Air Date: Jan. 29, 1972 (ABC Movie of the Week)
Production Companies: Universal Television
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Merwin Gerard (based on the story by Ray Bradbury)
Directed by: Jack Smight
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Ed Nelson, Laraine Stephens, Joseph Cotten, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Robinson
When The Screaming Woman (1972) began, I immediately liked the music and therefore closely watched the credits to see the name of the composer. Either I missed it, or it was not in the opening credits. In any case, I have now learned it was none other than John Williams! This was apparently one of his last, if not the last, television film for which he wrote the score.
If that doesn’t elevate the production just a little bit, how about the cast: Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, and Walter Pidgeon? Add a story by Ray Bradbury (which was based on a radio play) and direction by Jack Smight (episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), and you have a top-quality movie that’s one of my favorites that I’ve watched for this series.
The basic plot is simple and familiar: old woman (de Havilland) returns home from a stint at a “sanitarium” and stumbles across a woman buried alive on her property. Of course, no one believes her. It’s the other plot points layered on top that make it more compelling. These are also simple and familiar; however, delivered at unexpected times and mixed all together, the movie seems much more nuanced.
The Screaming Woman immediately establishes that Laura Wynant may be experiencing memory loss and dementia. Her past collides with the present when we then find out from where she’s returning and that she has a history of crying wolf with the sheriff. Delivered matter-of-factly without overemphasizing the additional information, these revelations are unforced.
We don’t know at first why Carl Nesbitt (Ed Nelson) is so eager to remove any signs that his dog was digging on the Wynant property. I thought he was simply concerned about being responsible for any damages. Before long, we learn that it’s really because he killed his wife and buried her body in the basement of the old smokehouse. Well, he thinks he killed her. She wouldn’t be buried alive if she were really dead.
When her son, Howard (Charles Robinson), and the police sergeant (Lonny Chapman) don’t believe her, Laura runs frantically through the nearby neighborhood knocking on doors for help. We know she’s eventually going to knock on Carl’s door. This is the most suspenseful part. Will she realize who he is and what’s happened? And if she does, what will he do? If only the dog would run out of the other room so she could put two and two together.
On top of all this is the race against time. That’s why Laura is so frantic. A woman buried alive won’t stay alive forever, especially when Laura’s attempts to uncover her herself succeed in only dropping more dirt on top of her. You see, for another plot point, Laura’s hands are crippled with arthritis. She can barely hold a shovel, much less dig, so that’s why she needs help.
Finally, and this is probably not even an all inclusive list of neat little parts, Howard is married to gold digger Carolyn (Laraine Stephens) who’s seizing the current crisis as an opportunity to force a competency hearing so that she and Howard can sell her assets. Carolyn is a piece of work, constantly berating her husband. If only there were a sequel, I know who’d be buried alive next!