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A Movie Scream That Goes to Infinity and Beyond

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

It' s the scream heard 'round the world -- not that you've noticed. A single pained yelp has cropped up in scores of movies over the past 60 years, a sort of inside joke and tribute to film history among sound effects editors. Its name: the Wilhelm Scream. Its embodiment: mostly bad guys getting shot, sliced or speared -- and plummeting off-screen, Wile E. Coyote-style.

The original was recorded for the 1951 Gary Cooper film "Distant Drums," which needed the sound of a special kind of hurt: a man being bitten by an alligator and pulled underwater. Since then, the scream has heralded the demise (or unexpected plunge) of characters in some of Hollywood's most popular films, including all the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies, as well as "Poltergeist" (1982), "Toy Story" (1995) and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003). And thanks to some intrepid film buffs and the Internet, you don't have to re nt all those to see the scream in action for yourself.

Wilhelm Scream Compilation. This hilarious series of clips starts with the scream's eponymous character from 1953's "The Charge at Feather River," a western in which Pvt. Wilhelm is shot by an arrow and falls off his horse. (It was the first film to repeat the scream, and years later "Star Wars" sound designer Ben Burtt would dub the scream Wilhelm.) Then in quick succession come yelps from the likes of "Willow" (1988), "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) and "Aladdin" (1992) -- how's that for range?

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdbYsoEasio.

Another compilation. These clips offer a chorus of Wilhelms from a puppet (2004's "Team America: World Police"), a Spaceball (1987's "Spaceballs") and two Crazy 88s (2003's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1"), among others.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YDpuA90KEY&mode=related&search=.

History of the Wilhelm Scream. Sound editor and film historian Steve Lee gives the scream's back story, including the recording session for the original and a sample played backward. Lee runs the Web site Hollywood Lost and Found ( http://www.hollywoodlostandfound.net), which also recounts the history of the scream and lists more than 130 films and TV shows that have been Wilhelmed.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PxALy22utc.

The band. To thoroughly geek out on all things Wilhelm, see the punk-rock band A Wilhelm Scream. The Massachusetts-based group is scheduled to perform Tuesday at Baltimore's Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St., 410-662-0069). Screaming, though not necessarily the movie kind, is all but guaranteed.

-- Angie Wu


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