Sunday, 19 February 2012

Scream And Scream Again
(Gordon Hessler, 1969)

With its daft one-size-fits-all title and unassailable front-line of Cushing, Lee and Price, one could easily be forgiven for writing off ‘Scream and Scream Again’ as another entry in the ill-fated cycle of ‘old boys club’ horror movies that began to take off as the box office for old-fashioned horror flicks started to diminish through the ‘70s. All bets are off however the second one sits down to actually watch ‘Scream and Scream Again’.

By some strange quirk of fate, this modest Amicus/AIP co-production turns out to be one of the most beserk, imaginative and unconventional British horror movies ever made - a real kick in the teeth for anyone who bought a ticket expecting to see Vince and the gang rattling around dark old house for eighty minutes. That’s not to say it’s actually all that great, but… well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

The duo of director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriter Christopher Wicking gained something of a reputation in the late ‘60s / early ‘70s for their attempts to single-handedly instigate a ‘new wave’ of British horror, building on the foundations laid by the late Michael Reeves in trying to tear the genre free from mouldy gothic cliché and open it up to more challenging and contemporary ideas. Or at least, that’s what you imagine they might have told anyone who bothered to ask. In truth, their campaign met with what might charitably be termed mixed results – certainly few would hold up the handful of last gasp gothics they made for AIP as shining examples of a bold new direction in horror. But on ‘Scream and Scream Again’ at least, their more ambitious notions of narrative construction and directorial shock tactics were allowed free reign – and perhaps too free, at that.

Regardless of expectations, the initial reaction of anyone sitting through the first twenty minutes of ‘Scream..’ for the first time will likely be WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? And for better or worse, that’s not a question that won’t have received an entirely satisfactory answer by the time the credits roll seventy minutes later.

The film opens with a jogger being taken ill on a London common. Waking, he finds he is being kept sedated in an anonymous hospital room, being attended to by a sinister silent nurse. In a series of short scenes, we see him repeatedly drifting back into consciousness, only to discover that his limbs are being amputated one by one as he sleeps.

Meanwhile, in what we must presume to be a fictional fascist state somewhere in Europe, an English couple are being pursued across open country by soldiers who wear a curious three-arrowed crest on their armbands. Captured and taken to a dungeon cell after her man is shot, the woman (Yutte Stensgaard) is tortured by a nasty man. Peter Cushing, playing some sort of general, summons the nasty man to his office and gives us his best ‘troubled, reluctantly humanitarian authority figure’ as he tells him that he disapproves of such extreme methods. Unfortunately, the nasty man promptly kills Peter Cushing.

Next thing we know, we’re back in swinging London, where a tough, Sweeney-esque cop (Alfred Marks) is on the trail of a rapist/murderer who has been picking up girls from trendy nightclubs and dumping their bodies in remote locations. You’ll not be surprised to hear that circumstantial evidence seems to link the crimes back to the home of a certain Dr Browning, as portrayed by your friend and mine, Mr. Vincent Price.

Interspersed with all this, just to keep us on our toes, are a few scenes in which Christopher Lee turns up playing some sort of British Intelligence big-shot. He delivers a fairly mystifying briefing to a group of other big-shots, regarding… well he seems to be talking about an aircraft self-destruct mechanism that’s malfunctioned, leaving a British airman in enemy hands – presumably referring to the couple we earlier saw fleeing from the fascists, although I don’t think we ever find out why said airman had his girlfriend with him, or why he was dressed like he was on a camping holiday. Later on, Lee has a covert meeting in Trafalgar Square with the aforementioned nasty man from the fascist country, during which he makes a deal for the return of the airman (no mention of the girl), in exchange for “..all the information your police possess relating to the so-called vampire murders”.

It’s fitting that the story that eventually emerges from ‘Scream And Scream Again’ should involve the creation of 'composite' human beings, as the movie seems pretty damn composite itself, at times almost resembling a slightly classier version of some Al Adamson / Geoffrey Ho cut n’ paste atrocity, as seemingly unconnected scenes are jammed together at high speed irrespective of intelligibility or tonal cohesion. With no central character or guiding voice to help us navigate between these scenarios, the drama in the first half of the movie derives less from any fictional conflict, and more from wondering just how the hell Hessler and Wicking are going to cope with the high wire act of tying all this stuff together into a single narrative.

You certainly have to admire them for trying, and there is a touch of Nigel Kneale in Wicking’s ambitious combination of science fiction, gothic horror and cold war paranoia. But whereas Kneale always managed to blend his elements in a convincingly naturalistic fashion, and was careful to work within his means, Wicking takes a far wilder approach, throwing his ideas around like squash balls and ducking as they ricochet off the walls, with little regard to the limitations and proprieties of low(ish) budget commercial filmmaking.

It’s surprising that such a wayward screenplay made it into production at all really, especially under the noses of such conservative overlords as AIP’s Louis M. Heyward and Amicus’s Milton Subotsky. In fact, the reaction of any hard-nosed script-editor or producer taking a butcher’s at Wicking’s script would seem pretty obvious: drop all the espionage and fascist state stuff entirely, and concentrate on the central tale of Vincent Price and his crazy composites. Simple. I mean, all that other stuff is basically just expensive, unnecessary and confusing, right? And there’s more than enough meat in what remains to make for a tightly focused, action-packed horror film. Hell, with its human/cyborg paranoia, mad scientists, acid pits, gritty police procedural stuff and rampaging bionic mod vampires, it still crams in enough to see most filmmakers through a whole trilogy. Why be greedy? Sure you’d lose Cushing and Lee’s parts, but you could always fit them in elsewhere. Job done.

