Screamtime is a 1983 horror anthology that combines three English shorts with an American wraparound story. It’s a bizarre combination that feels tacked on at first but there’s a little more to this portmanteau than you might initially think.
I’ve actually got some history with this film. In 1984 I used to buy a comic called ‘Scream!’ and one of the stories in it was about a killer Punch puppet (from the Punch and Judy beach shows that I imagine US readers will never have heard of).
Screamtime had Punch on the front cover which made me think this was the film of the comic (I was a bit too young to start researching the dates on these things). It wasn’t (although it shared some similar themes) which was disappointing. I vaguely remember the film being rubbish too, although I couldn’t have told you a single thing about it until rewatching now. But how does it fare, 34 years after its initial release?
*ENTIRE MOVIE SPOILED FOR YOUR PLEASURE*
The linking story begins with two men, Ed and Bruce, knocking on the apartment door of Marie, a woman they know, and rudely barging their way in. She wants to get ready so that she can go out but they want to get drunk, eat her food and watch horror movies. Their unpleasant manner rather sealing their fate quite early.
That’s the Way to Do it
Once the American linking story is introduced, the first real story begins when they put in a video tape to watch and we see a Punch and Judy show being performed.
The operator is Jack. An an old man, devoted to his craft and the upkeep of his puppets. His wife hates him and thinks he’s a loser, which of course he is. She wants to emigrate to Canada (where presumably there isn’t much of a market for this sort of thing) and she’s not too bothered if he comes or not. But if he is coming, he’d better throw away those “bloody puppets.”
His stepson, Damien, a troublemaking young man played by Jonathon Morris (best known for playing Adrian in the British sitcom Bread) hates him as well and when he decides to attack burn down his Punch and Judy stand, it’s time for this story to start dealing out some revenge.
Damien gets it first. Clubbed to death by Punch on a beach. The film is edited in such a way that the impacts aren’t really shown. To his credit, Jonathon Morris does a pretty good job of looking like he’s trying to get away.
As Punch starts collecting victims, his operator tries to warn the police that the victims are dying in the order of a typical Punch and Judy show, suggesting that Punch is somehow to blame.
Actually, during the final chase between Jack and Damien’s girlfriend, we realise that Jack is actually holding Punch and is responsible for all the killings. Which is probably the least interesting outcome for this story.
The sheer Englishness of this segment is initially a bit jarring coming from that American linking story and it feels like an episode of Tales of the Unexpected or something, coming up short with the scares and with the execution of the story.
Adrian Morris is badly miscast as the tough villain (he was much better suited to playing an artsy ponce in Bread) and the rest of the acting is basically of a soap opera level as well.
That said, it’s a tidy enough story that leaves no loose ends but it’s not one you’ll be looking to watch again.
Sticking with the downbeat English vibe, this story focuses on a young couple who move into a lovely big house somewhere in suburban England.
While Tony is out at work, Susan (who has the hair of a Ramone and the glasses of some sort of dickhead) is being the consumate 1980s housewife and unpacking all their stuff and generally sorting out their new house.
Their suburban bliss is soon spoiled when Susan is woken up by a noise at night. Tony pulls the usual ‘oh it’s nothing, get back to sleep’ move but she’s convinced and over the next few days she starts seeing people in and about the house.
A kid is riding around on her lawn (and ignoring her demands to go away) and various males turn up and disappear. Fearing that the house is cursed, she hires a medium to come and check the place out but the medium thinks Susan might be a bit loopy.
Eventually the visions get worse until she’s imagining blood and dead bodies all over the place. She gets committed to a mental health facility and Tony sells the house.
Now by this point, this fucking story has been going on for what feels like a week. The fact that you don’t know what is real or not starts to get on your nerves too.
Then the story throws in the twist. As Tony gives the keys to the new owner, he notices the family members. They are the people Susan was seeing. Including that kid on the bike. ARGH!
Tony gets in his car and promptly gets his throat slit by an escaped madman who then walks into the house to commit all those murders that Susan had been seeing the evidence of in her visions. She wasn’t crazy, she was psychic!
While this story takes far too long to get to the point, the twist was excellent. Old-school as all hell but it worked and left me feeling that the juice was worth the squeeze with this story.
Do You Believe in Fairies?
It’s a sorry state of affairs when your most famous actor is David Van Day, the lead singer of the throwaway ’80s pop band Dollar and occasional member of Bucks Fizz, but that’s the case with the third and final part of this portmanteau.
He plays Gavin who is applying to be the housekeeper at the very large home of Emma and Mildred, two eccentric old ladies who appear to have lots of money but not much in the way of sense.
Gavin immediately ignores that bit of free advice and starts planning how he’s going to rob the two women. At this point it all goes very weird.
There are indeed fairies in the house and when Gavin and his two accomplices return one night for their big score, the fairies initially try to thwart the robbery by making noise in an effort to wake the old ladies up. Emma and Mildred sleep through the commotion (which starts playing out like some sort of elaborate farce) and so the fairies then have to resort to more effective means of securing the home.
After his accomplices are taken out (one by a reanimated corpse, the other by some sort of shit gnome), Gavin finds a beautiful woman who kisses him, rips off his clothing and then traps him with Carrie-esque telekinesis and some kitchen cutlery (which clearly goes inbetween his fingers because they presumably had no budget for props and effects).
The film then cuts to Emma and Mildred who are interviewing for the now-vacant housekeeper position again but it is when they show the applicant a painting of the woman that we find out that she’s enslaved Gavin for all eternity. Baffling!
Screamtime wraps it all up by returning to the linking story. Emma (or Mildred – I’ve got no idea now) in the final line of the final story asks “Do you believe in fairies?” while hamming up to the camera with some straight up fourth wall breaking. Ed sarcastically repeats the line at the TV at which point an arm reaches out and grabs him by the throat.
Marie is in bed with Bruce now and asks if he heard the noise (the noise of their friend getting murdered in the next room) and he says no. At which point PUNCH leaps out from the side of the bed and clubs Bruce to death. EXCELLENT linking story aceness!
We never get to see if someone is in control of Punch, so you’re not sure if this is a supernatural killing. But given how Punch presumably came out of the television, there’s probably some paranormal shenanigans going on.
As a package, Screamtime isn’t great but it’s not as bad as some that we’ve reviewed. The linking story pays off even if it feels tacked on and while the first and third segments are a bit low on scares, and quality, the second story has a decent twist to it (even if the journey there is lengthy and irritating).
That said, Americans and younger viewers will be thinking ‘what the fuck is this shit?’ for pretty much the entire length of the film.