If you spend enough time panning through a genre’s schlocky backwaters, you can turn up an intriguing little gem.  Case in point: Silent Scream.  This tidy little horror opus is often lumped in with the slasher boom of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s but, despite a few knife-kills, is actually a fascinating little proposition all its own.

This film was the brainchild of one Denny Harris, a middle-aged commercial director who decided to try his hand at horror in 1977 by making a film called The Boarding House.  The end result was deemed a dud by most who saw it but Harris didn’t give in.  Instead, he turned to young brother/writer duo Ken and Jim Wheat, who helped him salvage the production by extensively rewriting the script.  Harris kept 12 minutes of his original film and did extensive reshoots to flesh out the rest, adding several name character actors in cameo roles.  The end result was the surprise indie hit of 1980.

So what’s it like?  Silent Scream is an interesting throwback to both the “old dark house” genre and the backstory-driven thrillers that came out in the wake of Psycho.  The nominal heroine is Scotty (Rebecca Balding), a college kid who takes a room at a creepy old Victorian house with three other students.  It’s run by a perpetually nervous high-school kid (Brad Reardon) and his shut-in mother (Yvonne DeCarlo).  The price is right but neither of the landlords mention that there is someone living in the attic.  Said mysterious presence soon turns on the young boarders, leading to slashing knives, the unleashing of long-dormant family secrets and plenty of ‘cat & mouse’ suspense scenes.

Despite a few dollops of skin and blood, Silent Scream is surprisingly a slow burner.  The first hour of the film piles on the atmosphere, with Harris making great use of the Victorian house setting and some nice interior sets as he methodically ratchets up the tension.  There are a few shocks to keep fresh blood in the pacing plus a subplot involving Cameron Mitchell and Avery Schreiber as cops (both are fun to watch) to add a bit of variety.

This early portion of the film works well for two reasons.  For one thing, the young actors carrying the first part of the film are a likeable group that give effective, naturalistic performances: Balding, who would later pop up in the cult fave The Boogens, does particularly nice work as the heroine.  The other reason is Harris’s direction, which is far more stylish than normal for this era of indie horror.  He deploys visual devices like crane shots and step-printing with skill and creates some really impressive flourishes that capture the viewer’s eye, like a great mini-sequence that takes the viewer through the secret passages of the house via roving camerawork and dissolves.

Thankfully, Silent Scream justifies this slow burn setup with a crackerjack third act that throws out the stops.  The writers assemble a series of tense setpieces that culminate in the kind of eleventh-hour revelations that Jimmy Sangster used to come up with when he was penning Psycho knockoffs for Hammer Films.  Harris makes these setpieces crackle with nervous tension.  Better yet, Reardon and DeCarlo really get to strut their stuff here, with Reardon’s twitchy nerd coming unglued in memorable style while DeCarlo handles some necessary exposition with old-school class.  Without saying too much else, there is also an impressive turn from Euro-horror icon Barbara Steele in a surprise role.

In short, Silent Scream is the kind of retro-horror indulgence that is likely to endear itself to anyone who grew up on horror of the 1970’s/early 1980’s vintage.