Sunday, 8 October 2017

October Horrors #4:
And Now The Screaming Starts
(Roy Ward Baker, 1973)

Word of mouth regarding this late period gothic throwback from Amicus (not to be confused with Scream and Scream Again, ‘The House That Screamed’ or ‘And Soon The Darkness’) has never been terribly good, but by jove - just zoom in on the poster and look at that cast; Cushing, Lom, Magee, Ogilvy, Beacham - together at last!

Add to that the new-found respect I’ve gained for Roy Ward Baker after finally watching ‘Quatermass & The Pit’ last year, and it was inevitable that I was going to have to sit down and give this one a try at some point.

And, well, I don’t think I’ll be watching it a second time at any point in my life, I can tell you that. Dear lord, the first half of this thing is a drag.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it as such – the age-old “new wife arrives at the home of family with a dark secret” yarn plays out in much the way that tradition deems it should (rendered slightly more contemporary via an additional dose of post-‘Rosemary’s Baby’ pregnancy paranoia) and Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy are engaging enough as the central couple, even if they’re not given a great deal to do.

The production design meanwhile is grand indeed (making excellent use of the familiar Oakley Court in Windsor, previously seen in these pages in Die Monster Die!, The Reptile and more besides), whilst Denys Coop’s cinematography hits some splendid gothic high notes and Baker’s direction is confident and fluid as ever.

But, at the same time the whole thing is just so… uninspired. Events plod along rather joylessly, everything staying well within the established remit of this particular sub-genre, and the intermittent horror/shock moments are particularly poorly handled. As is so often the case in Amicus’s movies, the “spooky stuff” here – involving mischievous severed hands, eyeless apparitions and sundry other spectral nonsense – is knowingly silly, yet refuses to take the full leap into comedy or surrealism, instead maintaining a dogged pretence of dramatic seriousness that simply makes these scenes seem cheap, opportunistic and – crucially - dull.

Geoffrey Whitehead is very good in his few dialogue scenes as the sinister, birthmark-scarred woodsman who carries much of the story’s menace, but, even if you’re willing to roll with ‘And Now..’ as a kind of dumbed down, Poundland version of Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’, the film’s sub-William Castle “shocks”, which I suspect must have been foisted upon the production from above, generate little tension and make naff all impact.

At least Robert Hartford-Davies’ similarly themed ‘The Black Torment’ from a decade earlier had the decency to summon up an atmosphere of looming, malignant dread to disguise its uneventful storyline, but attempts to achieve an equivalent feel here are ruined by laughable, ‘will-this-do?’ touches like the inexplicable ball of day-time fog that appears to exist solely within the gates of the estate’s tiny family cemetery, whilst the sun shines outside.

As in his similar doctor role in Peter Sykes’ far superior ‘Demons of the Mind’ (’72), Patrick Magee lowballs it here with an uncharacteristically mellow, soft-spoken performance, but things do at least pick up considerably when Peter Cushing finally makes the scene, at about the fifty minutes mark.

Playing one of his fastidious, polite-yet-rude Holmesian investigator roles, and sporting a truly flamboyant hair-piece, Cushing is, as ever, magnificent. When he is on screen, the script’s rather hum-drum mystery plotting momentarily becomes quite interesting, and even Douglas Gamley’s ham-fisted score suddenly gets a hell of a lot better. It feels as if if the whole production team was deliberately holding back the good stuff to impress the Cush, and, following his appearance, there’s a stretch in which ‘And Now The Screaming Starts’ becomes pretty good fun.

For many viewers, one of the most memorable parts of ‘And Now The Screaming Starts’ will probably be the extended flashback that reveals the “primal scene” from which the film’s haunting/family curse has arisen. As with many Amicus productions, this sequence achieves a distinctly nasty, mean-spirited tone whilst holding back (insofar as is possible) on any actual on-screen violence or eroticism, and, though it is certainly more eventful than much of the hour or so that has preceded it, personally speaking I couldn’t really get on with it.

Herbert Lom appears here as Oglivy’s sadistic, decadent ancestor (there are definite shades here of the aristocratic debauchery that opened Hammer’s Hound of The Baskervilles way back in ’59), and, well… I dunno. Maybe it’s just me, but I can never buy Lom when he finds himself in a role that calls upon him to get sleazy. For some reason, people kept casting him in these lecherous, rapey roles in horror films (Franco’s ‘99 Women’ springs to mind), but the inherent dignity and formal manner of Lom’s on-screen persona just makes it feel all wrong, adding an unwholesome, icky sort of vibe to his turn here. Like I say, maybe it’s a personal thing, and I suppose ‘unwholesome and icky’ was very much what they were going for… but it just didn’t ring true for me.

Anyway, moving on, there’s some enjoyably melodramatic dementia to enjoy in the closing stretch of ‘And Now The Screaming Starts’. It’s all very thunderous and Old Testament, and I’ll admit to being genuinely quite taken aback by the scene in which Ogilvy (harking back to his freak-out at the end of ‘Witchfinder General’) actually wrenches his grandfather’s mouldering bones from their coffin and begins smashing them to pieces against the side of his tomb.

I recall that, when covering this film in ‘English Gothic’, Jonathan Rigby runs down an extensive litany of the Freudian imagery underpinning this story, so, presumably this scene represents the point at which Sigmund right have buzzed security and prepared a straight jacket.

Generally speaking though, it’s a real shame that, despite a handful of startling moments like this one, ‘And Now..’ never quite comes together the way it should. After all, we’ve got a great Peter Cushing performance, a fantastic supporting cast, a solid director, relatively lavish production values, a workable old warhorse of a story full of all kinds of potent themes and images… what went wrong?

I’ll bite my tongue and refrain from saying “bloody Amicus went wrong”, but… basically this has the feel of a horror film made by a lot of very talented people who didn’t really have any interest in making a horror film. The half-hearted manner in which tired “shock horror” tropes are exploited feels condescending – token gestures that, though Baker and his collaborators may have initially factored them in to appease the producers, nonetheless leave those of us in the cheap seats feel like we’re being played for fools, which is always a drag.

If – like many early ‘70s British horrors – the film had opened up and included a bit of humour, campiness or outright craziness, we perhaps could have shrugged this off and enjoyed a laugh alongside the filmmakers, but, given the prevailing tone of dour seriousness, we simply end up feeling as if we’re having our time wasted – and what feels like a hell of a lot of it too, given that the film’s most compelling performer doesn’t even turn up until over halfway through the run time.

Though ‘And Now..’ is not an objectively terrible film by any means, it is one that clearly has no particular enthusiasm for the genre tropes it is exploiting, and little reason to exist beyond wringing a bit more cash out of British horror’s swiftly fading box office popularity. As a result, it’s almost up there with ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar’ in terms of its wasted potential, and probably best filed under “worth watching once, but don’t get yr hopes up”. Ho hum.

No comments: