Bite Size: The Night God Screamed (1971)

The Night God Screamed was doomed by circumstances to be underseen, despite being distributed by the mighty Jerry Gross’s Cinemation Industries. Even accounting for its an all timer of a title —occasionally shortened to Scream by controversy shy exhibitors— and a punchy tagline, the film never really garnered much of a foothold with audiences. A PG certification was often a liability for a genre film, particularly one clearly positioned to take advantage of the media frenzy surrounding the Manson Family murders. The release would be further hamstrung by Cinemation’s bankruptcy in 1974. After a comparatively brief theatrical run on the bottom of double and triple features, The Night God Screamed faded from drive in schedules with little fanfare.

The film opens in the woods, a hooded figure lurking at the edges of the frame. Yet, this isn’t a ritual, not quite. A long haired guru named Billy Joe (Michael Sugich) preaches to a central casting group of hippies, beseeching God for help from the cops that don’t see their freewheeling, dope smoking ways to be valid forms of worship. He blames the group’s troubles on a Judas in their midst, a young woman refusing to be baptized into the cult of Billy Joe’s version of Jesus. The robed figure steps forward, referred to only as “the Atoner”. Together the pair force the woman into the lake, her conversion ending in her lifeless body floating up to the surface.

Meanwhile, Fanny Pierce (1940s Hollywood star and Oscar nominee Jeanne Crain) is a woman gradually reaching her limit. For 25 years, she and her husband Willis (Alex Nicol, co-star and director of The Screaming Skull) have been preaching the Gospel and running a soup kitchen for the downtrodden destitute. Yet the neighborhood keeps getting worse, the goal of saving souls more nebulous as their joint finances become depleted by their good works. Fanny is even robbed right outside the church doors.

Willis promises, as he always does, that a revival meeting he’s scheduled in a nicer section of town will fix things, making all of the struggle worth it. As they load up their battered old truck with the giant cross Willis had made for the occasion, Fanny archly notes that saying “God will provide” has not yet become an acceptable currency for a mortgage payment. When the Pierces have a chance meeting with Billy Joe at a rural gas station, it is obvious this will all end poorly. He’s all too willing to hop into the back of the truck and test the if the cross is really life size, asking Willis pointed questions about the financial possibilities of the revival meeting.

Manson tinged hippie horror and a dash of diet Christploitation make a credible cocktail, and it is surprising that there wasn’t more of an overlap between the two subgenres given both reached the crest of their trend cycle status at about the same time. Boiled down to the bones, they even have the same grace notes in regard to the myriad of ways false prophets can lead the weak willed into damnation, religious or secular. To (quite literally) hammer the point home, the chance meeting between the two self styled men of God ends in a crucifixion that is both effective and surprisingly brutal in the context of a PG film.

Billy Joe and friends are quickly rounded up — except for the mysterious “Atoner”, still unnamed and still at large— tried, and sentenced to death. This sequence seemingly only exists for the movie to make its most overt Manson analogs. Courtroom outbursts from Billy Joe and a herd of his followers harassing Mrs. Pierce outside the courtroom are almost directly ripped from real life events.

The loss of Michael Sugich’s LSD sprinkled hammy performance as Billy Joe does make the proceedings a much slower burn, knocking a bit of the weirder winds out of Screamed‘s sails. Abandoning the appealing possibilities of the early going’s genre mash up, the movie takes a mildly contrived, budget friendly turn toward a home invasion thriller.

Mrs. Pierce is hired on by the judge of her case as a housekeeper, and is tasked with watching his brood of teenagers over a long weekend. She’s uncertain about this new task, never having had children of her own and still wracked with guilt over her husband’s death. Only when offered a solid cash bonus does she begrudgingly accept the job. That particular weekend just happens to be the anniversary of the sentencing, and the remainder of Billy Joe’s followers still want vengeance for their leader.

The teens are standard issue, stakes raising insufferable brats. From here on out the film is Crain’s to carry. Even in her heyday, she wasn’t the most vividly charismatic performer. Here, her simultaneously professionally polished but vaguely disassociated affect is perfect for a tormented woman terrified of the inevitable breech of a formerly safe suburban home. The script has some rough edges in regards to pacing, but she’s selling her solo scenes even when they linger several beats too long.

Director Lee Madden uses angles and shadow very effectively to build menace out of almost entirely unseen assailants. Don Vincent’s score straddles the line between the prog adjacent noise that was coming into vogue, and more classical, post Psycho sweeping strings. It helps give more palpable mood to scenes that otherwise would suffer far more from being shot too dark, and dispersed in familiar narrative patterns.

While the two disparate halves of The Night God Screamed don’t ever really gel into a cohesive whole, both sides of the film have their own distinct pleasures. In the early going, there’s a fresh feeling mix of familiar exploitation modes and some inventive violence, conceptually effective without being particularly explicit. The second act swerve has the feel of a groovy riff on an urban legend or a campfire ghost story, the final twist cozily eerie despite its lack of logic.

It is a bit of a stretch to call The Night God Screamed a lost classic, as it doesn’t take either of its central ideas all the way across the finish line. However, it certainly deserves reappraisal in light of the new found appreciation for both bargain bin regional cinema, and the made for television spooky fare it resembles in price point and spirit. If you view the two sections of the film as a self contained double feature of the trials and tribulations of one very unlucky woman, there’s a grab bag of low key genre pleasures to be had.

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