It's interesting that Crossley (Alan Bates), the central figure of The Shout (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978), claims to have spent 18 years perfecting his grasp of Aboriginal shamanistic sympathetic magic in the Australian Outback, because the film The Shout reminds me most strongly of Peter Weir's The Last Wave (1977). The difference between the two, however, is that Weir's protagonist rejects the Aboriginal world-view, only to discover his lack of faith is utterly meaningless and ineffectual when juxtaposed with his pre-ordained role in their cosmology. Crossley, on the other hand, both embraces the magic whole-heartedly and eventually destroys himself with it, on its terms—as all magicians must.
Based on a story by old-school mythology junkie Robert Graves, The Shout comes encased in a wrap-around which has Crossley—now committed to a mental institution run by Robert Stephens, who thinks his patients (one of them a very young Jim Broadbent) will benefit from doing prototypically English things like playing a nice daily game of cricket—telling the tale of how he got there to a similarly fresh and dewy Tim Curry, while the two of them are supposed to be keeping score. The “hero” of Crossley's flashback, however, is less Crossley himself than hapless Anthony Fielding (John Hurt), a composer of electronic music who lives in a small Devon village with his wife, Rachel (Susannah York).
Fielding spends his days aimlessly recording and distorting various random sounds (a wasp buzzing in a jar, a breath, a violin bow sawed over jagged metal), hoping to layer them into something even half as disturbing as the Francis Bacon reproductions he has pinned up above his workplace. He's engaging in a reflexive affair with the local cobbler's hot spouse, who thinks he's very glamorous, but neither of them seem to be enjoying it much; he also plays organ at the town church, where the vicar complains that Britain is suffering from a state of “spiritual starvation.” That's where Fielding meets Crossley, who inserts himself into his empty(ish) life as deftly as any con-artist, but soon proves a thousand times less predictable and far more dangerous.
As it ensues, Crossley—whose approach seems to have been heralded by a disturbing dream Fielding and Rachel shared, a wandering figure shambling through the sand-dunes, faceless and wrapped in a ragged coat—is a wandering magician who claims to have killed generations of his own children for power, telling stories about death by pointing bone, kidney-fat-stealing witches and unbreakable love-charms spun around simple objects (like a broken buckle off Rachel's sandal, for example, which he's seen to have secreted in his pocket). He tells of an Aboriginal shaman who once summoned rain by cutting himself with a sharp stone around the waist and then sticking his fingers in the wound, tearing his own skin “up the centre of his chest to the neck, like a snake shedding its skin;” this anecdote becomes even more disturbing when we see Crossley naked, and note that he bears a very similar scar.
Crossley also claims he's mastered a “terror shout” which can only be demonstrated in the most desolate of areas, for fear of only slightly unintentional mass murder. “I have heard some sounds in my time, you know,” Fielding says, perhaps hoping to rip it off for his opus; “It will kill you, then,” Crossley replies, coldly. But the next morning, off they go across the dunes, ending up on a fossil beach that already looks like a bomb-site. Fielding sticks wax in his ears, and Crossley shouts, causing birds to drop from the sky, sheep to plummet face-first into the sand, a local shepherd's sleeping body to go limp, and Fielding to tumble down a grassy cliff, colliding with an eerily-veined stone that he's drawn to try and fix his broken-heeled shoe with. “But I'm not a cobbler,” he says out loud, apparently horrified by the very idea. “I'm a musician!”
As the rest of Crossley's story spins out, Fielding falls headlong down a rabbit-hole which seems designed to illustrate the most basic principal of magic: That in order for you to be able to be seen to “make things happen,” you first have to tell the people involved both what you're going to do, and how you're going to do it. Rachel and Fielding are equally 20th-century types, orphan cynics, knee-jerk dismissive of church, philosophy and (of course) superstition alike. But their spiritually-starved inclination to automatic disbelief soon backfires, rendering them unconsciously credulous enough to accept every black miracle of coincidence Crossley throws their way. So he's able to puppet them around like dolls on strings, enmeshing Rachel in an affair parodying Fielding's own infidelity (which she, too, barely seems to want to participate in), stripping Fielding of his own identity, idly manipulating weather, animals, the landscape itself, and all just because he can . . .
. . . until the second reveal of sympathetic magic's inherently tenuous nature: That by informing his victims of his intentions and methodology, Crossley has been essentially tutoring them in Magic 101, eventually allowing Fielding—once he's been pushed far enough to want to throw away his own ego and embrace his inner cobbler/normal human being-ness—to open himself up to the promptings of his own subconscious, the dream-illogic of “this stands for that,” and turn Crossley's powers against him.
But is any of this for real? Was there ever a Crossley, or a Fielding? As the wrap-around reaches its extremely symbolic climax, it's possible to see The Shout as a straightforward tale of Faustian magic, especially if you're familiar with its mythology and language—which I am, obviously; I have to wonder just what the hell most audience-members (who probably hadn't all grown up on an uneasy mixture of John Fowles, Colin Wilson and Montague Summers) thought was going on, at the time. Then again, the crowd that voted it a Special Jury Prize at Cannes probably saw it as a sort of psychological shorthand for one man's mental breakdown, the same pan-global atavism flowchart Jung and Freud dealt in. It works equally well both ways, or neither.
Like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, John Schlesinger's The Believers or Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intacto, in other words—or any of the rituals those movies reference, for that matter—The Shout has undeniable punch; it's a Rorschach blot well worth repeated contemplation. Which makes it all the more a crime that it still languishes in the cult movie obscurity bin, without even a pending decent Region One DVD release to rescue it from limbo (there's a U.K. Version, but ironically enough, the soundtrack mix is apparently terrible). So much like with Ken Russell's searing masterpiece The Devils, the “best” place to view The Shout right now is on YouTube . . . a far murkier copy than the one which ran last year on Turner Classic Movies, but beggars can't be choosers. Seek it out, and see what you think.