Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XVI): The Monster Club (1981) dir. Roy Ward Baker

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of a final anthology film produced by Amicus's Milton Subotsky, THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)

GR: Well. Here we are.

We’re in THE MONSTER CLUB (1981), to be precise, and oh boy is it the happenin’ place to be on a dark and chilly night when you got time to kill and want to share a drink with a fiend. The film is both the most and least appropriate to leave off on during a conversation concerning Amicus Studios. It has all the macabre, darkly witty qualities of the company’s former films, combining garish horror with a satirically pointed look at the very same conventions that they had built their reputation upon. Vampires leer with goofy fangs, creatures and critters dance with wild abandon, and a fellow who appears to be a Jewish werewolf comedian all lighten the air with their wink-wink, nudge-nudge mannerisms and hamminess. Its trio of terror tales is uniformly good to great, delivering solid thrills, innovative twists on old mainstays, and atmosphere as thick as London fog that would make any avid viewer’s black heart flutter.

It also brings a creative team together from the company’s old days that is swoon-worthy: a group of thespians including Vincent Price, John Carradine and Donald Pleasance; composer Douglas Gamley back at the bandstand; Roy Ward Baker (ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS) directing; a script based on the short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, the scribe who provided the sources for Amicus’ previous portmanteau FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974); and even ol’ smiling Milton Subotsky is back as one the producers. THE MONSTER CLUB is in every way a triumph and a perfect swan song for Amicus.

Except it’s not an Amicus movie.

As you alluded to in your earlier post, THE MONSTER CLUB is in no way, shape, or form a product of Subotsky’s and Max Rosenberg’s brainchild, rather a joint picture made under the strange entities known as Chips Productions and Sword and Sorcery Productions. It’s very true that it brings back many of the company’s members for this little ghastly jamboree, but THE MONSTER CLUB is not in fact a card-carrying member of the studio that dripped blood. This is a point that undoubtedly surprises a lot of folks, because the film feels like the genuine package so much that it’s hard not to imagine it sitting amongst the shelves with DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and TORTURE GARDEN (1967). And sure, if we had wanted to be sticklers about it, we could have excluded THE MONSTER CLUB and just ended this mini-blogathon with THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974). But, honestly, doesn’t that just sound depressing when you read it? THE MONSTER CLUB is truly an Amicus film in spirit, and that’s all that matters to me.

And in a way THE MONSTER CLUB points the way toward the new generation, namely in its wraparound segments, the vibrant life blood of youth coursing through the synthesized notes of the musical numbers that fuse punk and glam and Gothic into a heady mix that is just too good to resist. The headquarters of the eponymous society itself are sweeter than gargoyle lollipops (try them sometime), a pad that looks like it was hastily adorned with trappings from the nearest Spencer’s Gifts shop to make it look as “spooky” as possible, a set from a horror host’s program infused with a neon, late-night party atmosphere. It’s a glorious world that the vampire Eramus (Price) and his favorite author Chetwynd-Hayes (Carradine) reside in. Here is a place where the writer’s works, all in lurid paperback editions, are proudly displayed in a bookstore’s window. And not only do humans enjoy reading Chetwynd-Hayes’ shudder stories, but the monsters get a kick out of it too! This is a world where horror flourishes, a plane of existence that practically thrives on it and where everyone loves it unremittingly. When I die, I hope my soul goes to the disco spookhouse that is THE MONSTER CLUB, a place where I can strip my skin away to reveal the gyrating skeleton underneath or shake my booty in a rubber Halloween mask as I please.

I think you’re going to need to take it over from here. They’re playing my song…

NT: THE MONSTER CLUB is probably the only film in cinematic history bearing the credit of “Music by John Williams and UB40.” Oh, sure, the “John Williams” in question is an Australian guitarist, not the noted American composer, but the juxtaposition of the names and the associations they evoke is nonetheless appropriate: this final quasi-Amicus production is classic English horror of the ‘60s and ‘70s dressed up in the spandex and oversize blazers of the ‘80s. It’s a creaky Gothic castle redecorated as a punk rock club. The sight of old horror fogies like Vincent Price and John Carradine being given VIP treatment at a youth hot spot while electric guitars blare over the soundtrack proves that you’re right: this is an alternate world we’re visiting.

Each of THE MONSTER CLUB’s three segments (while maybe a touch goofier than usual) would have no real trouble fitting into the fold of any prior Amicus-produced anthology. However, one could not say this of the film’s wraparound segments, which mostly take place in the eponymous nightclub and could almost better be called “musical interludes.” The brightly hued, hip environs and patrons and upbeat, jocular tone of these segments is totally at odds with everything Amicus ever produced previous to this moment. This commingling of old storytelling sensibilities and glossy modern aesthetics is jarring, particularly because of the inability or disinterest on the part of Baker, Subotsky, Chetwynd-Hayes, et al. to blend these disparate parts into a unified whole. Instead, we’re provided with three typically pulpy Amicus horror tales punctuated by rock songs about vampire romance and weekend skeleton stripteases. I honestly don’t know what to make of it.

We could call it callous marketing. Perhaps the intention was to wrangle some final dollars out of the tired Amicus anthology formula by appealing to teenaged audiences through surface-deep appropriations of youth culture. Or, maybe the intention was to garner the interest of children through corny vampire humor. Without the checks and balances of his partnership with Max Rosenberg, Subotsky infects the film with an unadulterated strain of the childish glee and fascination with storybook monsters that we’ve endured previously in a more subdued fashion in the earlier anthologies. Third option: maybe what we see in the film is no more than these once-Amicus, now-ancient filmmakers following (or attempting to follow) the natural trends of horror in the 1980s towards the frivolous and excessive. Hell if I know. THE MONSTER CLUB feels at moments like all of these reasons and none of these reasons are responsible for its genesis.

Moreover, this confusion of intention produces a tonal inconsistency that throws into question our perception of every last thing we see on screen. Example: The many scenes of the titular rock club feature shots of sundry creatures in dime store Halloween masks who are bobbing and thrashing about to the tunes being played on stage, as if they populated a low-rent Mos Eisley Cantina. At no point is it made apparent to us whether or not we should be accepting those masks for the fleshy and furry faces of actual monsters. That’s the sort of diegetic limbo the film places us in throughout, somewhere between earnest worldbuilding and ludicrous spoof.

Re-watching the film has revealed to me that my feelings have cooled a bit since my last viewing. It’s a charming film, certainly, and (as I’ve touched on above) it’s uniquely bewildering, but it’s also pretty far from the best anthology that Amicus (or those persons directly related to Amicus) has to offer. As noted, tonal inconsistency is an issue, but worse yet is that the second segment (or, the entire middle section of the film) is utterly forgettable. (I should know; I’d forgotten it!) Still, THE MONSTER CLUB’s unmitigated juvenile enthusiasm for its subject matter carries it farther than you might expect. How can one quibble with the opening anthem’s declaration that “Monsters Rule, OK!”? Some things are obviously true.

