And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), by Amicus Productions, stands as a timeless testament to the cognitive dissonance of the casual British horror fan. This dissonance arises from the shocking realisation that this Gothic period drama, the only such title produced by Amicus, was indeed produced by them. Its viewing typically comes at the tail end of completely absorbing their most famous portmanteau films, often with the exception of Torture Garden (1967), though I digress.
I shall bow and apologise for the digression, but only momentarily. So, what about Fengriffen? Or should I say, And Now the Screaming Starts! — with an exclamation mark, of course. The former title pertains to the original novella written in 1970 by David Case, and the latter to the Amicus screen adaptation directed by Roy Ward Baker, possibly the only British horror director that existed between 1967 and 1973. He was also known as a “safe pair of hands” by both Hammer and Amicus. Roger Marshall wrote the screenplay for the novella, likely typing slowly at a typewriter, under the careful watch of Milton Subotsky, the spirited creative head of Amicus.
Subotsky was famously preoccupied with the significance of scriptwriting, storytelling, and the optioning of great literary works. What a character! On the other hand, Max Rosenberg, who we can call the business guru of Amicus Productions, had better ideas. He believed this dusty Gothic melodrama needed a title with sizzle and zazzle — a title that evoked images of a busty maiden screaming straight from the poster, bosoms exposed.
The result was a title that could easily be mistaken for one of the famous British Carry On films of the period, such as Carry on Screaming (1966). It wouldn’t be fair to judge Rosenberg too harshly; after all, he had a film to sell, and the allure of Stephanie Beacham is a formidable asset to this film and a potential rite of passage for half the British male adolescents of that year.
You might be wondering what else there is to say about this Gothic melodrama, with the title of an exploitation film, and the charm of a goddess such as Stephanie Beacham. Let’s dive deeper into the improbable assumption that you are clueless about the story, without any spoilers, of course.
The film plunges viewers into a dense Gothic narrative adorned with historical repercussions, supernatural visions, and a haunting ancestral curse. Incidentally, growing up in Fife, Scotland during the 1980s was a fairly similar experience, but again I digress.
In terms of Gothic tradition, such a description might evoke Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Many years ago, while I studied at college for TV production, my lecturer, Patrick Joyce, remarked that all Gothic tales explored the themes of inheritance and legacy. I now appreciate those words of wisdom, but at the time, my mind was elsewhere, eagerly anticipating my nighttime reading of John Cleland’s 1749 Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure as I slowly chewed a Cadbury’s Chomp bar in class.
A certain degree of sumptuous naughtiness is crucial for a Gothic novel, but in 1749 those loftier psychological and supernatural elements were not yet present. It wasn’t much longer before I set aside John Cleland’s invigorating work for Wuthering Heights, released in 1847.
That book, along with British music genius Kate Bush and her performance of the song with the same name, ignited my love affair with the Gothic tradition. In fact, it even served as an inspiration for my own film The Devil’s Machine, which spectacularly triggered a few sensitive souls some years ago at a Glasgow screening.
Poor gentle souls, whatever would they make of the bum hole scene in John Cleland’s 1749 novel? Would it satisfy their sense of post-modern morality? The bit when the dude er… perhaps I’m digressing again. Perhaps Stephanie Beacham’s bosoms would distress them too, but why? They’re so perfect.
But is And Now the Screaming Starts! perfect? Who cares, anyone reading this article in search of perfection in the world of low-budget British Horror needs their head examined.
But there is plenty more to examine in our film, which stars Stephanie Beachum, whom I might have already mentioned. As well as an illustrious cast of fine supporting actors which includes Ian Ogilvy, star of Tigon’s 1968 Witchfinder General, and Amicus stalwarts and esteemed character actors Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, and the legendary Peter Cushing, of whom the latter three also starred in Amicus’ Asylum (1972).
A special notice also goes to Cushing’s wig, which has a credit of its own and was accompanied by its own trailer on set during filming. More tragically, however, and I mean this quite earnestly, Cushing’s wife Helen had only recently passed away at the age of 65. They had been devoted to one another all their lives, having met during a theatre production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1943, during which she was a young actress and chorus girl.
She had said of Peter when she first met him, “From the stage door stepped a vision, and my heart skipped a beat. I had never met him, yet I knew, deep in my deepest heart, we had been together before.” His love for her was no less, and we can imagine how he must have felt on the set of And Now the Screaming Starts!, albeit with industry veterans and friends from countless productions before, but without the woman he had promised his soul to.
In an uncomfortable wig, he makes his entrance mid-way, as the character of Dr. Pope, who must examine Beacham’s Catherine, recently married to Ogilvy’s Charles. The marriage has not gone well since Catherine discovers that there is a secret family curse that Charles refuses to share.
