Posts Tagged ‘Elaine Donnelly’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, whatever undertaking you are engaged in, it can only be improved by the judicious addition of some Peter Cushing. I don’t really feel I’ve written about this magnificent, iconic actor nearly enough here on the blog, and with the centenary of his birth only a few days away this feels like the ideal moment to rectify that.

While Peter Cushing did much of his most memorable work away from Hammer (and I’m thinking here of 1984, the Doctor Who movies, Star Wars, and so on), it’s impossible to argue with the notion that he’s one of the performers most closely linked with the studio. So we will be looking at some Hammer over the course of the next few posts. I don’t currently have to hand a copy of The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing’s first work with Hammer Films, and so instead I thought we would take a look at his final role in association with the company.

This is in The Silent Scream, an episode of Hammer House of Horror from 1980. By this point Hammer had basically packed up as a maker of theatrical movies and were trying to break into TV, in association with ITC. House of Horror is an anthology show, made entirely on film, and with some surprisingly big names appearing (usually either very early or late in their careers). As is fairly standard with anthology series, the quality of the episodes varies wildly, but The Silent Scream (directed by Alan Gibson, written by Francis Essex) is towards the top of the pile.


By this time in the final, post-Tarkin phase of his career, Peter Cushing is top-billed, but the main character is Chuck, played by a considerably pre-stardom Brian Cox (actor not physicist). As the story opens, Chuck has just got out of prison, much to the delight of his lovely wife (Elaine Donnelly). The first scene when he gets home is a masterclass in how to bombard the audience with exposition without them noticing: they live in a remote house miles from anyone else (they have no phone). They are very short of cash. Chuck is a kleptomaniac safecracker with a pathological fear of confinement. He has struck up a friendship with a prison visitor who runs the local pet shop. His wife is clearly much too good for him. All of these things except the last one turn out to be crucial plot points, yet you never quite get the sense of the script hitting you over the head with them: this stuff is hardly Shakespeare, but professionally done nevertheless.

Anyway, Chuck trots off to the pet shop to say thank you to the prison visitor, Mr Blucek (Cushing). Cushing opts to play the part with a faint German accent, which suits the character, and a trilby, which is a more questionable choice. Nevertheless he goes into Polite and Genial with an Undeniable Hint of Obscure Menace mode, which indicates to the audience that things may be about to go badly for Chuck.

It’s not really surprising that Chuck spends a lot of time in prison, as he is clearly a dim bulb, not putting two and two together when Blucek reveals his hobby, which is conditioning animals so they can be safely contained without conventional cages. Even the fact that there is a menagerie out the back of the shop containing lions, leopards, kangaroos and bears does not prompt Chuck to realise there is something very odd going on here.

Well, needless to say, Mr Blucek is intent upon the final phase of his experiments in conditioning, which involves training a human to accept confinement. This involves the use of lots of sound cues – buzzers and bells and so on – and high-voltage electrical force fields. Presumably Blucek has all this stuff lying around from his former life as a Nazi war criminal, as I don’t think it’s standard pet shop issue. Soon enough Chuck finds himself back in a cell and at Blucek’s mercy, while his missus runs around producing a little mild padding for the episode.

Actually, I’m being too harsh: for an episode of a horror anthology series, The Silent Scream works really hard to stay borderline-plausible, despite the daftness of the central premise. When Chuck first goes missing, his wife goes round to the pet shop to see what’s happened to him. Blucek denies all knowledge, but Chuck’s coat is hanging up where she can see it. At this point I was getting ready to shout ‘Go to the police, you stupid woman!’ only for the next scene to open with her… well, going to the police. (Who still don’t do anything.)

This is the kind of show they just don’t make any more – the pre-credits sequence concludes with an electrocuted tiger, and later on there’s a scene with an exploding puppy, which scores points for sheer ballsiness – it probably loses them straight away for unintentional humour, but you can’t have everything. If we’re perfectly honest, Brian Cox only really gives a workmanlike performance as Chuck, but Elaine Donnelly is very good, and Peter Cushing, as usual, commits completely to his role, investing Blucek with a slightly detached icy malevolence that commands the screen whenever he appears.

Despite all this, I have to say that The Silent Scream is never really more than okay, although the reasons for this are initially hard to pin down. I think it’s partly because none of the characters is really very likeable – Donnelly is the one who comes closest, but you have to wonder what she sees in Cox. Also, as a horror story it’s just not that frightening – it’s hard to make a man stuck in a room seem properly scary. If most of the episode was a two-hander between Cox and Cushing, set in the cell, it might have worked better, but we keep cutting away to the wife running about. There’s a half-decent blackly ironic twist ending, but even this is implicitly nasty rather than genuinely scary. Still, as I say, this is one of the better episodes of the series and a good showcase for Cushing’s talents: this man could make the magic work on TV as easily as in a movie.

Read Full Post »