GR: It’s too bad that George Pal had already called “Dibs!” on the title WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), because the dichotomy between the music video-jive of the wraparound segment and the hoary, Old World theatrics of the actual vignettes in THE MONSTER CLUB is pretty stunning. While Halloween-masked boogiers get funky on the dance floor, Eramus regales us with tales of shuttered misfit monsters, Borscht Belt bloodsuckers, and fog-shrouded ghoulery. Peanut butter and chocolate it most certainly is not, and yet I find it to be a delicious concoction nevertheless. Sure the two thematic worlds on presentation here could hardly be any more different to each other, but they’re both individually fun and full of their own special appeal that the big clanging noise they make when they run into each other is dulled by my overwhelming affection for each of them. Sometimes I think I’m much too loving for my own good.

Our first story, “The Shadmock,” introduced to us by way of head-scratching monster genealogy, is a rather delicate little sonata that plays up the pitiful poignancy of its main character before ratcheting up the gruesome terror for its crispy dénouement. Lovers Angela (Barbara Kellerman) and George (Simon Ward) catch wind that a local, rich hermit named Raven (James Laurenson, memorable for his sinister turn in the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episode “Rude Awakening”) keeps all of his valuables and bundles of cash locked in his mansion’s safe. Sniffing prime bait for a little thievery, Angela tries laying on the charm when she applies for a general secretary/housekeeper position under Raven’s employ. However, the lady finds the gentleman’s appearance a little upsetting.

Raven is the poster child for reclusive oddballs. His skin is milky pale from prolonged periods spent indoors, his oily hair parted down the middle in choirboy fashion and the dark rings under his puppy dog eyes hinting at a restless and tortured soul. That’s because Raven is a shadmock, that most despised of bastardized monsters, a Looney Tunes caricature of creepiness fueled by an intense hunger for affection and acceptance. The shadmock, though, is not without his own set of fangs, except that his comes in the form of a banshee-like whistle, one that renders those who hear it into a pile of singed flesh.

The first segment of THE MONSTER CLUB is probably the film’s best and undoubtedly its most unique. One cannot confuse it for any of the other adapted stories from R. Chetwynd-Hayes’ Amicus resume, in this or the previous FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). It is perhaps most notable in its prevalent mood of loss and alienation. Any attempts at cheap shocks or cheesy humor are (mostly) dispelled in favor of painting a somber portrait of Laurenson’s character. In some ways this first story makes THE MONSTER CLUB feel more legitimate because it takes the time to study Raven’s monstrousness directly rather than superficially exploit it. It is the very fundamental difference between Raven and the other characters that serves as the story’s focal point. What is it that makes someone a monster? Is it an outwardly grotesque appearance? The potential or inclination to harm? Can a monster ever truly feel and, more importantly, find love?

We see that the shadmock is even an outcast amongst his own kind. During a masquerade, Raven’s fellow beasts effortlessly glide around the ballroom while he stands off to the side, a lonely island unto himself. While the other creatures here all wear similar masks, Raven’s opaque façade is especially indicative of his rank in their dark society. He is the plain, the unwanted, the unremarkable. His desperation is sharply illustrated for us when he comes upon Angela in the very act of pilfering his riches. In Raven there is neither rage nor even hurt at this betrayal occurring right before his eyes—the typical reaction of a wronged demon in this sort of story.

Instead he willingly tells Angela to take whatever treasures she wants… so long as he is able to hold on to her and have her love. It’s sickeningly sad, and the woman’s disgusted rebuke stings bitterly. Our hearts can’t help but go out to Raven as he emits his piercing whistle, tears brimming in his eyes. This is not an act of wanton vengeance. It’s pure, raw hurt. The image of the charred Angela advancing on George that caps off the story loses a bit of its punch because of this, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The episode’s truly devastating moment has already come to pass.

The next story is “The Vampires.” Talk about your highs and lows. Now, I don’t necessarily hate “The Vampires,” but as my family has a fondness for saying about meals that didn’t particularly wow them: “Well, you don’t have to make this for me again.” That may be a little harsher than what I really feel, but the company that the second vignette keeps with its two bookending tales can’t help but make its charms feel diminutive in comparison. Which is honestly something that I hate doing with anthology films: basing the value of one story on how it stacks up against the others. So let’s try to look “The Vampires” right in its puss and call it out for what it is.

The story, for what it’s worth, mainly concerns a young boy named Lintom Busotsky (Warren Saire, and no points for figuring out the anagram) whose father (Richard Johnson) is a creature of the night straight off the boat from the old country. Lintom himself is constantly teased at school—palely shadowing the estrangement theme from “The Shadmock”—not because he is also a genuine Nosfertau, surprisingly enough, but just for being a lanky loser in general. And yet these playground taunts are evidence enough for one Mr. Pickering (Donald Pleasance) to recognize the boy’s allegiance with the undead. Eventually the man gains the child’s trust and makes a house call one day along with some of his associates, proving to the lad that his parents were right to warn him about “men carrying violin cases.”

The most unfortunate thing about “The Vampires” is that it feels like a retread back into the old Amicus days when they tried to inject blatant shtick into their tales of horror. Or, “The Dreaded Days of the VAULT” as they’re still known amongst the villagers. We get more goofy eye-teeth here ala “The Cloak” segment from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) and Johnson goes all out as he puts on his Bela-in-the-opera-cape act for our “amusement.” It can get to be some pretty tedious stuff, all of which reaches its patience-trying apex in the tale’s climax when the vampire father reveals that he was wearing a “stake-proof vest” and a ketchup packet the whole time. To quote Johnson’s rabbi: “Oy vey!” This blatant fangfoolery deadens any potential impression that the story could leave upon our minds. To allude to an earlier comparison you made, this humor is generally not clever or innovative but rather as tired as an old, rubber chicken, thus cementing its status as generally forgettable.

There are some bits that work though. I was actually chuckling out loud when the two B-Squad members carry out the vampified and now-slain Pickering to their van, the solemn funeral dirge skipping in its track as one of the men tries to kick an errantly swinging gate door open and the long stake jutting out of the corpse’s body grinding against the floor of the vehicle as they stuff it into the back. But as you say, it’s all fairly unmemorable and were it not for the few titters it elicits from the audience it might have been hardly worth mentioning.

But let’s give three cheers to the final selection for bringing our spirits back up. “The Ghouls” does not attempt to look at monstrosity with a poetic eye or give it a jovial poke in its ribs like the two preceding tales but rather chooses to exist as a pure and wholesome example of the Saturday night creature feature. Which is to say it’s oodles of good, creepy fun. Sam (Stuart Whitman), a film director in the process of shooting his latest horror picture, decides to do some location scouting to find the perfect patch of decrepit land to serve as the backdrop to his dreary drama. And that he certainly finds in the out-of-the-way town of Loughville (see above for “no points”), a rotting hamlet just off the highway and equipped with its very own insular, rolling fog. Once there he is accosted by a skeevy, wild-haired innkeeper named Patrick Magee, his helpful and winsome daughter Luna (Lesley Dunlop), and a whole pack of rabid inhabitants who would like to have him over for dinner.

It’s nothing earth-shattering, but what I was most surprised by in re-watching this particular segment is how it breaks free of the limiting shackles that are inherent in the anthology format to become a kind of mini-movie in its own right. Once Whitman eludes the fetid claws of the hungry horde for the first time and holes up in the crumbling church with his female companion, “The Ghouls” begins to take on a slightly grander scale, echoing the type of siege pictures that genre pioneers Carpenter and Romero made so famous.

