The Screaming Woman stars Hollywood royalty Olivia De Havilland as Laura Wynant, an elderly woman convalescing in her country estate after a stint inside a mental institution. Life has been hard on her and old age no less so. Her mind is looser than it once was and her hands are frozen by worsening arthritis.
Out in the country and surrounded by family, Laura can at least find some measure of peace … until one morning, while walking the grounds, she hears a faint, muffled cry for help. A woman’s voice. There’s nobody in sight. She follows the sobbing until it’s … beneath her. Beneath the garden. A woman crying for help, seemingly buried alive. Laura’s hands are useless as digging tools. She rushes back to the house but nobody is willing to believe the former mental patient. She must just be hysterical.
A more insidious horror story might leave the buried woman ambiguous for the duration, allowing audiences to doubt Laura’s mental state along with her family. Maybe that would be scarier, but there is no single image in Jack Smight’s The Screaming Woman more haunting than that of the buried woman covered in mud, half of her face obscured save for the lone terrified eye that cries out in the darkness. Knowing she’s there and may never be saved because nobody trusts Laura, well … it feels pretty contemporary.
Of course, this is a TV movie released in 1972. Stylistically, it shows. The lighting is basic to a fault, and most of the action takes place around the estate — a lavishly decorated home used interchangeably in 100 other productions. De Havilland isn’t phoning it in, though. Her performance is fantastic and keeps the entire production afloat.
The new Kino Lorber release includes a commentary by film historian / screenwriter Gary Gerani. He’s a great host, diving into the careers of the various actors and crew members who made The Screaming Woman, without trying to overstate its relevance to history. In some ways, I found the movie more enjoyable with Gerani’s commentary.