SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN
1970 / Gordon Hessler
To horror fans who were around in the 1970s and ‘80s, the current low critical profile of Scream and Scream Again (UK, Gordon Hessler, 1969) – a rating of 5.5 on the IMDb, absent from Horrified’s list of the top 50 British horror films – must come as a bit of a surprise.
In the period just after its release it was a cult film, described by David Pirie as ‘one of the best science fiction films ever written, quite on a par with the work of Nigel Kneale or Richard Matheson’[i], praised for its political content by no less a director than Fritz Lang, and famous within the community as the only film (then) to feature the three icons Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, a sort of horror equivalent of the teaming of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson in Richard III (UK, Laurence Olivier, 1955).
Ironically, it’s possibly the appearances of those three – which according to Milton Subotsky were, together with the title, the only reasons the film made money[ii] – that explain its lowered reputation now.
Anyone lured to the film by those three names, in expectation of a Hammer/AIP-style gothic, is going to be disappointed, as the IMDb reviews repeatedly demonstrate. The three of them play fairly small roles (Cushing, in particular, is practically a cameo) and Scream and Scream Again is less a horror, and more a science fiction film with horror, police procedural, and political elements, described by its screenwriter as a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, Don Siegel, 1956) and Coogan’s Bluff (US, Don Siegel, 1968)[iii], and part of the small wave of awkward, edgy, anti-authority genre films made by young directors at British studios after The Sorcerers (UK, Michael Reeves, 1966)
The film is based on a novel by Peter Saxon, whose other works include such full-blooded titles as The Vampire of Finistere and Dark Ways to Death, and originally published as The Disorientated Man (1966). The title refers to several of the characters; equally, it could be applied to the reader. Appropriately in a novel that’s partly about dismemberment, Saxon writes in a deliberately fragmented style, moving between three storylines: a top athlete awakes from a coma to find himself helpless in a hospital bed as parts are gradually cut off his body, a ruthless assassin eliminates his enemies within the harsh power structures of East Germany (the film is less geographically specific, with a setting that mixes Soviet and Nazi iconography), and, in the main plot, a London police officer investigates the murders of a young serial killer who combines elements of Dracula – he drinks his victims’ blood from a small wound in their finger – with the Frankenstein monster, as he turns out to be an artificial creation, made by a scientist as part of a new super-race. The novel ends ambiguously, with monster and scientist defeated, but the threat restored – the final sentence is ‘They were coming again.’[iv]
The film retains the fractured storytelling style, in a way that was to become characteristic of the writer Christopher Wicking in his later screenplays for Cry of the Banshee (UK, Gordon Hessler, 1970) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (UK, Gordon Hessler, 1971) – Jonathan Rigby refers to it as his ‘”what the hell’s going on“ approach to screenplay construction’.[v] In this he’s matched by his habitual collaborator, the young director Gordon Hessler, who combines audacious set-piece camerawork (the killer’s dissected hand is viewed from underneath a transparent operating table) with long tracking shots in police stations and discotheques, showing his background in American documentary.
The main protagonist (until he’s unexpectedly killed off fifteen minutes from the end) is Police Superintendent Bellaver, played by Alfred Marks, an actor who always seemed to belong spiritually to the Edwardian era, and who here acts as a laconic representative of the old order, wistfully regretting the passing of capital punishment and scornful of the youth culture in which the murders take place – when a hippie brought in on a narcotics charge says ‘Hey man, I love you.’, he deadpans ‘I’m mad about you, an’ all.’ The police are shown as out of touch – when a female police officer goes undercover and is picked up by the suspected ‘vampire killer’, her jealous boyfriend’s most modern cultural reference point is Rudolph Valentino. This murderer/monster is played by the tall, Germanic-looking Michael Gothard, remembered by a generation of British schoolgirls as the Saxon outsider Kai in Arthur of the Britons (UK, 1973-4), and who would appear the next year as a Lennon-bespectacled Inquisitor in The Devils (UK, Ken Russell, 1971).