This makes “The Ghouls” both a call back to simpler horrors and an appropriation of contemporaneous genre movies all in one. On one side we have the ravenous ghouls hurling stones and cursing at our human hero, on the other the rough and tumble Whitman warding off his pursuers with a gilded crucifix. The story even has a neat bit of video game-esque worldbuilding when Whitman discovers a diary amongst the skeletal remains of the town priest chronicling the progressive invasion of the ghoul-people, complete with vivid illustrations in the style of Bernie Wrightson that paint the monsters in a more fantastic light than the dirty vagabonds that make up the murderous mob in reality. It all makes for a fairly invigorating experience, one that is punctuated by notes of both melancholy and that dark irony that short horror tales thrive on.

Ahh, I’ve become tired from my trademark wordiness yet again. I think I’ll leave the final estimation of this film in your reliable claws. I shall acquaint myself with a blood martini and listen to the next band’s set. I hear they have a killer groove.

But before I go I feel it is appropriate to raise a toast. Here’s to your tireless efforts, my friend, and here’s to the house that was Amicus.

NT: Once again, I fear you’ve unearthed my coffin-brain and scooped the exact thought and word content onto your plate, at least with regard to what I felt needed to be said about this particular picture. Well, perhaps you’ve only scooped out nearly all of my words. Like the noble Humegoo, I’ll make use of whichever dangling nouns and verbs are left in my ravaged neural network while attempting to offer some closing thoughts on these segments and the film in total. Pardon Humegoo inarticulateness. Here me go.

I think your reading of “The Shadmock” is on point. It’s the most emotional and affecting tale to come out of a Subotsky production, and it ranks as my favorite sub-half hour slice of horror we’ve discussed over these past few months. Essentially a whistling-monster infused reimagining of DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) in miniature, “The Shadmock” forces us to confront our notion of the monstrous in a way similar to how the earlier film encouraged us to reevaluate our conception of the archetypal heroic young lovers. Despite his sickly pallor, unflattering hairstyle, and combustible whistling, can we in truth call Raven a monster? Or is his monstrousness a result of his society’s labeling of him as a monster, for reasons difficult to put into words? Moreover, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to classify the callous, indifferent couple, Angela and George, as the real monsters of this piece? What makes Raven a monster in this world is his loneliness and his desperation for human (or monster) connection. The merciless nature of those around him (even the damned cat is without pity!) makes of Raven a curious, repugnant creature by contrast. To desire love, above all earthly things? Aaagh!

Though perhaps I’m a monster, too, because I couldn’t help but get a kick out of the abrupt cut the film makes from a close-up of Raven’s anguished face to a close-up of B. A. Robertson’s face snarling out the first few lines of a rock song (“Sucker for Your Love”) back at the Monster Club. No time to wallow: the party must go on. (And to note: Robertson’s twitchy performance of this ditty, filmed for its duration in that extreme facial close-up, is among my favorite moments in the film. I like to think his performance is belying the early stages of a transformation into one breed of beast or another.)

Moving on, I’ll take a pass on “The Vampire.” In my family, we have the saying “If you can’t say anything nice, make sure he isn’t wearing stake-proof vest.”

Unsurprisingly, I’m also in agreement with you on the merits of “The Ghouls.” It’s a fine segment for us to go out on, and—as is par for the course with Amicus/Subotsky—it’s as ridiculous as it is genuinely suspenseful. (As you mention, the villagers in their tattered rags and bluish complexions are a peculiarly ramshackle vision of ghoulishness. Or, as Eramus would explain, “smaller budget.”) You’ve singled out my favorite aspect of the episode by mentioning the storybook history lesson of Loughville: I found those Wrightson-esque visualizations of the ghouls to be more horrid than anything Amicus has ever given us. Initially, I was surprised to find myself being so drawn into the ghastly static narrative of this story within a story, but the terrifying power of those lined faces and limbs—doing things as innocuous as dancing or peeking out from the bed covers—repulsed me in a way the main narrative’s moving images never could. (More evidence for the power of oral and visual storytelling, right?) This brief tangent within “The Ghouls” reads a little like a Lovecraftian tale of fiendish human degeneration, and that type of story never fails to set my skin a’crawling.

After all of the above has transpired, we wind up back at the Monster Club, and we watch as Vincent Price dances and claps out of time at the front of the stage upon which The Pretty Things play some English faux-reggae. This is after he has given a long, impassioned, winking speech to the assembled creatures of the night, arguing for humanity rightful place in the ranks of monsterdom (because of all the war, genocide, and assorted murders committed by humans, you see…). This is an appropriate end to our Amicus journey. Amicus was at times ahead of the curve in the horror business, at most other times behind, and sometimes so far off the curve its point failed to register on the graph. Their productions were at times deathly serious and at times were presented with a tongue so firmly planted in cheek they risked choking on it as it slipped down their throat. Amicus tried just about everything, to varying levels of success, during its short tenure in horror cinema, and that rambunctiousness has earned my appreciation (and I’m certain it has earned yours, too). Their films were perhaps never great, but they were always game, and they were—without (much) pretension—never embarrassed to be making the sort of horror they were making, whatever its negligible artistic value. The Amicus films were, in a sense, like Vincent Price dancing to reggae. We love them an offal lot.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XV): The Beast Must Die (1974) dir. Paul Annett

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: This blog post is a detective story-- in which you, dear reader, are the detective.

The question is not "Which blogger has been murdering the English language on the regular?" but "Which blogger is the fuzziest, cuddliest werepup?"

The second question you must ask while reading this blog post, dear detective reader, is whether or not THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974) put that fatal silver bullet right between the eyes of Amicus Productions.

Watch for the Werepup Break.

We've been observing the slow decline of Amicus for the past few weeks, but, for those keeping track, THE BEAST MUST DIE is their last true horror film, and one of the very last films the production company made before slipping into accusations, rebuttals, and lawsuits. The contentious Milton Subotsky/Max Rosenberg relationship is ultimately what killed Amicus, but a brief look at a film like THE BEAST MUST DIE reveals that they were already stuffed and mounted, a hopelessly out of touch antique trying to blend into the groovy contemporary milieu. I've used it before in our recent conversations, but the word that leaps to mind is "kitsch." That's a nasty word to have associated with your earnest productions, but, alas, that's how far we've sunk.

Look at what we have thrown at us at the top: 

a ludicrous William Castle gimmick in which the audience is informed that they are being recruited to solve the mystery and will, in fact, be given a time-out at the climax so that they can guess the lyncanthrope's secret identity.

a very decade-appropriate (and so of course completely ill-fitting) instrumental funk score.

batty pseudoscience concerning the "werewolf disease," which is delivered by Peter Cushing's Dr. Lundgren and received by every other character with only the faintest inklings of doubt (this is a world in which lycanthropy is accepted almost a priori).

a plethora of exposition explaining a "high tech" security system composed mostly of microphones buried in the ground. 

helicopter and car chases, phony "Stand Your Ground" trespassing executions.

