Amicus Productions is often confused with Hammer Film Productions. They were both British film companies active in the 1960’s and 1970’s with significant horror/thriller catalogs. They had similar visual styles, used some of the same directors such as Roy Ward Baker, and cast some of the same actors, most notably Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Amicus horror films could usually be distinguished from Hammer Horror productions, however, for two reasons. First, while Hammer favoured period pieces, films from Amicus were commonly set in the present. Secondly, Amicus was known for portmanteau or anthology films. So, of course, when deciding on a film for my first Amicus article, I chose a non-anthology, Gothic period piece directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Peter Cushing.
WARNING: Spoilers abound
And Now the Screaming Starts! tells the story of newlywed Catherine Fengriffen, as portrayed by Stephanie Beacham (also a Hammer actor), and the horrors she endures at her new husband’s ancestral home. The astute viewer will note, however, that Beacham does not get top billing. In fact, she does not garner second or even third billing. It is only after the names Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, and Patrick Magee have passed that Stephanie Beacham appears on the screen. That may seem unfair but it is difficult to fault Amicus for this decision. Cushing, Lom, and Magee were not just staples of Amicus Productions. All three were also skilled character actors with impressive résumés. None of them have huge parts in the film but each one owns his role and brings a level of class and dignity to what is otherwise a rather unsavory story told in a haphazard manner.
Catherine and her chaperone, Aunt Edith, are brought to the large estate of Fengriffen House by Catherine’s fiancé, Charles Fengriffen. They have just barely arrived when Catherine has her first supernatural encounter. Charles has left her to wander the halls admiring the ancestral portraits (including one that looks an awful lot like William Shakespeare). The portrait of Charles’ grandfather, Sir Henry Fengriffen draws Catherine’s attention and makes her uneasy. Her discomfort would seem to be justified for, as she stares at the portrait, a bloody hand bursts through it at her.
In response to Catherine’s scream, Charles comes running but the portrait is undamaged and perfectly normal. Charles is happy to ignore Catherine’s episode and attempts to distract her by showing her his own portrait, a painting they had walked right past not five minutes before. Catherine, however, barely gives Charles’ portrait a glance and keeps looking back to eye Grandpa Henry.
It is not clear how much time transpires but the next scene occurs on Charles and Catherine’s wedding night. They usher the party guests from Fengriffen House (although there is absolutely no indication that a party took place in the home) and head up to bed. Unbeknownst to them, however, there is a severed hand crawling outside their rooms. Is this the same hand from the portrait of Grandfather Henry? It is a reasonable assumption and both are right hands. The one in the portrait, however, clearly had more arm connected to it than the one dragging itself across the floor.
Charles leaves Catherine alone while he goes to another room to change. As Catherine sits at her dressing table, one of the windows unlatches itself and opens. Windows opening of their own accord will be a running theme in the film but it is never clear what they signify. Presumably something unseen is entering the house, but why does it need to come in through the windows and why does it come in over and over again throughout the picture? How does this invisible entity relate to the supernatural force manifesting in the hallway?
Whatever has entered the bedroom with Catherine quietly locks the door to the hallway. (The key turning and the deadbolt sliding into place is a nice shot.) Despite Catherine having re-closed the window, a breeze picks up in the room and the candles are extinguished. As Catherine lies in bed, a hand suddenly appears in front of her face as if to cover her mouth. This is not the hand from the hallway, however, as this is a left hand. Furthermore, this hand would appear to be attached to a body, albeit a body that is never seen. Something that looks kind of like a loaf of French bread with a bit of blood on it also comes up towards Catherine’s face but she fends it off with a hand. The makeup effects fall short in this scene, but we will learn that the loaf of bread is actually an arm that ends in a stump. Perhaps this is where the hand crawling in the hallway came from.