I guess Heyward and Subotsky must have just been looking the other way at the time though, because such a ‘sensible’ solution was never enforced, and Hessler and Wicking were allowed to plough on regardless. And thank god for that - naturally we here at Breakfast in the Ruins rejoice in the expensive, the unnecessary and the confusing, and offer thanks to whoever let them get away with turning a routine genre movie into an out of control juggernaut of weirdness.

Pity though the poor technicians and designers who found themselves having to help them turn this vision into reality at short notice. With the budget of a modest gothic horror movie stretched across a set of locations, characters and special effects that would have challenged a Hollywood A picture, it’s hardly surprising that the exteriors of Cushing’s fascist state look like a Shepperton car park and Lee’s Whitehall briefing room looks more like a BBC production office, with haphazard lighting and poor sound recording in some scenes veering closer to the kind of ‘cut n’ run’ filler footage found in a Jess Franco movie than to the base-line professionalism that distinguishes most British-made horrors.

Closer to home, the police procedural stuff is far more convincing, with Alfred Marks offering the closest thing the film has to a star turn as Detective Superintendent Bellaver. Hard-boiled banter and two-fisted determination as far as the eye can see, he’s the natural forerunner to any ‘70s fictional British cop you’d care to name, and the scenes in which the camera follows him through the chaotic police station offices are just plain great. (“This bloody chicken wasn’t killed, it died of old age”, he complains, taking a bite out of a leftover sandwich he grabbed off the top of an overflowing filing cabinet on his way to the autopsy room.)

Shocking too is the sheer grimness of the serial killer plotline, as evidenced when Ballaver informs the gentle Dr Browning that his late maid “wasn’t just murdered.. if you know what I mean”, before we cut to police pathologist Kenneth Benda pointing out a few salient features on the victim’s body as it lies naked on the slab. (“I haven’t seen anything like this in donkey’s years”, he says with glee.)

I bet you could hear a sharp intake of breath in the cinema for that scene; as much as British horror might have traded on images of implied sexual violence, instances of rape being actively acknowledged were rare indeed during the ‘60s, and were usually met with extensive criticism and threats of censorship (witness the controversy that greeted Hammer’s attempts to deal with such themes in ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ and ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’). As such, wading right in proto-‘New York Ripper’ style seems like some deliberate post-Reeves envelope-pushing on the part of Hessler and Wicking – another reminder (as it were needed by this stage) that we’re not in Castle Dracula anymore.

And as to the killer – well he’s quite a piece of work too. In scenes eerily reminiscent of a number of later British horrors, Michael Gothard stalks around a seedy faux-psychedelic nightclub (a brief shot of the doorway reveals that it's named ‘The Busted Pot’) as pop-psyche combo Amen Corner perform in the background (their overblown Shel Talmy-produced theme song for the movie is a hoot). Reeling in naïve girls (Judy Huxtable amongst them) with his Byronic charm, he zooms them off to isolated spots in his Jag, where blood-curdling unpleasantness ensues.

All this leads up to what’s generally regarded as the film’s highlight – a protracted action set-piece that sees the super-powered and apparently unstoppable Gothard fleeing from the combined forces of the British constabulary, screeching down the motorway, scattering coppers like ninepins, charging on foot through a convenient home counties forest like “..some bionic Mick Jagger”, as Jonathan Rigby puts it in his book ‘English Gothic’, and even finding a gruesome new method of escape when he’s finally handcuffed to a car bumper after a dramatic showdown in a chalk quarry.

Impressively staged and edited, this is all pretty frantic, high octane stuff, and it comes as little surprise to learn (via Rigby’s book) that Hessler and Wicking – like Reeves before them – were huge fans of Don Siegel, with Wicking apparently conceiving of ‘Scream and Scream Again’ as “a combination of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and ‘Coogan’s Bluff’”, if you can believe that. In fact, with 40+ years hindsight, perhaps the most innovative aspect of ‘Scream…’ is the way it approaches horror via the structure of a thriller (or indeed, fragments of several different thrillers), an idea which prefigures many of the best horror films of the coming decade.

Hessler took a rain check on the horror scene in the early ‘70s, moving on to a steady career in American TV, where we last encountered him presiding over Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park, of all things. Chris Wicking kept plugging away in British horror though, and the more films I watch based on his screenplays, the more respect I have for the uniquely chaotic vision he brought to the genre. Both troubled and troubling, the films based on Wicking’s scripts may all be significantly flawed, but they nonetheless rattle along with a kind of disjointed, unheimlich fervour that takes them far closer to the core of genuine unease found in the work of Lovecraft or Bram Stoker than most of the films that clung more stubbornly to gothic tradition.

As wildly entertaining as it is inconsistent and baffling, ‘Scream And Scream Again’ perhaps represents the crowning achievement, certainly the most extreme example, of Wicking’s defiantly fragmented approach to narrative, and if it failed to shake up the British horror establishment quite as thoroughly as he and Hessler might have hoped, they had to wait only a few short years for their film’s true legacy to become clear. In spite of all its misfiring lunacy, ‘Scream..’ at every turn seems to anticipate the grimmer, more contemporary vein of British horror that independent filmmakers like Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren would embrace in the decade that followed, keeping the genre alive as the wider British film industry collapsed around them.

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