In 1795, newlyweds Catherine and Charles Fengriffin move into his family estate. Before they can consummate their union, Catherine is attacked by an apparition with only one hand. There is a terrible secret in the Fengriffin family history, and everyone who tries to warn the virginal bride is brutally killed before they can reveal it.
Based on David Case’s novel FENGRIFFIN, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a lavish, beautifully lit gothic English ghost story. It is expertly directed by veteran horror and TV helmer Roy Ward Baker (SCARS OF DRACULA, DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, ASYLUM, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES) and features fine performances by a stellar cast that includes Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom and Stephanie Beacham (DRACULA A.D. 1972, INSEMINOID). Though not as well known or fondly remembered as Amicus’ horror anthologies (VAULT OF HORROR, ASYLUM, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), it is one of the finest British fright films of the early 1970s.
Beacham gives the performance of a lifetime here as the beleaguered Catherine, teetering on the brink of madness as severed hands and eyeless phantasms torment her and no one will tell her just what is happening. Though she receives lesser billing than Cushing, Lom and male lead Ian Ogilvy, this is really her show from the onset. For much of the film, Catherine is alone and often goes long stretches without dialogue, relying on a solid range of facial expressions and body language to convey the necessary combination of terror and frustration. Miss Beacham is stunningly beautiful and bountifully endowed in the tradition of British scream queens of the period, but she demonstrates here that her considerable aesthetic appeal is secondary to her acting prowess. She is helpless in light of the circumstances, but she is hardly a weak-willed damsel in distress, and the audience immediately feels for her when terrible things begin to happen and even her husband appears dismissive and reluctant to talk. At no point are her abilities as a thespian better displayed than in two scenes concerning the supernatural assault she suffers on her wedding night.
Baker wisely does not show exactly what happens during the attack, instead lingering on Catherine’s mortified face as she is held down by two arms…one just a bloody stump. When husband Charles breaks into the locked room and finds her alone, he tries to comfort her but she pulls away from his touch in revulsion. With just this single action, she makes it completely clear that she has been sexually violated by whomever or whatever entered her room. This fact goes unspoken by the characters until much later in the story, when Cushing’s Dr. Pope, a psychologist, questions her about the incident and she recounts it in chilling (but not graphic) detail. Even in this scene, the words “rape” and “violated” do not come from her lips, yet the horror of being sexually assaulted is painfully apparent in her riveting performance (aided by an ever-so-slow zoom in on her face). Subsequently, Cushing does bluntly state what has happened, but to the audience there has been little doubt from the moment she withdrew from her groom. Beacham is so convincing in this – and in her desperate attempts to get someone to tell her the truth – that the viewer instinctively shares her pain.
While the dynamic of Catherine alone in a world of otherworldly terror and tight-lipped secrecy is the most effective element of the story, the rest of the cast wrings every drop of dramatic potential from Roger Marshall’s well-crafted script. Cushing is typically marvelous in an understated, skeptical variation of his Van Helsing character from the Hammer Dracula series. Lom is delightfully slimy as a lusty, lecherous lord in a lengthy, pivotal flashback sequence. Ogilvy strikes a nice balance between concerned husband and haunted heir to an evil legacy, and Geoffrey Whitehead is both sinister and sympathetic as the birth-marked woodsman, Silas. Other notable turns come from Janet Key (who appeared with Beacham and Cushing in DRACULA A.D. 1972), Guy Rolfe (Andre Toulon of the Puppetmaster series), and Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, ASYLUM). TV actress Sally Harrison ably assists Miss Beacham with the titular screaming duties and provides the film’s only bit of nudity (handled very tastefully) during the Lom flashback.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous with its soft lighting and thoroughly convincing sets. There is also a modest amount of gore in some of the more shocking moments, but it is really the subtlety and tension that make this tale work so well. Baker sets a deliberate pace from the very beginning and never lets it deteriorate into an exercise in pointless excess. When something horrific does happen (and rest assured, it does several times in 90 minutes!), it is so unexpected, and so jarringly disrupts the careful rhythm of the narrative, that the moment is that much more effective. This ghost story has far more in common with the 1963 Robert Wise version of THE HAUNTING than the CGI-bloated, atmosphere-deficient Jan DeBont remake. There are bloody effects and severed limbs and such, but these elements are handled with a level of restraint that few studios in the world were showing in the early 70s. As a result, this movie is far less cartoonish and exploitative than even the best of the rest of British horror of that era – despite the wonderful, “drive-in” title.
On July 25 of 2006, Dark Sky Films will release AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS to DVD. This reviewer is not a tech expert and rarely reviews DVDs, but the screener copy I’ve seen is very good. The print is, as noted, quite beautiful, a crisp 1:85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer that does proper justice to Denys Coop’s excellent cinematography. Trailers for this and two other upcoming Dark Sky Amicus releases, ASYLUM and THE BEAST MUST DIE, are included, as well as two nice commentary tracks – one with Beacham and Baker, and one with Ogilvy. There is a small Still Gallery, notable primarily for a few foreign language posters for the film, and a two-page foldout liner with some brief background info on the film. Though hardly loaded with extras, there are a lot more perks here than in most English horror DVDs. The disc is worth picking up for the great print of the movie and the commentary tracks alone.
No matter how you see AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, though, see it. It is a vastly underrated supernatural chiller that showcases some topnotch acting and exceptional direction in a visually stunning, gothic setting. It also is one of the last examples of a haunted house tale that relies more on performances and tension than special effects to provide its terror. As such, it more than merits the label “classic” horror.