Amicus's first black protagonist, Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockheart), who is also, honestly, their first black character beyond assorted voodoo priests and jazz musicians. To celebrate this progressive casting decision, the film characterizes Tom as a man who manipulated his way into money and now has invited all of his friends (and his wife!) over to his estate so that he can imprison them and mercilessly slaughter whichever one is a werewolf, earning him the title of Ultimate Macho Hunter.

a German Shepherd (enhanced with extra fluff) as our werewolf.

THE BEAST MUST DIE is relentlessly stupid. One part Agatha Christie, one part SHAFT, a smattering of Paul Naschy's wolfy romps, and a few pounds of "The Most Dangerous Game." What results is a potion almost too salty to be palatable. Almost. Despite its obvious, unavoidable, fundamental detriments, could it be that I actually enjoy the blasted thing? Might you have enjoyed it as well?


GR: Hopefully one is not allergic to sharp cheese and puppy fur, because THE BEAST MUST DIE (1976) has both in abundance. You’ve pointed out many of the film’s sillier moment: it’s half-hearted and completely unconvincing explanation for lycanthropy that basically involves spit glands turning a person into a wolf; the prominent security system that has really only one scene of importance, said system seemingly unable to keep track of, you know, who’s leaving their rooms and going out on late-night hunts; the cuddly little tyke who performs the role of our titular beast, KILLER SHREWD-ed into looking much more fearsome (but not really) than he actually is with the help of some shag carpeting.

And yet—AND YET—when the bullet is bitten at the end of the day I find myself in the same boat as you. I find the film to be mindlessly entertaining in spite of (or, heaven forbid, because of) its sundry flaws and missteps. I mean, you’re talking to the guy who thought THE DEADLY BEES (1966) was halfway decent, so by comparison alone THE BEAST MUST DIE seems like one of the perennial touchstones of all the cinematic arts. Still, BEAST is a film with good intentions, and even though it does a mad tango in the opposite direction for every step forward it takes, it can’t help but seem really, really cool. 

Maybe it’s the musical score swiped from a deleted scene of SHAFT (1971). Maybe it’s the determined and game performances put in by the whole cast. Maybe it’s because that werepuppy is so freaking cute. For every good point though, there’s something that sticks in its paw and hampers the journey. THE BEAST MUST DIE tries for an undercurrent of ultra-smooth Blaxploitation funk that it lands most of the time. Calvin Lockhart is great as the lead, matching his quirky vocal inflections (“The werewolf bit me”) with a cool swagger and sweaty machismo. Puzzling then (but not really) then that the majority of the film’s advertising should put supporting player Peter Cushing in the forefront, playing up the image of him toting Lockhart’s hunting rifle which he only does for literally three seconds in the actual movie. So much for any progressiveness on that front. 

The film also has several good action set pieces, one of my favorites being the hunt-by-helicopter that has Lockhart trying to take down the racing werewolf with machine gun fire, only for the lycan to mutilate his pilot (in a hilarious bit where the actor clearly looks like he’s giving the dog a big ol’ bear hug) and cause the aircraft to explode. Others though, like the extended auto chase where Lockhart pursues the fleeing Michael Gambon, feel like so much padding, fluff used to hide the movie’s thin storyline. Yet the slightness makes everything feel more digestible, a straight action-adventure yarn seasoned with some supernaturalism to satisfy the horror hounds. 

You’ve already snarled about some of the film’s aspects, but which of its qualities gets your wolfsbane bloomin’? And, more importantly, how many shoehorned werewolf jokes can I make before someone lays me low with a silver candlestick?


NT: Gosh, if I’m being honest, I love almost everything about THE BEAST MUST DIE. The film presents one of those slightly off-kilter fantasy worlds that I’ll never be able to get my fill of. See, the majority of the werewolf films in horror history cast the existence of wolf men and wolf women as freak occurrences, as stray pieces of ancient superstition invading a basically sane, rational, and realistically conceived modern universe. This is not so in THE BEAST MUST DIE. Here, when Tom Newcliffe assembles his guests in the parlor for the first of two Hercule Poirot moments and announces that someone “sitting in this room is a werewolf,” not one of them flinches. In this alternate reality, in which it’s implied that nearly every character we meet has some prior experience consuming human flesh (!), the existence of werewolves is about as likely as anything else.

This bizarre fantasy logic extends beyond the wolfier elements as well. Consider, for instance, that Tom Newcliffe flat out tells his wife (Marlene Clark, slumming it [or furring it up?] the year after her brilliant turn in GANJA & HESS [1973]) that if he discovers she’s the werewolf then he will not hesitate to shoot her. Yes, fewer than twenty minutes into the film, our hero is earnestly threatening to shoot his beloved wife. After (spoiler) he is compelled to shoot her during the film’s conclusion, he appears astonished at his own actions. This is the sort of film in which the logic of its character’s motivations confuses even the characters afflicted by it. It’s the sort of film in which the anti-protagonist is given no other option during the film’s resolution than to shoot himself in the face with a hunting rifle.

I’d argue the film is essentially incompetent in everything it attempts, whether it is action, horror, or suspense. The action is mild and laborious (those car chases, the opening forest pursuit fakeout) or plain ludicrous (machine-gunning a werepup from a helicopter); the horror is confused (after a shot of a werepup licking its lips in a skylight above Anton Diffring, we cut to the discovery of Diffring’s body, mostly intact minus a missing… eyeball); and the suspense is a gimmick (despite the encouragement of the 30-second werewolf break, there’s no way we could have guessed the identity of our wolfish fiend[s] with evidence-backed certainty). Yet, if anywhere, the film’s recommendation lies within these faults. THE BEAST MUST DIE is a rarefied treat for the bad film connoisseur: a film technically competent enough to know better than to descend into the pit of continuous narrative absurdity but that thankfully proves not to.

Okay, I’m gonna take my helicopter out for some puppy machine-gunning now, if you’ll excuse me. I’ll turn it back over to you only if you promise not to tell anymore werewolf jokes: I swear, they’ll make me howl in pain rather than laughter.

GR: That passive attitude you mentioned the characters have regarding the supernatural is actually the seed of one of my favorite scenes. I forget the particulars or who even broaches the question, but one of the guests asks Peter Cushing’s character in jest “Any signs yet, doctor?” As in, “See any signs that one of us is a werewolf?” Cushing matches this silly inquiry with an equally hysterical response. He looks up from his newspaper, peers over his glasses, scans the room, then says “No, not yet.” Well thank goodness we have the experts on our side! 

That rampant indifference mixes with sincere earnestness to create a potently bizarre atmosphere where everyone treats the situation as if it was a Sunday murder mystery party with dear old Aunt Eunice. Still, THE BEAST MUST DIE does a commendable job of trying to mold its super-swingin’ Euro vibe with its genteel British sensibilities. Can you imagine what this might have been had it been an AIP co-production like the previous MADHOUSE (1974)? Surely we would have seen a bipedal wolf man crashing through windows and carrying maidens in his hairy arms ala Naschy, the film ending with a mob of mad, torch-wielding villages setting fire to the mansion while the monster and Lockhart battled it out on the roof. As fun as that may sound, I actually do admire the grim, low-key note the film ends on with the hunter finally bagging his most prized game at the cost of both his love and his own identity. Lockhart does what Lawrence Talbot could only dream of.

