The Night God Screamed is an underloved, neglected little horror/exploito trash culture grab bag from 1971. It’s the type of threadbare production that perfectly encapsulates scuzzbucket Americana without really trying. It’s also a fucking downer. Not that that’s such a bad thing, necessarily.
It opens with a ritualistic drowning at a backwater hippie commune, carried out at the behest of a crazed, over-the-top, unibrowed Charles Manson-esque cult leader named Billy Joe. Dude says shit like, “them pigs is watching us, Lord. They don’t dig our kinda thing.” The actual murder is executed by a mysterious hooded figure known as The Atoner (pronounced “A-Toner” by our fanatical leader). So right out of the gate we’re hit with some reactionary hippiesploitation, a probable attempt at capitalizing on Silent Majority paranoia in the direct wake of the Manson Family trial. If the faux-counterculture antics seem a little cartoonish, there’s also an air of believability about them thanks in part to journeyman genre specialist director Guy Madden, who the year previous cranked out the bikers vs. hippies vs. hicks programmer Angel Unchained for AIP. In that film, in between the requisite AIP drive-in mayhem, Madden managed to capture hippie commune culture and biker gang lifestyle in a fairly realistic manner.
We’re next introduced to our protagonist Fanny, played by aging Hollywood starlet Jeanne Crain, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Pinky back in 1949. So the filmmakers are engaging in a little bit of hagsploitation, still something of a going concern nine years on from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane. I mean, Jeanne’s no psychopath here, but the casting choice as the central role for a horror film places this movie somewhere near that category, I think. Agnes Moorhead herself gave the form a proper valediction the following year in John Farris’s excellent Dear Dead Delilah, and she wasn’t an ax murderer in that or anything.
If Fanny’s suffering from anything in this film it’s depression, as her introductory scene makes clear. She’s shown walking despondently down a city street carrying a grocery bag, and, in perhaps the movie’s most downbeat moment, intones in voiceover, “everything is ugly . . . and old.” She promptly has her bag stolen by a homeless man and shows up empty-handed to a soup kitchen run by her broke preacher husband. It should be noted that none of the homeless people depicted seem grateful or like decent human beings in any way.
So it turns out Fanny is tired of living the penniless life of a struggling preacher’s wife. Never fear, her bum of a husband has a half-baked plan to move out of the city and sermonize in more affluent areas. To that end, he’s rented a hall outside the city for that evening’s revival meeting, and the two drive out there in an old beater truck. Also of note: to Fanny’s consternation, her man blew $50 on a large wooden cross to help put people in the giving spirit at his sermons.
The film briefly dives deep into biker territory when they stop to get gas at a country service station and Billy Joe rolls up on a hog with one of his dirtbag pals. This leads to a short confrontation that culminates with Billy Joe lying on the cross in a crucifixion pose. I feel like every old biker movie has one of these members-of-the-straight-community-run-afoul-of-greasy-hippie/biker-misanthropes-at-a-gas-station scenes. Anyway, long story short, after the sermon that night the cult members show up and nail the preacher to the cross, eventually killing him, while Fanny remains frozen and helpless. Cut to a trial scene, where Billy Joe and his buddies receive death sentences for their crime even though the man who did the actual murdering, the enigmatic Atoner, remains at large.
One year later, Fanny is now the housekeeper for the judge from the trial, and he asks her to watch over his four teenage children while he and his wife leave for a weekend getaway. She reluctantly agrees, and the rest of the film sees Fanny and the kids under siege in the judge’s house, terrorized by unseen assailants (though it’s heavily implied it’s The Atoner and lackey cultists). I should note that Aaron Spelling’s kid brother Daniel plays the oldest and most obnoxious sibling, Peter. There’s a lot of creepy goings-on in the dark, a lot of Fanny mentally unravelling, and a pretty fun double twist ending to top it off.
The whole vibe of this film is very nihilistic, I’d say. Religion either exists solely for capitalistic gain or as a brainwashing tool for crazy sonsofbitches. All the younger people are pretty much garbage human beings, and even the homeless are depicted as shiftless, ungrateful assholes. Hippie counterculture is given a disdainful Silent Generation treatment, and the characters who manage to be somewhat sympathetic meet bleak outcomes.
Independently produced and picked up by a struggling distributor in the early seventies, The Night God Screamed was little shown and never sold to television, where it might have found an audience of late-nite mutants. Trans World released it on VHS in the eighties (I found a copy in a thrift store, which is how I saw it) but it hasn’t received an official release of any kind since. This one’s dying for a high quality re-release by a sympathetic distributor like Vinegar Syndrome or Severin. In the meantime, stream it on YouTube and bask in the post-Manson hysteria.