And Now The Screaming Starts Review
Amicus may have been considered a rival to Hammer films but in terms of content, they didn’t really overlap to any great extent until the early 1970s. With Hammer moving on, in projects such as the deliriously kitsch Dracula A.D.1972, to make tentative jabs at the present, Amicus suddenly plunged headfirst into their one and only period gothic, And Now The Screaming Starts.
The story is one of those family curse plots which have been the stuff of romantic melodrama for the best part of 200 years. Charles Fengriffen (Ogilvy) brings his new bride Catherine (Beacham) back to his family home in the hope of a happy marriage but problems begin immediately. Catherine begins having strange visions related to a portrait of Charles’s grandfather Henry (Lom). Gradually, she becomes convinced that a disembodied hand is crawling around the house and that she is being watched by a strange figure with blood running from his eyeless sockets. Her husband is often away and remarkably unforthcoming with information about his ancestors and Catherine becomes increasingly hysterical. The news that she is pregnant, brought to her by the rather odd Dr Whittle (Magee) sends her into some kind of breakdown, seemingly connected to her visions and her encounter with a woodsman who lives on the estate. Only the arrival of pre-Freudian psychiatrist Dr Pope (Cushing) manages to make the situation make sense, as the sordid history of the family is revealed.
This is a very odd film indeed. It gestures towards Hammer in a number of ways but plays rather like a Georgette Heyer novel with added gore. The family curse thing is predictable and relies heavily on a central flashback which is heavily endebted to Hammer’s version of Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course and I think the flashback is one of the best things in the film but it does suggest a certain desperation which may have arisen when it was realised how close Amicus were veering towards Hammer’s territory. Everything about the film, from the Home Counties locations to the day-for-night shooting, makes it look like a Hammer film from the mid-sixties, principally Dracula Prince of Darkness. Indeed, Oakley Park was a country house used for a number of horror films around this time and, perhaps more famously, for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, to be fair, it’s got rather more decent shocks than your average early 1970s Hammer film and Roy Ward Baker’s direction is first class with some fine panning shots and a strong sense of atmosphere. His use of crane shots is interesting as well, although he does tend to overuse this technique.
The cast is a fascinating collection of some seriously culty actors. Stephanie Beacham, a veteran of Dracula A.D.1972, gives a very strong performance in a role which basically consists of reaction shots and screaming. It’s not easy for an actress to survive this kind of role without becoming deeply irritating, so Beacham does well to keep our sympathy for so long. Ian Ogilvy is also pretty good although his Maxim De Winter style role doesn’t give him a great deal to do except look haunted. Ogilvy has impeccable cult credentials of course, having appeared in all three of Michael Reeves’ horror films in the 1960s.
However, even this impressive resume pales in the face of the three genuine genre stars in the cast. Patrick Magee, Kubrick favourite who had appeared in Baker’s previous Amicus film Asylum, is very good and, thankfully, quite restrained. In fact, I think he’s better in this part than he is in A Clockwork Orange. Herbert Lom is slightly wasted in this small role but he’s a wonderfully nasty villain and spits out his lines with immense panache. Best of all, although it takes 46 minutes for him to arrive, Peter Cushing is on top form as the psychiatrist. At the time, Cushing was working himself hard as a therapy following the death of his wife and it’s remarkable how little the quality of his work was affected by this endless toiling. He is so convincing here as a completely good man and his scenes with Beacham are understated and genuinely touching.
And Now The Screaming Starts has a few things going for it. The cast is, as I’ve already discussed, excellent and brings more conviction to the film than the bland screenplay deserves. Kudos too to Denys Coop’s beautiful cinematography and Douglas Gamley’s effective music score. But ultimately, the film doesn’t quite work I think the fault lies in the narrative. The first half of the movie is incredibly repetitive, a succession of set-pieces based on the supernatural apparitions all of which seem to end with, as the title indicates, an awful lot of screaming. This gets a bit wearing after a while and it’s only when Cushing arrives that the pace picks up and interest is restored. The flashback scene is good but somehow perfunctory and predictable and the last fifteen minutes is simply lame, once we’ve established the truth about the family. Baker’s direction here is a lot more variable than it is during the first half hour of the film. His decision to show a reasonably graphic rape scene in the flashback is probably correct – it’s effective but it would have been wise for him to match this by showing a subsequent act of mutilation is similar detail. His sudden attack of coyness means that the flashback ends on a damp squib. This might perhaps be appropriate given the obvious Freudian reading of the film as a study in castration and impotence but it’s not very satisfying for the viewer. Compared to one of the great gothic novels of the 19th Century which this vaguely resembles - Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman In White and Le Fanu’s marvellous Uncle Silas - this comes across as a rather weak brew enlivened by the occasional infusion of some strong spirit.
The film is now released in the UK as part of Anchor Bay’s Amicus Collection boxset. It’s also available on a horrible disc from the dreaded VIPCO about which no more shall be said.
Generally, the transfer is good although I should put this in context. Every other time I’ve seen the film it has either been on a muddy TV print or on a very poor VHS release. This DVD is a revelation. The colours are gorgeous, the detail is sharp and the film is shown in its correct ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer has been anamorphically enhanced. In these circumstances, the grainy appearance and the occasional artifacting seem relatively unimportant.
There are, as usual, three soundtracks on the disc; Mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby DTS 5.1 Surround. My comments on these tracks for the other discs apply for this one too. I like the mono track best but there’s nothing wrong with the remixes and some people may well prefer them for the stronger effect of the music score and a generally fuller sound.
There are some interesting extras provided, principally two audio commentaries. The first one is exclusive to this disc and is provided by Roy Ward Baker and Stephanie Beacham, moderated by Marcus Hearn. As ever, Hearn’s careful prompting leads his interviewees to come out with some interesting anecdotes and incisive observations. Both Beacham and Baker are very keen on the film and Beacham is very engaging for the enthusiasm with which she remembers her career in horror films. The second commentary is from the Region 1 Image disc, with American journalist Darren Gross and Ian Ogilvy. This is interesting although not so much for the comments about the film because Ogilvy can barely remember anything about it. His career, however, has been long and varied and he talks compellingly about the different phases of his life in films and television.
As on the other discs, the commentaries are joined by a small but nicely put together stills gallery, some well written notes on the film and biographies – this time of Beacham and Baker. We also get some obviously rare trailers; the US theatrical trailer for this film, letterboxed at 1.85:1; a TV spot for And Now The Screaming Starts which is in appalling condition; and a spot for The Beast Must Die, also in poor condition. It’s great to have these of course, even in this almost unwatchable state and it speaks volumes for Anchor Bay’s dedication that they have spent time finding them in the first place.
The film is divided into 18 chapters and the menus are as attractively designed as we’ve come to expect. There are, scandalously, no subtitles at all.
And Now The Screaming Starts is an interesting oddity that never quite works but is still well worth watching. This disc looks and sounds good, contains valuable extra features and is a fine addition to an already excellent boxset.