Speaking of lost loves, I think the relationship between Newcliffe and his wife is a little more genuine than you might think. The early joke he makes about gunning her down if she turns out to be the werewolf is exactly that: a joke. How else might a husband respond to his wife asking him what he would do if turns out that she is secretly the very thing he is trying to kill? “Hmm. I’d have to think about that” would be anticlimactic to say the least. The retort of “Bang!” that he offers—along with a flash of finger-gun—is no different than the similar quips hubbies offered their old ladies in any number of contemporaneous TV shows. And if you can’t stop thinking of THE BEAST MUST DIE as a 70’s-era sitcom now, you’re welcome. 

The confusion you say he displays during the movie’s climax is certainly there, but it’s also mixed with shock, horror, and more than likely extreme guilt. Trying to work out the “how” of his wife’s lycanthropy is undoubtedly overwhelmed by the sickness of heart he feels. This wasn’t supposed to happen, he thinks. She wasn’t meant to be hurt. How could I have done this to her? 

Not only that, but Newcliffe may be realizing at this point that he has truly lost himself. Staging elaborate manhunts. Installing surveillance throughout his entire home. Pursuing his guests and cornering them with threats upon their life. Strolling around in his black leather gear and firing off guns in the halls. One wonders what he might have been like before his mania consumed him. Was a he a light-hearted man who simply wanted to live his life, love his wife, start a family? Was he normal before he became… something else? The tears we see Clark shed as she holds the silver bullet and looks at her husband can either be taken as uncertainty or acceptance. Perhaps she isn’t sure if Newcliffe will fulfill his earlier promise. Or maybe she knows exactly what’s going to happen next.

Towards the end of the film Newcliffe swears that “Tonight… the beast must die.” And he does indeed slay the werewolf. But I suspect that the hunter was prescient of the fact that there was still a monster residing at the manor after the wolf had been killed. His final decision might not have been completely dependent on the fact that he was bitten during his final confrontation with his prey. Maybe he just saw it as a sign.

A sign that the transformation was complete. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XIV): Madhouse (1974) dir. Jim Clark

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's MADHOUSE (1974). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: As we sashay away from the penny dreadful ghoulies of Amicus’ previous effort, we enter the gay and glitzy world of Hollywood (or London serving as Hollywood anyway) for a brief moment at the start of MADHOUSE (1974). An interesting creature MADHOUSE is, it being a co-production with Amicus’ Yankee equivalent American International Pictures. The familiar Shepperton settings are moved over to Twickenham Studios for this go-around, but that’s not the only change here. 

Take for instance the presence of the irrepressible Vincent Price--who had previously made such delicious fare as the Dr. Phibes films for AIP--and his co-star Robert Quarry, himself the monstrous star of his own mini-franchise, the Count Yorga pictures. As a side note, the company had previously pitted the two stars against one another in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) as villain and anti-hero. This is their second production together and, amongst the other sly winks that MADHOUSE includes at the world of horror movies, there’s a costume party scene that has Quarry dressed up in full vampire gear, which is perhaps the closest the world ever got to getting DR. PHIBES FACES COUNT YORGA. Not only that, but the original COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) allegedly started out as a pornographic film, which makes Quarry’s role here as smut-producer Oliver Quayle a rather sharp jab at his ribs.

MADHOUSE (1974) is certainly not my favorite film about crazy actors killing people (queue up THEATER OF BLOOD [1973] for that, please), but in re-viewing it this past weekend and letting its eccentricities stew in my mind I was fairly surprised by how fairly adept it is at having its fun with its satirical asides and creating multiple moments of genuine suspense so that the two are never either slight or overbearing. There are so many diverse elements, some that are soap-operatic and others that are just plain bizarre, but when you put all of them together it somehow works and the final product coalesces into… what is this anyway? A slasher? A gaslight thriller? A parody? All of the above? With so many sundry voices babbling in the halls of this madhouse, it’s a wonder that the whole affair is as harmonious as it is. 

Lord knows though that MADHOUSE has enough kooks and kinks and quirks to make you dizzy. From a blackmailing couple who speak like Tweedledee and Tweedledum to an insane, scarred woman who lives in a basement purring to her pet spiders, MADHOUSE is certainly intent on making its pulpy tale of a thespian being stalked by his own murderous, onscreen character into something distinctly weird-tasting, like sour cream and red herrings. But before I launch full force into the film’s jovialities and general bat-shitteries, I think I’ll take five and lounge on Dr. Death’s operating table.

NT: Up until this point we’ve foolishly neglected to mention the secret history of Amicus Productions. Although producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg certainly made quite a few pictures under the Amicus banner, they seemingly weren’t content enough to keep their fingers out of various other grave worm pies. With MADHOUSE we see them working with AIP, but this wasn’t the first collaboration between the two productions companies: that honor would fall upon the utterly bizarre SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970), also starring Price and Cushing but with the added bonus of Christopher Lee. Though the film would only be released under AIP’s header, both Rosenberg and Subotsky’s names can be found in the opening credits. Of additional note is that Subotsky and Rosenberg co-produced the Christopher Lee witchcraft flick THE CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL) way back in 1960 in a collaboration that perhaps spurred their eventual endeavor as Amicus a couple years later. And then, after ending their business relationship, each man added several more noteworthy credits to his name: Rosenberg executive-produced films like BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977), and CAT PEOPLE (1982), while Subotsky returned to America to co-produce several Stephen King adaptations (CAT’S EYE [1985], MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE [1986], THE LAWNMOWER MAN [1992]). Further fun fact: The last film we’ll be covering in our Amicus retrospective, 1981’s THE MONSTER CLUB, isn’t even a genuine Amicus film, though it is often mistaken for one and is a Subotsky production released under a different company of his. 

This is all to say that the Amicus machine was beginning to wear down as it neared the mid-1970s. The definable characteristics of the company’s established brand were being jettisoned in the interest of keeping the company afloat and of ensuring their ability to continue making movies. The partnering of AIP and Amicus for MADHOUSE signals a cost-saving financing measure, but what it results in is not an Amicus film, despite the presence of Amicus regulars like composer Douglas Gamley and cinematographer Ray Parslow. MADHOUSE is an AIP film, through and through, in the American drive-in tradition of the PHIBES and COUNT YORGA films as well as groovy contemporary numbers like the zombie revenge flick SUGAR HILL (1974). This shift away from the elements of Amicus's wheelhouse (self-serious horror, corny humor, a denial of the existence of sex) is no detriment to MADHOUSE. Rather, the film is one the liveliest associated with their name, boasting finely demented performances, a modicum of brutal violence, and a playful intelligence.