Caught by the police and handcuffed to a car, Gothard escapes by ripping off his hand at the wrist and flees to the mansion of the scientist Dr. Browning (Price), where he commits suicide in an acid bath. It’s gradually revealed that he was a construct, an artificial man put together Frankenstein-style from body parts harvested, like the athlete’s severed limbs, in the construction of the super-race, a project backed by a worldwide conspiracy that includes Browning, the Eastern European assassin Konratz (Marshall Jones), and finally Christopher Lee’s urbane civil servant Fremont. Price’s performance is, for him, surprisingly restrained, at least until his death scene, and his atheistical arguments about the perfectability of man (‘Man is God now. As a matter of fact, he always was.’) make a lot of sense, up to the point where he goes full master-race. In the end, it is Lee who has the film’s last line, and freeze frame, as he disposes of his two co-conspirators in the acid bath, and is chauffeured away, presumably to start again. – ‘Is it over, sir?’ ‘It’s only just beginning.’ (It’s easy at this point to see why Fritz Lang liked the film so much.)
Certain elements of the film haven’t aged too well – Hessler’s leering attitude to female flesh (even on a corpse) the brash soundtrack, which seems more appropriate for a Swinging London film, and the curious mix of accents in the Eastern European scenes. It’s also a film that would have benefited from modern special effects – the gradual dismemberment of the athlete is shocking, but made less so by the fact that his missing limbs are clearly just folded over. At the same time, there are ideas and images which stick in the mind, and in the cinema – its influence can be seen in the more cynical attitude towards authority taken by Hammer in the early ‘70s – Kim Newman particularly sees this in the two modern-day Draculas, Dracula A.D. 72 (UK, Alan Gibson, 1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (UK, Alan Gibson, 1973). [vi] Similarly, the escape by tearing off a hand is clearly an ancestor of the ‘cut through the handcuffs or cut through the leg?’ dilemma found in Mad Max (Australia, George Miller, 1979), Watchmen (US, Zack Snyder, 2009), and Saw (US, James Wain, 2004).
Although not exactly a horror film, Scream and Scream Again plays with horror tropes, and Hessler uses the iconic status of its three-star names in a way similar to that which Peter Bogdanovich was to do with Boris Karloff in Targets (US, Peter Bogdanovich, 1968), keeping the camera on Lee’s reaction when refers to ‘the so-called vampire killer’, and using some camera angles in Price’s laboratory that recall those of the same actor in House of Wax (US, Andre de Toth, 1953). There’s even a more or less direct quote from Frankenstein (US, James Whale, 1931); when asked how long ago a female corpse died, Price replies ‘She has never really existed yet.’, which paraphrases Colin Clive’s ‘That body is not dead; it has never lived.’
Scream and Scream Again is an outlier in Amicus’ output, gorier and darker than the anthology films. Milton Subotsky’s comments show that he neither liked nor understood the film; Rigby suggests that he may have been aggrieved when his original version of the screenplay was rejected by Hessler. [vii] Neither the masterpiece that it was once considered to be, nor the misleading bait-and-switch that many first-time viewers see it as now, it remains an intriguing, and often powerful, oddity.
Newman, Kim – Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen since the 1960s (Revised Edition). (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)
Pirie, David – A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972 (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)
Rigby, Jonathan – English Gothic: a century of horror cinema (London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2000)
Saxon, Peter – Scream and Scream Again (Originally published as The Disorientated Man, 1966) (Manchester: PBS, 1972)
1 Pirie, David – A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972 (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973), p. 158.
2 Cinefantastique, Vol. 2 No. 4, Summer 1973, quoted in Rigby, Jonathan – English Gothic: a century of horror cinema (London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2000), p. 163.
3 Rigby, p. 163.
4 Saxon, Peter – Scream and Scream Again (Originally published as The Disorientated Man, 1966) (Manchester: PBS, 1972), p.158.
5 Rigby, p. 162.
6 Newman, Kim – Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen since the 1960s (Revised Edition). (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), p.41. 7 Rigby, p. 162.