By '73, Amicus Productions were at the height of their portmanteau horror picture game, having made a massive amount of money on both Tales From the Crypt ('72), and its sequel, Vault of Horror ('73). Founders Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg had crafted responses to Hammer Films' costumed period pieces that were legitimately profitable - a series of anthologies that told modern campfire tales, full of morally dubious (not to mention murderous) men, who learned their lessons in the most grotesquely macabre ways possible. These motion pictures were never well received critically, but that didn't matter. They allowed the company to thrive without a physical studio to their name, as almost all of their output was shot at the famous Shepperton Studios.
So, it was a somewhat odd choice for the duo to abandon the formula that'd made them rich - right in the middle of their most successful run - and create a classically-minded Gothic ghost story that rather closely mirrored the product of their competitor. And Now The Screaming Starts ('73) is a period chiller that doesn't feel too far removed from the AIP Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that Roger Corman was making across the pond. Corman's works - such as House of Usher ('60) and The Masque of the Red Death ('64) - were American cousins to the costumed terrors Hammer was churning out on the regular, but owned a cheaper facade due to their lower budgets. Amicus replicated that style of fast, cheap, yet never chintzy to try and evoke the same sort of spook show horror usually reserved for dust covered 19th Century tomes.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker - who helmed The Vampire Lovers ('70) for Hammer, and Asylum ('72) for Amicus - And Now the Screaming Starts brings the novel Fengriffen (by horror writer David Case) to life with soft focus melodramatics. Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) arrives at her opulent home in the English countryside. She's pledged to be married to handsome, wealthy land baron Charles Fengriffen (Ian Oglivy), expecting a lifetime of comfortable bliss. Only on their wedding night, Catherine is savagely raped by the ghost of a one-armed man, following visions of the same, stumpy specter inhabiting every portrait the mansion houses.
Dr. Whittle (Patrick Magee) - the house physician - suggests the whole affair was merely a hallucination, brought on by a case of nerves. Catherine believes him, but the servants seem unsure and afraid. When several of them are killed after trying to take Catherine away from her ornate prison, she becomes highly suspicious of a woodsman who lives on the estate named Silas (Geoffrey Whitehead) who strongly resembles the spirit she saw. Unable to confront the escalating madness that's gripped the estate, Dr. Whittle calls in Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing) from London, who coaxes Fengriffen into admitting this his family and this house are cursed, and that his new bride may be the true victim these tormented spirits desire most. In their smutty way, Subotsky and Rosenberg had bankrolled Baker's stagey answer to Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby ('68) - a demented fable about male possession that trades New York brownstones for bustiers.
Baker's usual tight, simple direction lets us feel trapped in this rather beautifully designed, wood-paneled manor along with Beacham's increasingly harried wife, our closeness accenting the actress' rather over the top performance (the term "voloptuous histrionics" comes to mind). Amicus' resident cinematographer Denys N. Coop (The Birthday Party ['68]) does his best to sell us on the reality of this obviously set bound descent into pompously ornate horror. But when combined with Subotsky's crude touches - the screenwriter-by-trade loved to amplify the more lurid elements of each movie they produced through uncredited script passes - And Now the Screaming Starts lives up to its rather sensationalistic title. Though it may be all dressed up in frilly garments, this movie's never above getting a little mud and blood on its freshly polished riding boots.
Like just about every other movie they ever made, And Now the Screaming Starts resembles a low-brow marriage between opportunism and pure love for the genre. Subotsky and Rosenberg were trying to fill a financial void that their direct competitor had left - moving their trademark monster movies into more modern settings (see: Dracula AD 1972 ['72]) usually reserved for Amicus productions - by assuming the position on a throne Hammer still owned. The result is a rather entertaining perversion; a traditional spooky yarn filtered through the prism of exploitation hucksterism. By the time we get to crawling, severed hands and attempts at self-inflicted butcher's knife abortions, we know we're (un)safely in the hands of two men looking to make a dollar by wrapping up a familiar gift in the yellow-stained paper of unsavory pulp.
And Now The Screaming Starts is available now on Blu as part of Severin Films' The Amicus Collection box set.