Hang onto your retro-bonnets, it's straight-to-video time! Meet Heather (Denise Riley), a Texan hairdresser who happily throws her life as she knows it away to start afresh when her father dies, and she inherits a Beverly Hills apartment block. But we know something she doesn't; in the film's atmospheric prologue, a mysterious killer, seemingly drunk on giallo aesthetics, has entered the apartment in the complex where her father lived and violently murdered him.
While at first assuming the death to be of natural causes, Heather and a range of colorful tenants quickly learn the police have their doubts, validated by the continuing presence of Detective Burns (Johnny Keatth) and Detective Marks (Li Anne Read). But love (and death) seem to be in the air, and the closer Burns and Heather get, the more audacious the killer's continuing crime spree becomes until no one is safe.
Directed, produced by, and starring Denise Riley, 2003's Silent Screamplay is not exactly a one-woman show, but it comes close. This shot-on-video diamond-in-the-rough might not have a big budget behind it, but never lets that get in the way of what is clearly Riley's passion for making movies. While the story is fairly straightforward, the film does not hold back when it comes back to experimental cinematography and contains enough Dutch angles to make Alfred Hitchcock blush.
Riley's left-of-center influences don't stop there. Never hesitating to wear her fangirl heart on her sleeve, David Lynch, in particular, is a hard name to avoid when talking about Silent Screamplay. Of course, his classic Mulholland Drive isn't the only movie that centers around a cast of characters in an LA apartment block, but something about their particular mode of eccentricities and the way that Riley lovingly portrays the architecture of the building itself seems to consciously echo Lynch's 2001 movie (and if that doesn't convince you, the film's score will, as the overt influence of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack looms largely undisguised).
But Silent Screamplay is much more than mere fanfic. Just as Lynch himself openly homaged Italian horror cinema in Twin Peaks' famous reimagining of the chase scene from Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill, with its black-gloved killer and first-person perspective shot as they stalk their victims, Riley's film stands as a frequently overlooked yet solid low-budget addition to the North American giallo subgenre.
The film's strength, however, can ultimately be found far beyond its more obvious genre trappings. In a sequence where Detective Burns shows Heather around the city she now calls home, Riley and her cinematographer Joe Jagatic provide a remarkable snapshot of Los Angeles at the time, capturing a kind of untainted spirit of the city that films with bigger budgets and more restrictive production criteria were unable to do.
Shot-on-video horror is an acquired taste, but Silent Screamplay is a solid entry point for those wanting to investigate this rich and often overlooked terrain of women's horror filmmaking. Its suitability for extremely low budgets makes SOV a format that was historically accessible to those wanting to make movies but unable to get the funding for bigger productions, meaning not just women but other minority filmmakers often found this was a space that they could really let loose and experiment. Riley would return as an actress and producer on the film's 2006 sequel Silent Screamplay II, directed by Royce Allen Dudley, which, while it too is a fun ride, largely lacks the spark of Riley's original. This is surely a cult classic in the making, just ripe for rediscovery.