A secret known to everyone, including Magee’s kindly Dr. Whittle, and even the family lawyer Maitland (a character name that no Amicus film is complete without), played by the masterful Guy Rolfe. Even her servants know! And, in a rare cut scene from the film premiered only in Torino, Italy in 1973, there exists a version of the film in which a farm cat from next door, also known as Maitland, tries to warn Catherine of the danger she’s in by spelling out the words “Leave Now” with a horde of captured mice.
However, the presence of over one hundred dead mice was still not enough to spell the entire phrase and so appalled Beachum that she was forced to leave during filming, only promising to return once the mice were removed. This would happen, with their tiny bodies instead finding their way into a flashback scene of filthy debauchery featuring Lom as Charles’s deceased but legendarily perverse father, Henry Fengriffen.
The key to the conspiracy, and the curse itself, surrounds the mysterious woodsman who lives outside the stately mansion, an exiled servant called Heathcliffe… I mean Silas! Played by the very respectable actor, predominantly of television, Geoffrey Whitehead.
There are other ladies in the film, I assure you of that! Including supporting actors such as Gillian Lind, a veteran of television period dramas who plays Catherine’s mother, and whose expression of horror while being suffocated by a rubber hand makes for an uncomfortable experience when spotted on your computer, out of context by your romantic partner. Likewise for period drama and television stalwart Rosalie Crutchley, who I can still vaguely remember from an episode of Poirot from 1991… and you will too! That, and every other television show before then too!
As Catherine tries to make herself comfortable in her new marriage to Charles, she is struck one night by supernatural forces that rape and impregnate her, making the consequence of the forthcoming birth and the revelation of the curse, its cause, and dark purpose the focus of the story and Catherine’s search for the truth.
While the scene of supernatural rape is not as vivid as the absolutely chilling 1982 film The Entity, directed by Sidney J. Furie, it is nevertheless a disturbing experience, and Beachum does well to portray her descent into paranoia. Aspects of which, including her incompetent treatment by her husband Charles, and consequent care from Dr. Whittle and Dr. Pope, may lend a comparison to that great psychological horror novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Rape plays a theme in the film, but so does an altogether villainous form of justice for injustice which seeks to punish the innocent spouses of the aggrieving parties. A poisonous eye for an eye that reveals how evil can beget evil from even the innocent victims of tragedy.
While nobody can deny the ambition and scope of the story, the film itself does struggle to manage the complexity of these details, while bound by the desire to portray shock horror scenes befitting the transition towards the era of exploitation horror. This transitional film, in fact, has one foot in the era of corny rubbery effects but with resplendent actors, sets, and costumes, and another in an attempt to portray itself as more modern, more hip, more edgy for its contemporary audience at the time.
It doesn’t really achieve either, and the two styles at times seem at odds with one another. You could be forgiven for believing at times that the film you’re watching might be a period drama on television, both in the style of cinematography and editing pace. Then comes the odd shock moment that could easily feature in an exploitation spoof trailer for films of this era.
However, the not altogether successful merging of styles, which could easily have been the result of the creative and commercial pull from Amicus bosses Subotsky and Rosenberg, does result in the film we’re talking about today. Note that very many fine period television dramas were made in that era too, which do not find themselves on the hallowed pages of film discussion right now.
Special mention must also be made to the romantic score for the film, composed by Douglas Gamley, whose distinctive theme lends a romantic and dignified edge to the proceedings. Gamley also composed music for Amicus’ Asylum (1973) and Tron (1982) but is perhaps best remembered for his musical accompaniment to the VHS tape I have of you enjoying a shower at your aunt’s house in 1994. That clip might feature one day on this news website, but we can never be sure, can we?
While the films of Amicus Productions were, for their time, considered to be low-budget, the available resources are put to good use, in particular towards the ambitious set design by the ingenious Tony Curtis, who has served as art director on many classic genre films including cult-favourite Krull (1983). Cinematography by Denys N. Coop cleverly utilises the space, doing little to betray the budget of the film. Coop was also the cinematographer for Amicus’ The Vault of Horror (1973).
It should be noted that the construction of such ambitious sets, costuming, and production would nowadays place a film like this far above the vast majority of independent horror films today. It can be too easy to look back and consider these films low-budget — perhaps for the ghostly rubber hand that enacts its revenge against victims — at the cost of appreciating the enormous effort to construct the set of a Georgian manor. Low budget back then is high budget today. Let that be some food for thought.
So, And Now the Screaming Starts! stands as a vivid exploration of Gothic horror, which benefits more than it suffers from the imperfections of the clash of tone and genre, making it a flawed cult film with compelling performances and curious visual impacts that solidify its place within the annals of British horror cinema.
One must applaud Amicus for its homage to the literary tradition within this multi-layered film, which barely contains its labyrinthine tale within the confines of the story’s sprawling manor.
However, from the mists of some confusion, And Now the Screaming Starts! emerges as a testament to Gothic expression, inviting viewers into a haunting odyssey where the echoes of ancestral sins reverberate through the spectral corridors of the Fengriffen estate, crafting a timeless narrative tapestry of horror, history, and haunting ancestral echoes.