Story and Screenplay by Larry Cohen (as Laurence Robert Cohen)
I have always been suspicious of the claim that Larry Cohen is responsible for the screenplay to the regional horror flick, Scream Baby Scream. By 1969, the year of the film’s release, Cohen was already a prolific television writer and had screenplay credits for studio films like Return of the Seven, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, and I Deal in Danger under his belt. Why would he have written such a trashy, low-budget project?
I don’t mean to sound condescending or to imply that independently produced horror films were “beneath” him at that point in his career. Clearly, Cohen loves genre fare and would not turn his nose up at even the most outlandish of stories. But his work-for-hire scripts have always been for films that seemed guaranteed of having some money behind them. The final product may not turn out to be a good film, but the production values on screen are respectable. The production values in Scream Baby Scream fall somewhere in line with a Herschell Gordon Lewis film.
Of course, the first thing that pops to mind when the screen credit reads “Laurence Robert Cohen,” instead of the usual “Larry Cohen,” is that it has to be a different writer. That is not exactly a unique name. But the film is listed on his IMDB page and it shows up in numerous filmographies on his work (including Tony Williams’ very thorough and well-researched book, “Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker”). As far as I can tell, Cohen has never refuted writing the script, so I am forced to accept that it is his work and include it as part of the Cohen Case Files.
With that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual film.
Callous art student, Jason (Ross Harris), is in love with fellow art student Janet, (Eugenie Wingate). While they have been dating for quite a while and routinely spend nights together at her apartment, Janet is reluctant to move in together. She tells Jason that her parents will disown her. Since Jason is all-in on the relationship, he suggests they should just get married. But Janet still balks, much to Jason’s brooding consternation.
It’s not hard to see where Janet is coming from. Jason is—to put it bluntly—a huge jerk. He mocks Janet’s more romantic view of being an artist and claims that he is fine with merely being a good illustrator and not the world’s greatest painter. He also seems to have a huge stick up his ass when compared to his fellow students. When Janet’s friend, Scotty (Chris Martell, a familiar face to fans of H.G. Lewis’ films), offers up LSD to the couple and Jason’s friend, Marika (Suzanne Stuart), Janet practically has to beg Jason to go along—and be “allowed” to take part in the trip. In short, Jason comes off as a controlling, passive-aggressive, contrarian asshole at every step of the way. And he is the movie’s hero.
On the other hand, to be fair to Jason, Janet is pretentious and annoying. Her views on art are superficial at best, but she takes herself so seriously, it is hard to sympathize with her. Moody and prone to flirting with men to make Jason jealous, she instigates as many fights as Jason does. In many ways, Jason and Janet are both so obnoxious and unlikable, they deserve each other.
But don’t tell Marika and Scotty that. Goody-two-shoes Marika practically clings to Jason, waiting for the moment when he and Janet finally break up for good. And while Scotty is not as obvious as Marika (hiding his intentions behind an awful sense of humor), the second Janet snaps her fingers and demands a ride somewhere or company after yet another fight with Jason, he leaps to attention like a marionette jerked to its feet by the strings.
Into this sticky situation walks Charles Butler (Larry Swanson), a successful artist who paints macabre portraits of people with their faces contorted into nightmarish imagery. Janet is immediately drawn to Butler’s paintings and practically glows when the artist praises her work. Not surprisingly, this gets under Jason’s skin, setting off his jealousy. Jason sneers at Butler’s work as being something out of a “bad dream” and sulks even more than usual as Butler presents Janet with the gift of one of his paintings.
At this point, you are probably wondering where the horror is in this melodramatic situation. Truth be told, I was wondering the same thing. Other than an out of nowhere scene in the first act of a young artist’s model being kidnapped and having her face disfigured, very little in the film gives the hint that it has anything as batshit crazy on its mind as what happens nearly an hour into the running time when Butler relays his history in a flashback. The flashback is lengthy and gets weirder as it goes, featuring body horror and psychological torture before it ends with a shocking reveal in the present-day story.
Not to give too much away, but the entire film changes genres from that point forward. While it never becomes anything resembling a good or well-made production, it does become entertaining as hell. Director Joseph Adler is barely competent, but his leaden touch with actors, primitive staging of action, clumsy attempts to court the counter-culture (acid trips, a nearly wall-to-wall jazz score, Scotty’s psychedelic rock band), and lack of cohesion when it comes to editing between sudden tonal shifts actually helps Scream Baby Scream work better than it possibly should. The surreal turns the film takes in the third act are made more palatable and fun by Adler’s borderline-incoherent direction.
As much as I enjoyed the final thirty minutes of the film, getting to the point where Adler and Cohen push the whole affair out of the airplane without a parachute is a slog. As a protagonist, Jason is so off-putting, it is hard to follow him. Harris plays him with an almost constant sneer on his face and a sarcastic attitude. You cannot really blame him. As written, the role invites that sort of portrayal, but an actor capable of bringing more sympathy to the character would have helped. Wingate is arguably stuck with the worst role in Janet. Both spoiled and victimized, she comes off unconvincingly as a wannabe-bohemian rich girl. Her arch line readings do not help matters and her stiff body language is the telltale sign of an amateur thrust in front of the camera. In many ways, I felt bad for the young actress and was not surprised to see that she never acted in another film.
Where the film comes to life is through the hammy performance by Swanson. A stage actor who appeared in a handful of Broadway productions in the ‘60s, this was his only screen credit. Perhaps sensing the stench coming off the film, Swanson rose to the occasion and chewed the scenery in a thoroughly entertaining performance as the insane villain hiding behind the polite smile of a refined artist. Not surprisingly, I found myself rooting for Butler to outright kill Jason and Janet and escape to continue whatever his devious plan is (it is never really made clear).
I am still not certain that Scream Baby Scream was written by Larry Cohen. The central couple of Jason and Janet, with their dysfunctional relationship do feel like characters he would have come up with. Whether he did and Adler simply fumbled the execution of that portion of the story or the script is by a different writer, it does not really fit in with his usual work. But that does not mean it is not worth checking out. It’s not good in any conventional definition of the word, but there is fun to be had with the film if you are patient.
Spoiler Warning: This trailer gives away the big reveal at the end of Butler’s flashback.
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