Sunil Bhandari conducts a decibel-dive into the evolution of yellish behaviour in cinema, recording how the scream has become a symbol of certain milestone moments in iconic movies.
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on March 5, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
MY FIRST MEMORY of a full-blooded scream was cinematic, but not from the films. It was a painting of a tortured man running across a bridge, under an ochre sky filled with fire and pain, his mouth open, his hands clutching his face. A silent scream that seemed to jump out of the constraints of its two dimensions, and froze my heart. It was the cover of a book my mother gifted me — an old edition of Albert Camus’ The Fall — which had Edvard Munch’s visceral painting, The Scream, reproduced on it. Even today when I see the painting, its terror is tangible enough to make my hair stand on end.
A scream — for all practical purposes — equals trauma; in its entirety though, it starts as a manifestation and then transitions to become therapeutic. And it segues into the dramas of our films seamlessly, as a means to crack the skies when something overwhelming transgresses the normalcy of lives. A scream is a breakout, a breaking-in, a break inside.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, when Furiosa casts aside her prosthetic, sinks into the shifting sands, and screams — finding that what she dreamt of for so long is now nothing but an illusion — her primordial incantation of anguish is possibly what all of us have encountered at some point or the other in our lives. If we haven’t actually let out our scream the way Furiosa did, we would certainly have had the noise reverberating deep inside, desperate for an outlet but trapped by the barriers of decency.
A SCREAM ON SCREEN, if powerfully done, can strike at a viewer’s heart, with heartrending verisimilitude. Remember The Shawshank Redemption? When Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) escapes from prison, having traversed through 500 yards of shit, slips into a stream from the sewage pipe, tears off his clothes, looks up to the heavens in the pouring rain, his scream is a guttural laugh, a celebration of freedom after years of incarceration.
In horror/slasher films, the scream is a staple and tactical. It engenders panic in the audience, pushing the viewer into her own sphere of fear even as the actors on the screen are encountering a murderer, seeing the murdered, or getting murdered. In all editions of Scream, Halloween, The Ring, a scream is often the discovery of a killing and often the last gasp of expelled air before a throat is slit. The bloodier films get the viewer to scream with the protagonist, and the subtler ones get the audience to scream first.
For instance, the way Hitchcock mines sheer terror in the shower scene in Psycho: Second-to-second, there is meaning and impact in this iconic scene. And the point at which the scream comes out is conjoined with a terrifying background score which both drowns and heightens the impact of the scream, as Marion Crane realises she is about to die. The aftermath of the scream, as the shower curtain comes out, hook by hook, dragged by Marion’s symbolic clutch for life, and the water circling into the drain, segueing into Marion’s lifeless eye, is by itself like the lingering silent tail of the scream.
SOMETIMES, even in a horror movie, it is not terror but pain which results in the scream. A case in point is Midsommar, when [spoilers ahead] Dani learns that her parents and her sister have all died. A deep sense of grief permeates the scene, and Dani’s cry is the sound of a heart shattering.
Screaming can also be a way to express anger or frustration. The sound of the scream then is piercing and harsh, conveying the intensity of the emotion behind it. Sunny Deol, the perpetually angry protagonist in all his films, was particularly moving in the hospital scene in Ghatak, when he brings in his father to be admitted, and gets nothing but indifference. His outburst is poignant, and emblematic of the frustration of an entire nation at that time, as it reeled under a miasma of indifference, corruption, and apathy. The film was a massive hit, in no small measure because it tapped into the national mood, nay, scream, of severe hopelessness.
But can a scream be funny and painful and excruciating and ugly and real, all at the same time? Yes, if it involves Steve Carrell doing his thing. In The 40-year-old Virgin, he follows through on the idea of having his chest waxed. The result is a lesson in what should not have been done (although we, as the audience, are glad it did!). The cry of anguish and relief his character let out was real, Carell later confessed.
ANOTHER EQUALLY SURREAL MOMENT was bequeathed into cinematic history by none other than Stanley Kubrick in his classic black comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The film follows a mad rogue insurrectionist as he plans to bomb Russia, to initiate a nuclear war. Kubrick used actor Slim Pickens (who, in actuality, had a career as a rodeo rider!) to ride the bomb as it plunges down to earth, screaming, hooting, as he anticipates the entirety of the human race getting annihilated, and is exhilarated beyond all comprehension. It’s a way to die through suicidal self-destruction, yes, but also on the wings of a warped belief.
If I have to choose a scene that should have got every award of the season for its two actors, it has to be the one in Revolutionary Road where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have a showdown over their disintegrating marriage. Kate’s character says, “I will scream if you touch me” — and he does, and she does. It is a scream of rejection, anger, despair… a final nail, as it were, into the coffin of love.
This brings us to the point — is it easy to scream authentically? Turns out it is not such an easy thing to do — it’s a skill, and one which calibrates good acting from the not-so-good. And when it is good, it is something akin to a fully-functioning metronome.
TAKE DREW BARRYMORE’S first encounter with the masked killer in Scream. The beautifully-conceived montage of scenes literally has three different kinds of screams, each one with its own thematic propulsions: one on the realisation that there is someone in the house with her, one when the phone suddenly rings, and finally when the masked killer appears at the window. Barrymore immerses herself into the terror of the moment, and the audience trembles with her.
Similarly with Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer, where her discoveries of bodies are followed by her screams which seem to be coming from deep inside her. As acting coach Scott Sedita notes, it was probably Hewitt’s training as a singer that enabled her to scream naturally from such depth and with such fearful intensity.
On the other hand, to see a bad scream, you could go to the beginning of when sound came into films, like a 1931 Frankenstein, where Mae Clark looks more startled than frightened when she first sees the monster, and her scream is more of a whimper. Possibly, after the silent era, she was just finding her voice! Or epochally closer, with Paris Hilton in House of Wax, where her transition from celebrity to an actor was obviously paved with difficulties of image and talent, and showed in her tepid screaming as she is fatally dispatched.
SCREAMING is an amalgam of body and spirit. For an actor it is a physical exertion which transcends subtler means of engagement, and starts from the gut although it emanates from the throat. Even in its rawest form, there is opera and music and muscle which goes into the endeavour. If anybody exemplifies this, it is Vera Farmiga finding the air and passion and fear in The Conjuring 2, as she has a nightmare in which she is screaming, which continues into her real life where the screaming doesn't stop. In its full-throated-ness, it is a vocal nightmare, and in its artistry is all that an audience would expect from a master performer.
A scream then is a complex and multifaceted sound. It can be a cry for help, an expression of fear or pain, an outlet for anger or frustration, a sign of excitement or joy, or simply a form of entertainment. The most primal scream, however, is that of a mother who is pushing for life to emerge, who is filled with pain and hope, and whose scream seeks resolution for new beginnings. And then the baby emerges, its eyes squinting in the sudden light, startled into opening its throat fully for the first time. The extraordinary birthing scenes in Knocked-up and the continuous shots till the baby emerges in Children of Men almost seem to bring the chaos and ugliness and beauty of that experience into spiritual relief. The scream — of the mother and the child — is a sound which affirms life.
From birth to death, from fear to ecstasy, from fleeting to full-throated, all screaming then is nothing but a heartfelt cry to find life, purpose, continuity, safety. It could be a warning signal, it could be fear, a pulverisation of hope that death is nigh, it could be anticipation of new life. But it is a signal which no form of art can ignore, as art itself seeks high decibels. As Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan said: “No art is silent. Because art is an original idea and every original idea speaks, every interesting thought screams, every art talks, every art screams. No art is silent. If it is silent, then it is not (an) art!”