For the average American teenager, their biggest concern is trying to survive high school. But Christie Cromwell is no ordinary teenager. Far from it. Her classmates are more interested in parties and sex, whereas Christie is obsessed with the idea that something weird is going on in her home. She shouts her accusations from the rooftops; of course, no one believes her. For anyone else, this act of youthful rebellion would be a mere cry for help. Yet for Christie Cromwell, this is a Scream for Help.
Christie Cromwell is a seventeen-year-old high school student living in New Rochelle, New York. And as she states ever so frankly in the cold open of Scream for Help, she thinks her stepfather is trying to kill her widowed mother. Say what? As we find out, Christie has a history of “crying wolf” when it comes to her mother’s new husband Paul Fox. Understandably, everyone thinks she’s making up lies to split them up. The closer she gets to the truth, though, the teen realizes that it’s not just her mother with a target on her back — Paul is out to kill Christie, too!
SOUNDS LIKE A REAL WINNER
Screenwriter and director Tom Holland (Fright Night) was in high demand after the success of Psycho II. And when he penned the script for Scream for Help, he had only one director in mind to bring his mystery to life. Holland was so pleased by his and Richard Franklin’s collaboration on Psycho II, but the Australian director turned the offer down. Instead, Franklin opted to work on a passion project about a killer chimpanzee — Link. With Franklin out, Holland was introduced to another director by the name of Michael Winner. Prior to Scream for Help, Winner mainly directed action movies like Death Wish and The Mechanic. His only other horror film so far had been The Sentinel, which was poorly received during its 1977 debut.
Holland remembers his first impression of Winner was that he seemed “theatrical.” Although he describes Winner as otherwise “wonderful” in a recent and very candid interview with Scream Factory, Holland admits he was unhappy with how the director handled his script. Holland went as far as to say Winner “did not have a clue,” and he had “no sense of suspense.” In spite of seeing all the changes and excisions Winner made to his script, the disappointed Holland “didn’t have the heart” to tell the director how he really felt. He knew Winner was trying his hardest as a director, but Holland suspected he was too overwhelmed by his “creeping bitterness” towards Hollywood.
Scream for Help apparently never made it to theaters in the U.S., according to Winner’s memoir Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts. Rather, Lorimar sent it straight to television in 1984. In Great Britain, Miracle Films screened the movie in Leicester Square and other various theaters. Even knowing the final product wasn’t remotely going to resemble his script, Holland was still speechless after seeing a screening.
It’s of no surprise critics were — and still are — appalled by Scream for Help. For instance, the now defunct Monthly Film Bulletin skewered the Winner flick by calling attention to the “moronic characterization” and “daft dialogue.” In the end, the producers did all they could to salvage the movie in editing. Yet there was only so much they could do given what they were working with.
The movie found its way to home video around 1986, but until 2018, the film was difficult to obtain on a proper format higher than VHS. In the wake of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release, however, the movie has been discovered by a new generation of cinephiles looking to see if Scream for Help was really one of the worst movies to come out of the eighties.
THE GIRL WHO CRIED “STEPFATHER”
Ahead of filming, Lorimar made it clear they wanted unknown actors. So, director Michael Winner went from door to door in New Rochelle to find a seventeen-year-old girl to play his lead. Winner shocked these unsuspecting parents by asking to see their teenage daughters’ bedrooms. While this activity raised eyebrows with local law enforcement, they realized he was scouting for actors, and going forward, they requested they go with him during these searches.
The part of Christie eventually went to Rachael Kelly. She had a small role in As the World Turns between 1978 and 1979, but for all intents and purposes, she was exactly what Lorimar wanted. As easy as it is to mock her callow capacity for acting, Kelly conveyed her character’s unwavering resolve with assassin-like precision. When she’s not spying on Paul conspicuously or interrupting others’ rolls in the hay, Christie delivers the worst of dialogue without even a flinch. Her ability to read any line with virtually no moderation in emotion or tone is in some ways amazing. She’s either deadpan or soapy.
Writers imbuing younger characters with adult traits is the status quo. This makes them more interesting as well as engaging to a wider range of viewers. And a natural parallel to Christie is well-crafted teen detective Nancy Drew. Regardless of her sleuthing prowess, she still acts her age. She feels real. Then there’s our heroine in Scream for Help — she’s essentially a pubescent Charles Bronson as seen in Death Wish. Christie‘s quixotically fearless. She’s emotionally detached to the point where we don’t feel an organic connection to her or her cause. The only time Christie is shown to act like a teenager is when she loses her virginity to her classmate in a veritably awkward scene. After the fact in a notably authentic moment, moreover, she shuts the boy out because the ordeal traumatized her enough to say, “I don’t want to go to bed with anybody, ever again.” It’s a break in the character that’s sorely needed. Of course, these scenes are undercooked thanks to flat delivery and prosaic acting.