Much of my interest in the film rests upon its delightful metacinematic twist: Paul Toombes (Price) is a veteran horror film actor being haunted by the specter of his most famous prior role, the fiendish, Coffin-Joe-by-way-of-Baron-Samedi-looking Dr. Death. This haunting is both literal (someone is trying to gaslight Toombes into believing that he is a killer under the psychopathic sway of his alter ego) and symbolic (Toombes is unable to escape the role that defined and ruined his career, despite whatever initial success it brought him, and that cut his marriage and sanity short-- or, in the case of his marriage, cut his bride-to-be's neck a little short). We could draw easy comparisons between Paul Toombes's meta struggle with Dr. Deaths both real and imagined and the typecasting the real Vincent Price experienced throughout his career, having portrayed a menagerie of similarly grotesque villains in the PHIBES films, THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), HOUSE OF WAX (1953), and (naturally) that weirdo Amicus-AIP co-production SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Yet (and I may be mistaken here but) I've never heard Price lament the direction his career took or the proliferation of campy horror roles offered to him, so any potential poignancy to be gained from all of this winking self-awareness goes unrealized. We watch Paul Toombes watching Vincent Price on the silver screen in old roles (like the magic duel with Boris Karloff from THE RAVEN [1963]) as if he we were watching himself, but this doesn't imbue the character or the moment with pathos. Instead, it's visual trivia for horror buffs.

I enjoy MADHOUSE for all the reasons you’ve mentioned, but in a pinch I’d also choose THEATER OF BLOOD over it. The latter film is a brilliant and cutting satire wrapped up as a bloody Jacobean revenge play, while the former is a quirky, hysterically pitched drive-in feature. Both entertain, but only one of them is a film I'll continually return to. Hell, I once wrote an essay during my MA about how THEATER OF BLOOD and Joel Reed's BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976) serve as the natural cinematic descendants of the stage tradition of English revenge drama. Is anybody going to write a scholarly paper on MADHOUSE? We’ve already scribbled out far fewer words than we usually do in these initial responses, and if we have trouble talking about it then surely the film is cursed.

GR: Your brief history of the production company’s existence, in addition to being enlightening, puts MADHOUSE in a proper light, I think. As you said, it seems to be quite clear that this is more AIP than Amicus, but for some reason the film’s British qualities seemed to stick out more for me than the American. But you’re right: this is straight up drive-in fodder, more wild and loose and kitschier than anything those stodgy ol’ crumpet-munchers could dream up in their archaic nightmares. MADHOUSE is of a piece with AIP’s filmography, a picture where sexual relations are described frankly (but not as lasciviously as, say, the Count Yorga movies) and the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink nuttiness that was a hallmark of many other features from James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (think of the murderer in the ape costume from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE [1971] swinging over the theater audience!) is served up on a spider-filled platter. 

The glimpses we get of the real Price’s past films (all AIP movies, natch) are merely filler, because not only do they lack the added metafictional depth of Boris Karloff’s similar musings from Peter Bogdanovich’s TARGETS (1968), but one never becomes quite convinced that Toombes as a character is fed up with his being listed as a horror actor. It might be because of the actor. Karloff was certainly no slouch and always performed admirably and professionally, but his characters always generated a weariness and a pathos that you could feel. Price, however, was more commonly known as the jovial prince, the rogue with the funny mustache and cackling voice whose glee was always apparent even when playing the wickedest of villains. 

More than likely though, it was the film itself that hampered this potentially touching aspect of Toombes’ character because, as we saw a scant year earlier, Price brought a genuine sense of tragedy to his portrayal of Edward Lionheart in THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), his hammy theatricalities accenting his character’s wounded soul even as he gallivanted about in a happenin’ afro wig. Price does have a wonderful little monologue as Toombes though, speaking of Dr. Death as “The sleeping phantom we roused” before lighting the set up in hellish fire. 

MADHOUSE lacks that kind of poignancy but more than attempts to make up for it in shock and sensation. The story is pure pulp, perhaps epitomized best in the segment where Toombes, in full costume—a costume which, I must say, tickles my fancies for capes, skull faces, and dashing evening wear all at once—faces off against the “real” Dr. Death who snares his prey in a Phibes-like move by trapping the actor on a bed that comes equipped with a crushing top! The exploitative elements are ramped up here, moreso than they surely would’ve been in Shepperton’s delicate hands. The company did well with the high theatrics of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973), but MADHOUSE is a different, wilder beast altogether, one where the first murder’s lead-in with the killer adorning black leather gloves and removing a gleaming scalpel from a velvet case, all the while breathing heavily, brings to mind Italy’s gialli and the slashers still yet to come in the States. And would Amicus have given us the utterly trashy reveal of Toombes discovering his fiancé’s corpse, with the head rolling off its shoulders with all the grace of a decapitated mannequin? Heaven forbid! I will say this though: that bizarre, slow motion yawn-scream that Price does here and later in the film is oddly unsettling. The other murder sequences are just as feisty; Paul’s co-star strung up on a noose to the mad orchestra of blaring juke boxes and whirring pin ball machines; the batty blackmailers skewered by a sword ala Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and Sean S. Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980); the death of the plucky Julia (Natasha Pyne) left to our imaginations as she screams her last as Dr. Death’s cape slithers through the elevator doors that he has now cornered her in. I think it’s safe to say that when day is done and shadows fall, MADHOUSE must surely take home the blue ribbon for sassy homicides. 

I could probably go on about all of the movie’s remaining surrealness, but being we may be running low on conversational fuel as it is, I will instead defer to you and retreat into the darkness of my arachni-cellar to listen to my gramophone. 

NT: We’ve covered most of it, but here are a couple of stray observations I find to be worth typing up:

Speaking of zany homicides, how about the death of Toombes’s friend and rival, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing)? I’d hazard a guess that this climactic demise takes the spider-filled prize. Picture it: Flay is sitting victorious in his own screening room, watching Dr. Death films in celebration of the fact that his friend, Toombes, has recently burned to death (or so he thinks). What a surprise, then, when Toombes steps out from the projected images on screen to confront his viewer, just like the bloodsucking Count would to his audience decades later in “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” from ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? (This action would eventually be called “pulling a PURPLE ROSE.”) After some heated conversation and old man tussling, Flay is stabbed in the back (quite literally) by the wife he keeps locked in the basement (spatially confused Mr. Rochester-style), which sends him tumbling down into his wife’s spider terrarium. Once there, his body is immediately eaten up by the many spiders crawling over him, leaving naught but bone after a lap-dissolve with no indication of the passage of any time. Those were some hungry, hungry arachnids. After this, we witness the creepy development of Toombes creating a Peter Cushing mask to wear for his new role of a lifetime (thus allowing us a glimpse of Cushing’s best jowly/scowly Price impression). Finally, we watch as Toombes and his new old face have dinner (sour cream and red herrings [?!]) with his new old wife as a record of Price himself singing a schmaltzy ballad spins on the gramophone. It’s all very joyously macabre, we might say, and serves as further support for our placement of MADHOUSE in the nutty AIP camp.

