Screaming at the Moon: David DeCoteau’s Shrieker (1998)

Matty revisits the cult auteur’s nifty Charles Band-backed monster movie.

The time David DeCoteau spent away from Full Moon between 1994 and 1997 following his tenure as chief of their erotic subdivision, Torchlight, clearly did him good. In addition to enabling the cult auteur to make what should be considered his greatest run — a powerful quartet of pictures comprised of Prey of the Jaguar (1996), Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), and Absolution: The Journey (1997) — DeCoteau’s Full Moon sabbatical allowed him to return to the Charles Band fold bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and brimming with inspiration. In fact, so energised was DeCoteau that he took one Band-backed assignment after the other until Y2K, becoming a real lifeline during Full Moon’s rocky voyage into the new millennium. While the likes of Curse of the Puppet Master (1998), Talisman (1998), The Killer Eye (1999), Witchouse (1999), and Prison of the Dead (2000) aren’t exactly movies of choice for Full Moon enthusiasts (they’re wrong, the miserable bastards!), it’s impossible to understate just how much they and DeCoteau’s six other Full Mooners helped keep the by-now perpetually floundering company afloat in the treacherous waters caused by Band’s team-up with The Kushner-Locke Company. Moreover, as David DeCoteau films, each was a bigger step towards the B-maestro’s endgame, refining the style and ideas that would transform DeCoteau from a gun-for-hire to a pioneering king of queer horror as the head of his own boutique outfit, Rapid Heart Pictures.

In that regard, it’s DeCoteau’s first late ‘90s Full Moon joint, SHRIEKER (1998) [1], that crystallised the technical nuts n’ bolts of his Rapid Heart slate. As with future Rapid Heart epics such as Final Scream (2001) and Leeches! (2003), Shrieker was shot in ‘Scope (well, almost: 2.35:1 Panavision).  

“I’m a showman and I like to put on a show,” DeCoteau told me in a 2015 interview. “And I always thought that, whenever I showed a completed film to investors or distributors, it was always more impressive if I had to pull the theatre’s curtains back a little more to accommodate a wider screen. 2.35 looks gorgeous, and, if you use it properly, it can add so much more production value to a low-budget movie.” 

Alas, as with the majority of DeCoteau’s early Rapid Heart flicks, Shrieker was ill-served by VHS and the salad days of DVD, when letterboxing was an alien concept to all but hardened film snobs, and original aspect ratios were subservient to filling every square inch of old 4×3 TVs. As such, DeCoteau’s grandiose attempt to give Full Moon something truly cinematic was reduced to a pan n’ scan hash. Shrieker’s dialogue scenes bear the brunt of it, with several of DeCoteau and cinematographer Brad Rushing’s careful compositions either crudely split into two separate shots, or covered by artificial swoops from left to right and vice versa. Admittedly, it’s not overly distracting unless you know what you’re looking for. It’s just sad and annoying that DeCoteau’s vision was so clumsily faffed with — particularly as when Shrieker’s widescreen version appeared on Full Moon Streaming a couple of years ago, its correct presentation revealed how beautifully lensed it was.

Thankfully, a neat movie is a neat movie, and no amount of hackneyed reframing can stop Shrieker from succeeding as a solid piece of spooky entertainment. Packaged as a straightforward Scream (1996) clone here in the U.K. (distributor High Fliers even removed the E-R and called it ‘Shriek’ to accentuate the connection), Shrieker isn’t a meta-referential teen slasher but an old school monster movie with a few light — very light — Craven-indebted trappings. Because other than DeCoteau’s typically attractive cast of college kids (“Scream definitely made teen movies popular again,” the helmer remarked in our 2015 chinwag) and scripter Neal Marshall Stevens’ decent And Then There Were None framework, Shrieker is probably closer to the giddy pulpiness of the Craven-produced Wishmaster (1997) than anything overtly slasher-y. The similarities hit in a marvellous prologue-cum-credit sequence designed and orchestrated by Dave Parker [2], wherein throaty narration from some cloaked alchemist-type explains that the eponymous Shrieker is a kind of Lovecraftian being, “born of darkness, before the time of man”, that can traverse different dimensions. Slap a “fear the Djinn” at the end of it and it could easily have been the set-up to a Wishmaster sequel — which, incidentally, DeCoteau nearly directed two of [3]. And yes, that is a diagram of the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser (1987) nestled among the alchemist’s papers. 

