June 1, 2011

And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973)

"England 1795: the young Catherine just married Charles Fengriffen and moves into his castle. She becomes victim of an old curse that lays on the family. On her wedding night she's raped by a ghost and gets pregnant."

The IMDb description of this Amicus horror really gives away everything that you need to know about the plot apart from how slowly the story unfolds.

Due to being filmed at Oakley Court, "And Now the Screaming Starts!" looks like a slightly cheaper version of a Hammer film. Starring quite a few Hammer regulars and being directed by Roy Ward Baker adds to this illusion which, of course, was the intention. On a purely personal level, I've never really liked the majority of Milton Subotsky's productions from the '70s although the Amicus anthologies do have occasional moments of brilliance. I can't quite put my finger on why, especially whenever Amicus tried to do a single story, their movies always came second best to Hammer but I'd hazard a guess that it was mainly due to trying to make them more contemporary that, ironically, dated them all really badly.

I think Amicus must have realised at the time that the period settings were what gave Hammer their edge and you can tell from "And Now the Screaming Starts!" that a lot of work went into trying to create a similar atmosphere. If only as much effort had been put into the script as the costume and set design then this would have been an instant classic. It's bloody gruesome in places, particularly the opening scene (which appears to be lifted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles"), and has the potential to leave a bad taste in your mouth if you think about it too much.

If there's one thing that angers me, it's the British class system and all the feudalism that it's been built on. The curse that gets put upon the Fengriffen family really is more than justifiable in my own mind and, no pun intended due to the later subject matter, I really have to hand it to Herbert Lom for making me hate the aristocracy even more than I already do. It's probably not a good digression but every time I see this particular opening rape scene, all I can think about is how corporate America with the "fire at will" laws (and other nonsense) are doing exactly the same thing in the 21st century as medieval Britain once did. Make no mistake about it, too many companies think they own their employees even when they aren't working for them and try to take away every constitutional right that they think they have. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine the over-privileged "Lord of the Manor" coming round to rape your wife and cut off your hand even today and if you just substitute "Lord" for "Corporate America" and its potential to take away everything and destroy your life according to a whim then the possibly unintentional social commentary of "And Now the Screaming Starts!" still has some power to it.

Of course, even though Henry Fengriffen's acts were illegal back in the day, you can be sure that such things (and even worse) have happened in the history of every country when the aristocracy have abused their position. I doubt that David Case's gothic novel "Fengriffen: A Chilling Tale" (which "And Now the Screaming Starts!" is based on) made much more of any of this other than a plot device for the ensuing horror story and I haven't ever read it to say for certain. Obviously, the weakness in using such a horrible, unnecessary and polarising act to set the stage for the later action is that most people are on the side of the victim and want justice to be done. None of the later generation of Fengriffens really matter from that point on.

Therein lies the biggest problem with "And Now the Screaming Starts!". There is no way that a logically thinking audience cares one iota about what happens to Ian Ogilvy and Stephanie Beacham's characters other than wanting very bad things to happen to them. There are no innocents when it comes to aristos and there is never any point when you can sympathise with their predicament.

Stephanie Beacham was an incredibly beautiful babe when she was younger (and wasn't too bad when she was a big star in a lot of high-budget '80s soaps either) and, it's possible to argue that her character, Catherine Fengriffen, is an innocent victim. I disagree. Yes, Catherine Fengriffen does all the fainting and screaming when it suits her but her reaction to her own rape is so typically upper class and dismissive that it's impossible to feel any sympathy for her. Her husband, Charles Fengriffen, is such an equally arrogant piece of work that, as much as I liked Ian Ogilvy in "The Return of the Saint" TV series, I absolutely hated him in this.

Now you might think that a film that causes such negative emotions as this would doom it to failure but actually that makes it rather good in my book. If a drama doesn't cause an emotional response from the viewer then it can be written off but "And Now the Screaming Starts!" actually tries its hardest to anger its audience on every level. Unfortunately, as a horror movie it's supposed to be scary too but none of that really works.

The special effects vary from average to ridiculous especially the severed hand crawling around and the whole thing is quite unevenly paced. Some scenes drag while the more interesting ones get rushed and, on a purely horror entertainment level, none of it is particularly satisfying.

I suppose I should mention Peter Cushing as psychiatrist Dr. Pope but only because there is nothing out of the ordinary with his performance apart from it being quite anachronistic. Patrick Magee as Dr. Whittle is much more believable but the man gives me the creeps in every film that I've ever seen him in whether he's playing a good guy or otherwise. I think his best role was in the "Blind Alleys" segment of "Tales from the Crypt" (1972) though I'm sure he will always be most remembered for playing the crippled writer Mr. Alexander in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971).

Anyway, there's not really much more to say about "And Now the Screaming Starts!" other than it having quite a predictable ghost story underneath it all. I think the intention was to make something completely original and different but it didn't quite happen. As a gothic horror story, it lacks tension and, as an exploitation movie, it lacks all the gratuitous (and not so gratuitous) nudity which really would have livened things up.

I'm moving "And Now the Screaming Starts!" from The Vault to the "Just Average" section but it's still a recommendation. "And Now the Screaming Starts!" is not Amicus' best work but it's different enough from everything else they did to stand out as an anomaly. If you like ghost stories, you'll probably like this but if you want real hardcore grisly horror then you'll be very disappointed.

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