Charles hears Catherine’s screams and again comes running to the rescue but, of course, the door is locked. To his credit, he does not hesitate long before collecting a decorative axe from a wall on the main floor and using it to hack at the bedroom door. He does manage to break into the room but not before Catherine is raped by the supernatural attacker who then vanishes. The assault is a disturbing scene but it loses some of its impact because it is not at all clear what has transpired. The camera remains focused on Catherine’s horrified expression and you never see anything of her attacker besides his left hand and his stump.
The next morning, Charles feels the need to tell the housekeeper, “It was all in [Catherine’s] imagination.” The housekeeper responds, “Why that?” I am not at all sure what she meant by that. My best guess is that she is asking why Catherine’s imagination would concoct that particular event. This suggests that, not only does the housekeeper know the details of what Catherine experienced but, she also finds those details significant. You wouldn’t think that the head of the house staff would be familiar with this sort of information. But as the film progresses, we will learn that numerous people have intimate knowledge of the goings on at Fengriffen House and the mythos surrounding it.
Again, an indeterminate amount of time passes, and Charles and Catherine are getting amorous in the bedroom. Catherine happens to look over Charles shoulder and sees an apparition at the window. It is a man with gouged-out eyes who grins wickedly at her as he watches them. Yes, I realize a man without eyes shouldn’t be capable of watching them but that is exactly what he is doing.
The next morning, Catherine is drawn again to Sir Henry’s portrait. As she stares at it, the phantom from the window, now much less corporeal, floats out of the portrait with its bloody stump of a right arm raised. The implication is that this is her ghostly attacker from her wedding night. It would also be reasonable to assume that the ghost is that of Sir Henry since it is his portrait from which it springs. The ghost, however, looks nothing like the portrait of Sir Henry and will later be confirmed to not be from the Fengriffen lineage.
Catherine’s response to being accosted by the ghost again is to run aimlessly through the Fengriffen estate until she comes upon the family burial ground. The fenced-in graveyard seems very small and crowded for such a well-to-do family. Given how close some of the grave markers are, the residents must be buried vertically.
While checking out Sir Henry’s sarcophagus, Catherine is startled by Silas (Geoffrey Whitehead), who was apparently ducked down behind the sarcophagus just waiting for the opportunity to frighten someone. Silas is a woodsman who lives on the estate and, as Catherine quickly realizes, bares a very strong resemblance to the ghost that has been haunting her…other than the fact he still has eyes and, we will soon learn, both of his hands.
When neither her husband nor the housekeeper are forthcoming about Silas, Catherine heads out to confront the woodsman herself. Along the way she passes two fierce Rottweilers that are chained up outside Fengriffen House. She finds a scrap of meat (?) beyond the reach of the dogs’ chains. She throws the meat to one of the dogs and gives a funny, little shrug to the other dog.
Arriving at what Silas’ calls his ancestral hovel, Catherine knocks at the door and calls, “Hello,” repeatedly with no response. She goes into the small building and, finding Silas at home, asks whether he heard her and why he didn’t answer. Silas responds that he did hear her but, “I have to hear. Nothing says I have to answer.” I’m waiting for the opportunity to use this line on someone.
Silas answers Catherine’s questions matter-of-factly but he is also playing with her. Despite her not coming right out and saying so, he knows she is looking for a one-armed man. He also clearly knows more than he lets on but, since Catherine doesn’t know exactly what she is looking for, she doesn’t ask the right questions. He does tell her that he lives on the estate because Grandfather Henry gave his father, also named Silas, the land. Catherine takes this information to the family lawyer who confirms it but cannot provide her any details without Charles’ permission. He agrees to come to Fengriffen House that night in an attempt to convince Charles to tell Catherine the entire story. Unfortunately, the severed ghost hand is sitting on the windowsill apparently eavesdropping. The lawyer never makes it to the house.
Charles goes out to check on what is taking the lawyer so long while Catherine sits reading by a window. The film makes a point of showing us that Catherine is reading a book titled Comus. Comus is the Greek god of festivity, revels, and nocturnal dalliances. Comus is also the informal name of a masque written by John Milton in honour of chastity. It is this Comus that Catherine must be reading as later Charles will pick up the book and read the following passage from Milton’s masque:
Some say, no evil thing that walks by night
In fog, or fire, by lake, or moorish fen,
Blue meagre hag, or stubborn unlaid ghost,
That breaks his magic chains at curfew-time,
No goblin, or swart faery of the mine,
Hath hurtful power o’er true virginity.
