled, The House That Vanished, has several similarities with Larraz’s slightly more amusing but woefully obscure 1971 film Deviation. Both films feature Larraz’s apparent male muse of the time, the English actor Karl Lanchbury. Lanchbury also appeared in Larraz’s signature piece, Vampyres. Both depict Lanchbury’s character as an incestuous murderer who likes to work on creepy art projects: in Deviation, he is a taxidermist, and in Scream And Die he makes masks. Both movies have characters named Paul, the first a victim, and the second a killer. Each movie has an aunt character who knows What Is Going On, and a protagonist who plays stupid games to win stupid prizes.
However, while in Deviation most of the action takes place at a rural mansion of horrors, in Scream And Die the film only begins and ends there, with most of the action taking place in the city. It’s as if Scream And Die explores what would happen if these Deviation characters had lived a parallel life, and we see what Lanchbury’s creepy little Nevel Papperman looking self would have done in swinging London. This is Deviation with a plot, a script, actors, and a little budget.
Although most descriptions of Scream And Die focus on a model named Valerie whose scumbag boyfriend Terry tries to rob a country house owned by a murderer, a house which she runs from and then can never find again, that’s an inaccurate and lazy synopsis. The first third of the film does take place on an ill-fated B&E trip to the country, where Terry and Valerie must hide when the so far faceless owner comes home. He doesn’t come home alone, though. He brings a victim with him, a woman who thinks she has some relationship with him. This unnamed victim wants to fix this unhappy man by offering him sex, and he is apparently looking for victims who want to fix him. We, along with the intruding couple, then become voyeurs hiding in the dark who witness a giallo-like killing, black gloves and all. Terry is killed trying to get away, and Valerie succeeds in a rather miraculous escape, running first into dark unfamiliar woods, and then hiding in a junkyard. But we later realize the killer didn’t really try to catch her at all. He lets her escape, so he can toy with her. For her part, she doesn’t really look very hard for the house later, and that’s why I don’t like the second title of The House That Vanished; rather, she looks once, gives up, and then is taken back there at the end.
Back in London, she finds Terry’s car parked in front of her apartment when she gets home, and while she wants to find out what happened to him (or rather, who killed him, because she knows he’s probably dead), she gets distracted by a big juicy red herring of a pigeon collector who moves into her building. Yes, that’s right, the guy lets pigeons fly around in his apartment, and that’s what makes him suspect. When her roommate is later murdered, Valerie resists this new neighbor’s efforts to help, because she had already decided to go away to the country with her new boyfriend, Paul. Paul, the sensitive little boy lost who makes masks and just needs codependent Valerie to fix him, a guy who would be great if only he could get away from his meddling aunt. You can see where this is going, even if Valerie doesn’t.
As usual with 1970s Euro horror, there is more symbolism than substance. The theme of voyeurism is represented by the red herring of a lecherous photographer who Valerie works for at the beginning of the film. In fact, the very opening of the film features a camera watching Valerie’s building from the outside, then moving aside to film her asleep in bed, as if someone already is stalking her. Also, when Terry’s car is returned, Valerie finds that her portfolio is still in the car but is missing some photos, so now the killer is looking at her without her consent even when he’s not near her. Larraz himself was a fashion photographer before he got into directing movies, so he looked at the composition of his films in terms of still photography, which adds another layer to that theme of looking through the camera’s eye. Also, in a separate metaphor, the killer makes masks, and he wears a metaphorical mask by leading a double life.
But the most mysterious character, to me, continues to be the pigeon collecting neighbor. If we’re not aware who the killer is, we might think that the neighbor has stalked Valerie to the country house at the end, especially if we’ve chosen to see the story through her unreliable eyes. He does arrive at the end, but he comes to rescue her after she again runs out of the house that vanished, because he is–tada!–a policeman. And yet we don’t see her call the police, so how do they know to come, and why has a policeman who is working on this case moved into her building even before her roommate is killed? Also, why is Paul just sitting in his dark house at the end instead of being captured by the cops who are right outside? This suggests to me that maybe their arrival was all a dying fantasy of Valerie’s, and that the killer will stack her body with all of his other victims and just go on killing. Maybe we the audience of peepers are looking in places we don’t belong again, this time into the mind of a dying woman.
Then again, maybe this is just a cautionary tale about a woman who is a bad judge of character. Unfortunately, although she is the protagonist, Valerie is a woman who we barely know. She is firm while rejecting the advances of the sleazy photographer, but a doormat for Terry. She rejects her neighbor’s help until it is almost too late, and while surely in need of attention herself after finding her roommate, can only think of looking after the needs of Paul. But she is looking after a version of Paul who exists in her mind, for reasons we are not to know. We find out a good bit about how Paul has been shaped by his past, but we know nothing of why Valerie makes the choices she does. That, in the end, makes us as audience the ultimate voyeurs, looking without context, for our own amusement.