And as much as we’ve knocked MADHOUSE for failing to use its metafictional self-awareness to any ends beyond the merely clever, I think there’s one aspect of the film that complicates that reading. With the past and aborted future of Toombes’s fiancée Ellen (Julie Crossthwaite), we observe the film’s oddly playful critique of the movie making business’s lack of opportunities for young actresses trying to break in. We learn that an actress like Ellen has two options: she can be an adult film starlet or the nubile victim in a horror film. Both choices are degrading, and both are looked down upon by those in charge. Witness Toombes’s disgusted, judgmental reaction when he discovers that Ellen chose to act in adult films early in her career. And if you think that indicates that he and others in the business believe that acting in horror films is the classier option, just consider the fate of Faye (Adrienne Corri), who acted in a Dr. Death film only to see herself be immediately forgotten and abused rather than launched into stardom by those above her in the moviemaking world. Pretty young actresses have a bad lot in film, MADHOUSE reminds us, as is true of Julie Crossthwaite, the actress who plays Ellen, who here chooses death over sex in one of her earliest major film roles, though which of the two she had chosen probably wouldn’t have mattered much. Guess how much longer Julie Crossthwaite’s acting resume is? It started promisingly, perhaps, but like so many it had its head lopped off in the first act.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XIII): And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) dir. Roy Ward Baker

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: Oh, how I pined for the hoodwinking this premise appeared to promise: In 1795, a newlywed couple takes inheritance of the groom's family estate in the English countryside. Before they have the chance to unpack, the bride is catching fleeting glimpses of a whole assortment of creaky Gothic horrors: a bloody hand bursting out of a painting, an eyeless specter leering through windows, and a decapitated limb wriggling around the floorboards. It's all a little too much too soon, isn't it? This new bride attempts to explain these stupefying sights to her husband and the household help, who fail to take her breathless horror with anything but salt and (worse yet!) seem to be conspiring to keep certain information away from her delicate ears. This bride soon begins to go a little nuts, and can be found wide-eyed and bewildered most waking hours. What are the odds that the bride's new husband has cooked up these assorted scares in order to terrify his wife out of her wits and equally out of some vast bank account or bequest? Pretty good odds, really, if we're at all familiar with similarly spun webs of cinematic intrigue from the past several decades of thrillers. If AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973) were a film that you could step inside, you wouldn't be able to help but notice the aroma of softly burning gaslights infecting the air.

Alas, this is no gaslight thriller. No one is trying to drive Mrs. Catherine Fengriffen (Pete Walker regular Stephanie Beacham) to the madhouse. At least no one corporeal. Her loving husband (Ian Ogilvy) is exactly that, and the aforementioned household help (Rosalie Crutchley) soon enough finds herself victim to the same ghostly presence haunting the lady of the manor. Yes, despite my every wish to the contrary, this is a genuine supernatural thriller. Adapted from David Case's short novel FENGRIFFEN: A CHILLING TALE (1970), AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS concerns itself with a strange curse carried out by cackling phantasms, spreading torment across generations while righting a wrong wrought by antiquated class divisions.

Beyond the slightest intimation that the barbaric behavior of the ruling classes deserves to be countered by the equally ancient customs of the pagan peasantry, we're never informed by what strange magic this curse comes to fruition through. In the Amicus Cemetery of Reanimated Horrors, you might return from the dead through specific occult leanings (voodoo, witchcraft, demonic mirror possession) or you might start sucking air as a vengeful fiend simply because the plot demands it. And the plot of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS demands a lot. But perhaps this vagueness of supernatural origins is as it should be: this film isn't one overly concerned with narrative coherence. This is a big, explosive Gothic horrorshow (our second true Amicus period piece, though its isolated castle setting means the budget doesn't have to stretch far beyond appropriate costumes and interior furnishings). The frights contained within this cinematic castle of blood are hysterically-pitched, full of melodramatic emotion and overblown action. When, at the film's climax, Ian Ogilvy's Charles Fengriffen fervently yanks his ancestor's skeletal corpse out of a coffin and then swings it repeatedly—grasped at the ankles—against the stone of his own final resting place, we know for certain (as if we didn't already) precisely what sort of frenzied film we're dealing with. I mean, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is even the earliest film I can think of containing what we'd call modern-style jump scares. Its setting might hark back to the dusty prestige of 1960s English horror, but in every way that matters AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a product of the bolder, more frantic, and slightly sillier early '70s.

Whether or not I fully enjoy the final results of all that I've mentioned above is a whole other tomb full of worms. I'll ponder that query as I bounce the skeleton over into your court.

GR: Once again, you’ve perfectly and succinctly captured my own impressions of our topic as you did with I, MONSTER (1970). The first thing that occurred to me when that great, gory appendage popped out from the regal portrait Stephanie Beacham was observing was “Wow, that was quick.” “Too much too soon” is certainly the case here, especially as the opening credits of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973), despite that grindhouse-ready title, put you in mind of DARK SHADOWS or any number of the paperback Gothic romances that haunted the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies of the day with their visions of beautiful ladies trying to elude the shadows of menacing manors. The idyllic shots of the stately grounds, the stirring strings composed by Amicus favorite Douglas Gamley, and Beacham’s soft narration (“…my days filled with fear, my nights filled with horror…”) makes one think that we’re going to be presented with a respectable period piece, one that settles for an aura of barely-repressed sexuality and gloomy expressions of the soul in favor of spookhouse shocks. But the minute the wriggling fingers of the Fengriffen curse make their dynamic entrance, we know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Which is not to say that AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a bad picture, but it’s certainly not on the same level of prestige as entertainments such as Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1847) or even, to go back to your point of reference, Patrick Hamilton’s GAS LIGHT (1938). This is a rough’n’tumble supernatural shocker in period clothing, no more sophisticated than any of the similar fare that Amicus has offered thus far. Which, again, is not my way of being a priss about the whole thing, but the bloody hand seems like such an incredibly early introduction of the creepy goings-on in the story that it implies some sense of uncertainty on the part of the filmmakers. They don’t think that the audience could possibly retain interest in a story about a newlywed couple in all their lace and frills, so they throw us a bone with that five-fingered beast in the hopes that we’ll sit up in our seats and say “Gee, now this is a good movie!” In this sense AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS begins very much to resemble a more modern horror film in its almost desperate attempt to capture our attention lest we drift off.

Roy Ward Baker seems a little more comfortable in these antiquated surroundings, his directorship solid throughout in his first standalone horror effort after having turned out ASYLUM (1972) and THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973) for Shepperton Studios. He shows an affinity for both the quieter moments of the piece as well as the more operatic business involving mutilation and rape. It’s those grandstanding moments though that this particular house is built on, but this being a British horror film made by old veterans of the industry it shows us very little skin and a relatively small amount of blood, minus the occasional eyeless, handless specter making its requisite appearance. When one thinks how sleazy AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS could have really been (say, in the hands of Al Adamson or Andy Milligan), what we see on screen seems fairly tame. So, when the filmmakers have no flesh or plasma to titillate our senses with, they attempt to drum up the cinematic vibrato in the scenes of murder and mental anguish which, to say the least, has a tendency to play more goofy than shocking. As a matter of fact, I’ll see your skeleton-thrashing and raise you one old biddy strangled by ghost hands tossed down a staircase… in slow motion. AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS may be game, but as you have observed in the past, that earnestness leads the film to occasionally slip on a putrefied limb and go ass over breeches in its attempt to be taken as serious horror-drama. Still, it’s not without its charms.

Now before I pass out all cross-eyed like Mrs. Beacham, I’ll turn the conversation back to you lest you curse the first virgin bride of my home. 