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions on her choice of reading material.
As Catherine reads, the window beside her begins to unlatch of its own accord. She sees it, however, and forces it shut again. This is not the best course of action as the angered ghost manifests outside the window and smashes it with his (now very long) stump. Catherine is left in a fragile state of mind which is made much worse when Charles returns from finding the lawyer’s corpse and grabs her by the arm with a hand covered in lawyer blood. Somebody calls on a doctor to check on Catherine and finally one of the top billed actors makes an appearance. Patrick Magee plays Dr. Whittle who informs the couple that Catherine is pregnant. In a private conversation, he also implores Charles to tell Catherine…something, but Charles refuses.
Catherine desperately begs the housekeeper for information. The housekeeper refuses to talk but eventually agrees to show Catherine something. She goes to the house’s library and retrieves a large book from its hiding place. Before she can bring it to Catherine, a window opens on its own, it grows very windy inside the house, a mirror shatters, the ghost appears, and the housekeeper is choked by an ethereal, non-severed hand and falls down the stairs to her death. If it was the intent of the supernatural forces to prevent Catherine from seeing what the housekeeper was going to reveal, they fail as the book is left at the bottom of the stairs for Catherine to recover.
Unfortunately for Catherine and us viewers, the book raises more questions without answering any. In it is the Fengriffen family tree. Under Grandfather Henry a branch has been obscured. What I found more interesting, however, was that this family tree tucked away in a book that was carefully hidden already includes the marriage of Charles and Catherine. Who added that and when?
Shortly after, Catherine’s chaperone is strangled to death by the severed hand just before she is going to take Catherine away from the house. (Her corpse is considerate enough to knock on Catherine’s bedroom door to let Catherine know she is dead.) Catherine destroys the portrait of Sir Henry with a kitchen knife while in a trance-like state. Then she falls down the stairs. So, as you would expect, the next day she goes out for a pleasant stroll to collect flowers.
While Catherine is on her walk, the Rottweiler that she chose not to feed (there was a reason I described that scene) breaks free of its chain and attacks her. Coming to Catherine’s rescue is none other than Silas. He seems to literally pop out of the ground and fairly easily fends off the dog. What are we to take from this scene? I interpret it as telling me that, despite the hostility directed at Catherine, factors are in place to keep her safe so the baby she carries can be born. This means that the dog attack is just a coincidence and Catherine is really unlucky.
After the dog attack, the first incident to befall Catherine that is clearly not in her mind, Dr. Whittle decides to call in some psychiatric help. That help comes in the form of our top billed actor, Peter Cushing, sporting a rather voluminous hairpiece, as Dr. Pope. It is during his interview with Catherine that we get a better sense that the ghostly attack on her was actually a rape. She doesn’t come right out and say it, but her reaction when he pushes her for details is telling. Dr. Pope also spies on Catherine and catches her reading Malleus Maleficarum. This is a real book, the title of which translates to Hammer of Witchcraft. It is a treatise published in 1487 in which discredited clergyman, Heinrich Kramer, developed legal and theological theory justifying the extermination of witches. One of the six activities the book claims witches are guilty of is “sexual relations with demons”.
Dr. Pope pushes Dr. Whittle to tell him about any legends and superstitions surrounding Fengriffen House. Unfortunately, the severed hand is hiding in Whittle’s office. Whittle only gets as far as mentioning the woodsman, Silas, before he is choked to death by invisible forces.
After a brief stop to confront Silas, Dr. Pope returns to Fengriffen House. When Pope enters, Charles comments that he thought Pope had gotten lost. Dr. Pope snaps at him, “Good of you to come out looking for me!” He then pries the loathsome story of Grandfather Henry from Charles. Thus, one hour into the film, we are finally introduced to the last of the three top-billed actors, Herbert Lom, as Sir Henry.
