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)

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