WHAT’S MY LINE AGAIN?
As coarse and soap-operatic as the overall performances are in Scream for Help, everyone — even the unseasoned lead — tries their damndest in a hopeless situation. It should be noted most of the important dialogue from the script was allegedly removed during editing. Tom Holland imagines this is why the film makes no sense from a storytelling perspective. Also, a dark dimension of Scream for Help was incidentally lost in post-production. Holland wanted Christie — after witnessing all of her stepfather’s nefarious going-ons — to gradually become a near emotional conspirator to Paul in a way. Her seeing his underhandedness firsthand was intended to consume Christie. Make her as guilty as the actual criminals.
An editor on both Michael Winner’s Death Wish and Scream for Help revealed that dialogue was removed from the aforementioned movie in an effort to “improve” it. Alas, this method was not at all beneficial for Scream for Help. The whittling down of Holland’s script stripped the thriller of depth. When it boils right down to it, Winner just did not understand the story.
IT’S TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC
From the very opening scene, audiences are caught off guard by how dissonant the score is in relation to the film’s tone. That infamous “I think my stepfather is trying to murder my mother” line is followed by a sweeping, symphonious piece similar to the music of Dynasty. And as Christie investigates Paul, she’s accompanied by funky tracks more suitable for a 1970s law and order drama. Thankfully, the aural melodrama is dialed down a skosh in the third act.
The theatrical score was arranged and orchestrated by Christopher Palmer and Johnny Pearson; the music was performed by both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Pearson’s own studio orchestra. Regarding the soundtrack, Michael Winner originally asked his neighbor and Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page to do the honors. Page had other commitments, though. So he passed the gig off to his former bandmate John Paul Jones while still providing his signature electric guitar work on two tracks (“Spaghetti Junction”, “Crackjack”).
Jones’ nine-tracked album has become a highly sought-out piece of memorabilia for Led Zeppelin fans. With the exception of “Crackjack”, the general style of the eponymous soundtrack is dissimilar to what Led Heads are accustomed to. It’s more of the experimental rock persuasion with a leaning towards new wave. And the movie’s winsome theme song “Christie” — a schmaltzy, undemanding piano ballad with minimal accouterments — is sung by Jon Anderson of Yes fame.
One would not expect a layered, high-grade soundtrack to be entwined with such a lampooned movie. Be that as it may, John Paul Jones’ contribution may be the only sincerely successful thing about Scream for Help.
BRING HOME THE INVASION
Scream for Help is often miscategorized as a slasher when it’s nothing of the sort. If anything, it’s a home invasion thriller piggybacking on a disoriented after-school special. The household terror doesn’t manifest until almost an hour in, though. Scenes in Christie‘s house are the only part of the movie not filmed in New Rochelle, New York. In reality, the sizable property is located across the pond in England. As for Christie‘s bedroom, that was built on a sound stage since they needed to perform some pyrotechnics later on.
Christie‘s misadventures as an amateur teen gumshoe are amusing, but the last act is more edifying. Driven by senseless direction and inane action, this attempt at home invasion is unintentionally hilarious. It leads into a comedy of errors that’s devoid of tension or threat. Christie‘s unaccountable survivalist skills bring the laughs as she outwits her enemies at every turn. The fun doesn’t stop there either — Christie gives all final girls a run for their money in the coda.
Scream for Help endures because it’s a turkey of massive proportions. Nearly every fact of this film is mishandled or bumbling. Worst-of lists cite the movie infrequently if they can even remember it exists in the first place. Tom Holland’s script is a shell of itself on account of a director who didn’t grasp the source material. The actors are hammier than a school cafeteria sandwich; the music score is wildly out of place. It’s no wonder Holland became adamant about having more say in his projects from thereon.
Very little earnestly works in the movie. But as we all know, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Within that grey area stands a bracket of people who forgive — not forget — the flaws of Scream for Help. No matter how you look at it, this is no work of art. It never will be. If nothing else, we can at the very least appreciate the movie’s unmeant entertainment value. Scream for Help is a monumental miscarriage of adequate talent that will bring an embarrassing series of smiles to any face. That’s no easy feat to pull off. And you know what? That’s okay. We can underline the film’s numerous shortcomings while still finding some perverse pleasure in its staggering mediocrity.