Sir Henry, as told by Charles, turned Fengriffen house into “a house of debauchery” in which he and his drunken friends would hold frequent parties. During one such party, someone unfortunately reminds Henry that he granted permission for the woodcutter Silas (Silas Sr. that is) to be married that day. Silas Sr. (also played by Geoffrey Whitehead) looks exactly like his son right down to the birthmark on his face. As he and his new bride, Sarah, are preparing to turn in, Henry and his band of merrymakers burst in. They demand that Henry, as master of the estate, be the first to bed Sarah. As Sir Henry says, “An old custom is always worth reviving.” He rapes Sarah while forcing Silas to watch. Despite most of the assault occurring off-screen, the scene is very unpleasant largely due to the intensity and arrogance that Lom brings to the character. When Silas attempts to fight back, Henry has his men drag Silas outside where he lops off Silas’ right hand as punishment.
Silas curses Henry and the Fengriffen family vowing that the next virgin bride to come to Fengriffen House will be violated and that assault will in turn lead to the fall of Fengriffen. Charles finishes the story by explaining that in later years his grandfather tried to make amends for his evils and thus bequeathed the land on which Silas’ cottage sits to Silas and his family. Charles also mentions that his mother had been a widow prior to marrying his father so Catherine is the first virgin bride in Fengriffen House since the incident.
This all leads to the wild conclusion in which Catherine gives birth to a son with a facial birthmark and a stump instead of a right hand. The birthmark I’m a little sketchy on but I’m sure genetics doesn’t allow for inheriting the result of an axe attack. But, when you’re impregnated by a ghost, I suppose the laws of nature don’t apply. Upon seeing the baby, Charles loses his mind. First he rushes to Silas’ cottage and shoots Silas twice in the eyes thus increasing Silas’ resemblance to the ghost. For his part Silas, just laughs in Charles’ face and seems willing to be killed. Charles then heads for the family burial ground where he takes an axe to Sir Henry’s sarcophagus. Reaching his grandfather’s remains, he drags them from their coffin and bashes them to bits against the side of the sarcophagus.
The film ends with Cushing quoting Exodus 20:5 – “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” This is from the Ten Commandments and, while it sounds impressive, requires a huge leap to relate it to anything that has occurred before it.
I realize this article covered a lot of detail. I wanted to convey a sense of how much is going on in this film. When I first began watching And Now the Screaming Starts!, I was thrilled to discover that the haunting had many different components. But as the film continued, I came to the realization that all the details were not coming together in a coherent story. Why does the ghost need to open windows to enter Fengriffen House when it already seems to be inside? Why are there both a ghostly severed hand and a ghost that is missing a hand? Why does the ghost murder everyone who tries to help Catherine except Peter Cushing who seems like the greatest threat? Why does the ghost have gouged out (shot out?) eyes when it is his son whose eyes were destroyed? How do the housekeeper, the lawyer, and the doctor seem to know so much about the details of the dark family secret? Who killed the lawyer? How does Silas Jr. himself seem to know exactly what is going on (including knowing Dr. Pope’s name and when Catherine is giving birth)? Why does Silas Jr. seem to willingly allow himself to be shot and killed? How do ghosts father children? And, most importantly, why didn’t Charles just avoid this whole mess and have the wedding and the wedding night elsewhere? In the end, I did enjoy And Now the Screaming Starts! for the performances and the visual style. The narrative, however, leaves much to be desired.
~~And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Roger Marshall; Based on the novella Fengriffen by David Case; Starring Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Stephanie Beacham, Ian Ogilvy, Geoffrey Whitehead & Guy Rolfe; Available on Blu-Ray from Severin Films and as part of the three film Amicus Collection on DVD from Dark Sky Films.
This is the Amicus portion of my contributions to The Second Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. My Hammer related article can be found here. See my cohort’s contribution to the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors to the blogathon by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for hosting a truly fun event.