With a hint of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) also factoring into the narrative thanks to Stevens’ use of hexed parchments as a means to facilitate the killing, Shrieker’s plot concerns the titular beastie being conjured by one of the thrifty denizens of a student squat at an empty old hospital (with a gruesome past, natch) for reasons of murder and mayhem. Is it the squatters’ self-appointed leader, David (Perry Shen)? Long-term residents Zak (Jamie Gannon), Tanya (Alison Cuffe), and Mike (Chris Boyd)? New girl Clark (the feature debut of Tanya Dempsey, who’d go on to appear in DeCoteau’s The Frightening (2001), and a trio of vastly underrated Full Moon programmers: Witchouse 3: Demon Fire (2001), Hell Asylum (2002), and Deathbed (2002))? Or the squat’s mysterious seventh inhabitant, Robert (Thomas R. Martin); a charismatic chap who’s secretly hiding in the hospital’s basement and is surprisingly well-versed in the occult?  

There’s telegraphed and then there’s bellowed through a loud hailer — but Shrieker works regardless of its predictability. Acutely aware that Stevens’ screenplay, which was written under his usual ‘Benjamin Carr’ alias, is serviceable at best, DeCoteau uses it as an excuse to pile on the ghoulish goodies. Imbued with an easygoing air (Shrieker is the kind of shocker you could happily zonk out to after eating your tea), DeCoteau fashions numerous passages of shadowy, smoke machine-filled atmospherics, enhancing his smattering of goose-pimples with a pleasingly tingly score from composer Jeffrey Walton (Prey of the Jaguar). And on a deeper level, connoisseurs of DeCoteau’s distinguished output will delight in the film’s pairing of two of his most enduring motifs: rituals and homoeroticism — though the latter is fairly genteel compared to the barrage of tighty-whities on parade in Absolution, Voodoo Academy (1999), and The Brotherhood (2001) et al. Still, it’s there, and the sight of a shirtless Martin, black magic symbols scrawled across his sculpted torso, is another nifty visual in DeCoteau’s guy-worshipping tableaux.

But, you know, it’s ol’ Shrieky-baby himself who’s DeCoteau’s MVP. As its name suggests, the teleporting Shrieker’s arrival is preceded by a piercing warble that elicits a suitably hair-raising effect — part dinosaur roar, part squeal of a strangled cat. And aesthetically, he’s a glorious grotesque: fashioned by the late Mark Williams [4] and brought to life with sturdy man-in-a-suit verve by Rick Buono, The Shrieker is a gorilla-yeti-mutant thing with bulging bug-eyes, a giant moon-face, and a smaller conjoined second head as equally icky. He’s weird, creepy, and joyously cartoon-y in that classic Full Moon way, and he comes achingly close to trouncing the mighty Zelda from Creepozoids (1987) as the coolest creature in DeCoteau’s monster canon. No wonder Band insisted a Shrieker action figure join Full Moon’s toy line.

Then again, maybe it was the other way round… 

[1] Incidentally, Shrieker was also the first DeCoteau film credited to his ‘Victoria Sloan’ pseudonym.
[2] Parker had previously co-written an unused draft of Test Tube Teens From the Year 2000 (1994) for DeCoteau, and would earn his directorial wings proper when DeCoteau recommended him for the megaphone-wielding job on The Dead Hate the Living! (2000) — a Full Moon title that DeCoteau was originally slated to tackle.
[3] Wishmaster 3: Devil Stone (2001) and Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (2002), fact fans.
[4] Tragically, FX wiz Williams died at the age of thirty-eight on 27th May 1998, two and a half months after Shrieker premiered on U.S. video.

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