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~~And Now The Screaming Starts (1971)

Basically a gory, shock-filled rip-off of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (with added daft hats, acres of heaving bosom, tight trousers, shiny boots and more daft hats), Amicus’s ~~And Now The Screaming Starts was the studio’s only attempt at a full-on, full-length period horror. And, true to the company’s utter hopelessness at doing anything (other than portmanteau films) properly, back in 1971 it was already hopelessly out of time. True, the sex n’gore quotient stands up well next to other early 70s horrors (we’ve got eye gouging, hand-lopping, and a gruelling rape, and that’s just in one short flashback) but it still must have looked totally out of place next to The Wicker Man.

These days, of course, the film can be seen as a minor classic, from the calm opening voiceover to its closing psychotic bloodbath. And unlike many others of its ilk, it even lives up to its gaudy, exploitative title – our poor old heroine Catherine Fengriffen (Stephanie Beacham) is screaming from about 10 minutes in, and she doesn’t stop until the end – and I for one would be joining her if that lot was happening to me.

Screaming or not, the whole film is required to stand or fall on Beacham’s central role, and given the opportunity to star (in most genre films she’s the concerned sister-type) she’s quite a revelation. She looks gorgeous, as well - liberated from the bad-wig-and-shapeless-nightgown ensemble of Dracula AD1972, there’s much to admire and it’s not surprising that the ghost at the centre of the family curse takes a shine to her, eyes or no eyes.

Catherine has been taken to her new home by husband-to-be Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy). In voiceover she tells us of the “days filled with fear… nights filled with horror” that are to come.

On arriving at Fengriffen Manor, she enquires whether it’s haunted. “Ghosts galore,” replies Charles. “Headless horsemen, horseless headsmen…”

He’s joking, of course. Although it’s not very funny. But whether or not there have been hauntings in the past, one is about to start now – as Catherine’s arrival has sparked psychic activity galore - bloody hands erupt from paintings, others crawl across floors (yes it’s the Amicus wobbly rubber hand making yet another appearance, folks - see Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors for its first appearance), and a mysterious figure with bloody holes for eyes and a bloody stump where his hand should be (eye, eye, that’s handy) menaces the poor girl from the other side of a variety of stained-glass windows.

Is it some kind of “they’re trying to drive me mad” conspiracy by the household of Fengriffen, or something more spooky, possibly involving that portrait of Charles’ grandfather Henry (Herbert Lom), which Catherine finds herself strangely drawn to? Whatever it is, the people around her are dropping like flies - first the family solicitor (axe in head) then a couple of maids (unconvincing falls down stairs) - all of them at the point where they’re about to reveal some dreadful, unspoken secret about the house. After diagnosing pregnancy, the family doctor, Doctor Whittle (Patrick Magee, voted British horror’s favourite seedy doctor three years in a row 70,71,72) admits he can’t deal with the psychosis the by-now-laughing-hysterically Catherine is suffering from, and it’s time to call in an expert, in the form of Doctor Pope (Peter Cushing).

Muttering about “sexual relations with demons” Pope starts trying to find out what’s going on, Sherlock Holmes-style. He realises that Whittle knows more than he is letting on, but before the local doctor can spill the beans, he’s strangled by the disembodied hand (leaving aside the obvious physical problems that such a disembodied limb would have with gaining enough purchase to strangle someone, these “the murderer is… Aaagh!” deaths are becoming more comical as the film progresses).

Of course, there is a family secret, and no, it doesn’t involve horseless headsmen – although it does involve handless blind men. Charles decides to come clean, although he does believe that “the legend… is mere superstition”. The Fengriffen family has a dark past, all of it involving granddad Henry (the subject of the portrait Catherine has been so drawn to), who, after holding a student rugby club party at the house (or “filling it with debauchery”, as Charles puts it) decides that a bit of rape and hand-lopping will round the evening off nicely, effectively bringing a curse down on the household.

Things need to be sorted out, and as the rain-soaked climax unfolds, Ogilvy is left to reprise his “now totally mad and brandishing an axe” finale from Witchfinder General, and Beacham gets busy exercising her lungs once more - Cushing appearing to just give up on the pair of ‘em and leave them to it. Strangely for one of these films, everything is wrapped up nicely and all the plot strands actually make perfect (if daft) sense.

It can be a bit slow in places, but there’s much to recommend this film - not least Beacham’s chest, I mean performance.

Updated: February 27, 2010

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