--And Now The Screaming Starts! (1973) is a brooding, not very successful attempt by Amicus Productions to break away from its successful horror anthologies, essentially short stories with contemporary settings, with a feature-length period horror film more along the lines of those commonly made by Hammer. Though interesting in some respects, the final product is like an anemic Rebecca meets The Hound of the Baskervilles, with a second act pilfered from Rosemary's Baby.
In 1795 England, Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) has just married Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy) and moved onto the family's massive estate. Almost at once however, Catherine has strange, horrifying visions. A bloody arm bursts through a portrait of Charles's grandfather, Henry (Herbert Lom, seen in a brief flashback); a disembodied hand (played by a rubber prop with a motor in it) scurries about the floor; a man with his eyes plucked out repeatedly appears outside various windows; and in bed Catherine is nearly strangled to death by a shadowy figure missing one of his hands.
It quickly becomes clear that Charles is withholding from Catherine a dark family secret, almost literally a skeleton in the Fengriffen closet. With family physician Dr. Whittle (Patrick Magee) stymied from revealing the dark secret (why?), Van Helsing-esque, Sherlock Holmesian Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing) is called to the case.
The biggest problem with --And Now The Screaming Starts! (and yes, that's how the title appears onscreen) is that it's so determined to rush headlong into its scenes of horror that it never takes the time to give its audience any background on who its main characters are or why we should care about them. We know nothing about Catherine and Charles's backstory and, as far as the film is concerned, their short-lived newlywed bliss lasts all of 30 seconds before the horror commences. After that, the two characters aren't even in the same room most of the time. Partly this may have been an effort to dramatize the more formal structure of 18th century married life among the privileged class, but their curious lack of scenes together only comes off like screenwriter Roger Marshall (adapting David Case's novel) was simply trying to put off an inevitable confrontation as long as possible. It's also possible that a more sexually complex adaptation had been conceived but dropped. More on this shortly.
Instead, the film parades one series of strange-goings-on and other horror set pieces after another but without compelling characters to hang them on they just don't make much of an impact (though the bit with the arm bursting through the painting is pretty effective. Conversely, the disembodied hand looks pretty phony; the filmmakers would have been wise to study The Beast with Five Fingers for ways around such technical limitations.)
The film also eschews any suggestion that Catherine's horrific visions may be entirely in her mind; it's bluntly clear, certainly after people start dropping dead left and right, that something is going on, but this only serves to deflate the suspense even further. The film had great potential with aspects of Catherine and Charles's sexual relationship hinted at yet never actually explored, such as Charles' odd absence from Catherine's bed on their wedding night. But the film isn't being subtle: it's merely avoiding the obvious, aspects of the story that presumably appeared in the novel but which were deleted for the screenplay.
Also undermining the horror is the film's flat, even lighting of the elaborate, two-story set used for interiors of the Fengriffen mansion. (Exteriors of the estate were shot on the familiar grounds of Oakley Court, seen in numerous Hammer films.) Apparently the filmmakers opted to build this set for logistical reasons rather than shoot in a real mansion, but this was probably a mistake. Though quite extravagant by Amicus standards, it never looks like anything other than a set, and everyone is so obviously proud of the damn thing that the camera constantly pans and dollies lovingly over every square foot, making sure audiences appreciate how expensive it was.
The film is only fitfully effective. Far more evocative than the mansion interiors is art director Tony Curtis's (not the Hollywood actor) fenced-in, neglected family graveyard, the site of one particularly gruesome bit of horror intact on this DVD but originally cut when the film was first released in America.
Beacham is fine in a difficult role, and though Peter Cushing's part is little more than a variation of two of his best-loved characters (see above), he's still very effective and livens up what might have been an excruciating second act. Though top-billed, Cushing doesn't appear until the film is half over, and second- and third-billed Lom and Magee have small roles. It's really Beacham's film all the way. The good supporting cast includes Mr. Sardonicus himself, Guy Rolfe, and The Haunting's Rosalie Crutchley
Video & Audio
Dark Sky's DVD of --And Now The Screaming Starts! is an excellent 16:9 enhanced, region-free transfer that approximates the original widescreen aspect ratio, here presented at 1.77:1. Originally printed by Technicolor, the hues are accurate and the image sharp and free from much damage or wear. The English mono audio is clean and clear, and optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements include two audio commentaries, the first hosted by Marcus Hearn and featuring director Roy Ward Baker and Stephanie Beacham, together for the first time since the film's postproduction more than 30 years ago. As usual, Hearn asks good, probing questions, keeps the guests on track, and supplements their answers with additional bits of information. An excellent job.
A second track, this time hosted by Darren Gross, features actor Ian Ogilvy. It's less focused but still pretty entertaining. One is tempted to say that the two tracks should've been combined into one, but there's enough here to justify separate commentaries.
Also included is a good Photo Gallery of international ad art: posters, lobby cards, etc. There are spoiler-filled trailers for --And Now The Screaming Starts (16:9), Asylum and The Beast Must Die (both 4:3 full frame). All are complete with narration and text, though the one for The Beast Must Die is in poor condition.
Finally, brief but useful Biographies with short filmographies are included for Peter Cushing, Roy Ward Baker, Stephanie Beacham, Ian Ogilvy, Herbert Lom, and Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.
Christopher Gullo contributes singularly weak liner notes on all three Dark Sky/Amicus releases (the others being Asylum and The Beast Must Die). The notes on this title could've been much longer (there's a page and a third of empty space), and on each Gullo simply offers an unneeded plot synopsis, a paragraph-long, capsule history of Amicus (repeated word-for-word on all three liner notes), and a couple of not very enlightening paragraphs of criticism.
Horror completests will want to own --And Now The Screaming Starts! but even they will likely be disappointed with the film, though they'll likely feel greatly compensated by Dark Sky's handsome presentation.
Stuart Galbraith IV talks about Invasion of Astro-Monster in an audio commentary track that's just one part of Classic Media's upcoming Godzilla Classic Collector's Edition. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.