NT: In an earlier discussion of ours (the one concerning TORTURE GARDEN [1967], to be precise), I made a comment about how Amicus was ushering itself into the era of blood and guts, and that their films were beginning to embrace explicit themes and images about half a decade before their prim and proper contemporaries at Hammer Film Productions would. Having since revisited most of the Amicus films through this collaborative series of ours, I've come to realize I was off the mark. Well, to an extent. The Amicus films we've been discussing so far certainly imply a level of explicitness foreign to the majority of popular British horror at the time, but the on-screen depictions and elaborations of this risqué subject matter have more often been suggestive than visceral. 

By the time we reach 1973 with Amicus, we realize they've fallen behind the times in this regard. Hammer had already made their mammary-laden Karnstein trilogy, and the blood was flowing freely in films of theirs like SCARS OF DRACULA (1970). In contrast, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS presents to us two off-screen scenes of sexual violence (one perpetrated by a ghost!), some light bloodletting, and a brief shot of a lady's bare back. "Fairly tame" is one way of putting it. You're right: I would much rather see this reconfigured as a decade-appropriate sleazefest. Imagine: Andy Milligan's THE RATS ARE COMING! THE SCREAMING STARTS HERE!

Alas, I've decided that I enjoy whatever small charms AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS bashes against the crypt. Yes, it's essentially applying hoary, William Castlesque spook tactics (minus the gimmicks) in a period package, but that's enough to elicit a guffaw of appreciation from me. It's been surprising to observe how flawed Roy Ward Baker's directorial contributions to the Amicus oeuvre have been (much more so than those of the more-or-less consistent Freddie Francis). As you've written, the film seems torn between its earnest ambitions for producing serious period horror and the presumed pressure to provide its audience with over-the-top frights. As a result, the film manages neither, resulting in it feeling like a bizarre, tonally challenged hybrid of intentions. 

I think the film just barely escapes becoming like the over-serious, ludicrous disaster I saw in ASYLUM (1972) through sheer luck: that film's mini Herbert Lom mannikins were on holiday, so the filmmakers had to settle for the normal-sized Lom causing havoc instead. But, in earnest, I think I'm able to stomach the goofy horrors on display in this picture because Baker and his crew seem to have gained an ever-so-slight sense of self awareness about the zaniness they're putting on screen. An example (and my favorite moment in the film): When the tormented Catherine Fengriffen decides to end it all by committing seppuku (!) or perhaps a home abortion (!!), her stab towards her own pregnant belly is foiled (as a slow pan down reveals to us) by the now-skewered disembodied hand we've seen crawling around the estate since the first reel. As a filmmaker, you don't toss in the antics of Thing T. Thing (of THE ADDAMS FAMILY) without the basic cognizance that you're doing something silly. At least I hope so.

Embarking on a deeper reading of the film's themes seems to me a blind, limbless fool's errand, so I will refrain. But that’s not me condemning it. AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS might be as insubstantial as a pair of wriggling, transparent ghost hands, but those spectral mitts can still play my tune.

GR: Wait. You’re saying there is a deeper reading of the film’s themes? There are themes? 

I jest, of course. There probably is at least a small cauldron full of subtext bubbling under the images of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, and while just about any film is worthy and prime for analytical study if you really wanted to make a go of it, as you say it seems a silly task to try and build an academic mountain out of Roy Ward Baker’s mole-hill of horrors. And for the record, I’m copyrighting the title MOLE-HILL OF HORRORS for my next screenplay.

Instead, I shall take the lead that you’ve so efficiently used in the past and simply jot down a few of the fleeting and not-so-fleeting impressions that the film made upon my mind. And since it’s Friday, I’m going to be taking this to a whole new level of laziness by writing these impressions in bullet-format. Can your heaving bosom handle the shocks that I’m sending your way right now? 

Catherine’s visions of the gory phantom are certainly evocative enough, but they appear to evoke a different mood when, in the midst of making-out, Mrs. Beacham goes all wide-eyed while Ogilvy attempts to calm her down. Snapping out of her stupor, Catherine pulls her husband forward with renewed vigor, hoping that the demons of the past will be repelled by the scent of passion.

Though she is frightened by a great many beast, including one of the family Rottweilers, at no point in time is Catherine spooked by a dangling spider, as the Miss Muffet headpiece she occasionally wears might lead you to believe.

The Fengriffen cemetery is charming in its crowded, insular qualities, all crooked graves and creeping vines, but it must be the first that I’ve seen that seems to generate its own strategically-placed clouds of mist.

Winner of Most Fabulously Dressed: Catherine in her handsome strolling attire, complete with dark skirt, overcoat, and hat, greatly aided by the presence of a riding crop she swings at the wind-whipped grass. It makes me feel naughty. 

Baker shows he can have a good eye for visuals in those beautiful angled shots of the angry blue sky outlining the dark façade of Fengriffen Manor.

Upon seeing a woodcut-style illustration of a bare-chested woman lying in bed as a horned fiend lurks before her, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Poe feels the need to clearly define what we are seeing with a grim whisper: “Sexual relations with demons.” Yeah, thanks for that.

Winner of Most Fabulous Line of Dialogue: “I live in horror that this is the child of a ghost.”

What’s the deal with that ghost anyway? His handlessness seems to indicate that he is the avenging woodsman, but his eyelessness implies that he is that spirit’s descendant Silas (also Whitehead), who has his peepers shot through the back of his skull when the frenzied Ogilvy brings an end to his smirking ways with twin pistols. In a film wrought with conflicting ideas, they can’t even settle on whose ghost is haunting the house!

For all of its appealing missteps, the film actually generates potent tension and uneasiness during the scene where Herbert Lom’s wicked Henry defiles the bride of his groundskeeper (Geoffrey Whitehead) as the helpless groom is forced to watch. The latter’s behanding by axe is equally chilling as Whitehead doesn’t emit a gasp or a choke as his limb is lopped off, his hatred for his master more intense than any physical trauma he could possibly suffer. The whole scenario is slightly reminiscent of the family backstory from Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. And if you expect me to make a terrible HAND OF THE BASKERVILLES joke, you can forget about it. Wait.

…but as effective as the inciting event of the curse is, the bedevilment itself is somewhat perplexing, as the groundskeeper’s curse attacks not the direct perpetrator of the crime but some random and for-all-he-knows completely innocent woman in the future who has nothing to do with the heinous act itself. I understand that this may be the “point,” as the woodsman’s wife was herself an innocent unwillingly drawn into the madness of the Fengriffen family, but as a means of payback against the man who raped his wife it’s pretty shitty. 

…however, it does make for a fittingly bleak climax that has the ever-stunned Catherine behold her newly-born babe to see that it bears the same red birthmark on its face as the one that Silas’ family line possessed, in addition to a missing hand. It’s interesting to note the differences one sees in Catherine’s and Rosemary Woodhouse’s reactions to their progeny. For a woman who literally bore the son of Satan, Rosemary takes on the prospect of motherhood in stride when compared to the catatonic Catherine. Maybe it’s just the changing of the times. Maybe it’s because not everyone’s fit to be a parent.

And for all of those trials and tribulations, the sacrifice and the terror that she went through during the film’s ninety minutes, Stephanie Beacham is awarded in the final credits with the prestigious place of fourth-billing.


Next week: Madhouse (1974)