Tuesday, March 13, 2007

And Now the Screaming Starts!

The surface of the blackboard is void of any attempted-scribble. A man motions towards it. He lifts a virile javelin of chalk. He is Martin Amis – and now the screaming starts!

The music store has a new employee. Nonchalant customers meander between shelves. A strain of sound becomes audible. It is Celine Dion – and now the screaming starts!

A man is standing looking at rye bread in a supermarket. A female employee approaches him by the rear. He turns around. He is Eric Roberts – and now the screaming starts!

Those five words are a perfect end to a narrative fragment – not only is it action-packed, but it can be both an end to a fable and a lead-on to something altogether more extraordinary. It’s a phrase that can act as a linguistic alpha and omega, as flexible as it is startling. The requisite exclamation mark gives only added strength to its glow. And it’s also the name of a 1973 British horror film.

And Now the Screaming Starts!, funnily enough, does not start with quite the cacophony of screaming that one might presuppose. There are a few moments when teasing lips part for a fleeting second, only to unify once again in an ungracious snub to the audience. “When will this screaming start?” I yelled repeatedly at the screen. But yet, in fact, the real question was: when will now arrive?

Luckily for my sanity it did eventually get here, and what lung-collapsing screaming ensued! But first, some sort of synoptic disposition is in order.

With the eighteenth century waddling to its demise, a young lady from the haughty cobblestones of London moves out to the country to join her new husband. He’s the latest drip on the stalactite lineage of the Fengriffen dynasty – his embroidered cufflinks speak of centuries pummelling serfs and bathing in swan milk, while his magnificent mansion oppresses just by the very shake of its curtains. The happy couple are eager to procreate, to continue on that family name in all its avaricious swagger. But soon strange occurrences begin to ignite around the lady. First, upon her initial arrival, she stumbles on a sinister-looking portrait of one of her ancestors-in-law – his scornful stare, chagrin radiating from his furrowed brow. Cue dense musical interludes replete with shrieking strings. Then, finally, this preamble of terror is brought to a head when she sees a dismembered hand scuttling across her corset.

And now the screaming starts?

Damn right it does!

In his essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’, Roland Barthes emphasises the materiality of the vocal warble, and the consequent circumvention of the regular gymnastics of signifier-signified to pure significance. As he states, the “voice bears along directly the symbolic, over the intelligible, the expressive.” Admittedly, he was more concerned with the musicological aspects of verbal utterance. But this line of thought is just as pertinent in the context of screaming. What comes through in a trebly scream is the body, the corporeal interface from which the sonorous tumult is emitted. It defies interpretation – the scream is the shrill incantation to the gods of the basest emotions, to an affect deeply-rooted. Beyond all notions of primary reaction and catharsis, the scream is a bodily release, something pent-up and thrown out from the deepest recesses of the gut.

In And Now the Screaming Starts!, the lady protagonist, Catherine, is able to howl all the coarsest and most high-pitched screams that would be necessary in a film with such a title. Her entire Victorian figure is complicit is each and every scream, her complete somatic self is a furnace brewing up the latest outpouring of emotive pandemonium. This voice has so much grain that it’d send Barthes off into a whirlwind of dementia.

If one were feeling particularly negative, maybe after a harsh day down the mines, one might feel the need to also sticky-tape the adjective ‘grating’ on to that summation. I feel obliged to do that very thing. As so unequivocally suggested by the name, the film is loaded with screaming, and it can get slightly tiresome after the fourth or fifth discharge, especially with paranoid neighbours surrounding you, a residential collective already nudged into suspicion-mode by the blaring of sub-par Megadeth albums at three in the morning.

However, it’s not enough simply to examine the intricacies of the screaming. One must delve further into the reasons behind this screaming. What in the name of Michael Biehn’s lack of sitcom cameos can be the cause for all these bellowing tributes to the Slasher genre?

Well, as Peter Cushing’s Dr Pope so eloquently puts it, “sexual relations with demons.” Yes, that’s right, a crime viewed in many parts of the country as even more heinous than necrophilia. But, c’mon, backtrack this damn review a few notches more, and give us the sequential progression we require to fully fathom the film.

So, the hand – that human paw missing a bodily accomplice – starts to terrorise poor Catherine. She sits minding her business, fumbling through the latest issue of The Nation, intermittently scratching a garter or two, when suddenly, from behind a window cobweb, out springs that dastardly hand. To underscore her growing feelings of panic and dread, the cursed portrait would also ceaselessly throw dirty looks at her fragile countenance.

What was the reaction of her husband Charles? Did he do away with that hand? Did he quote the analogous histrionics in Evil Dead 2? Surely he at least re-enacted that scene from Aliens blindfolded?

None of the above. He accused her of acting like her namesake Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion – it’s a case of externalising the insanity latched onto the lead character’s cerebellum, that is, neurosis projected outward into the film world. She catches sight of a man with eyes plucked from his skull – so do we. Yet, each time something or other happens, someone runs up to her with a plate of “ain’t nothing there, ‘tis all in your head, love.” The bulbous tentacles of mania have wrapped around her head, suffocating good sense and extinguishing clarity – or so the general consensus pronounces.

But Charles isn’t all that inept. After a while – I assume spurred on by annoyance at the amount of screaming reverberating around his house – he confers with the family doctor, Dr Whittle. Sadly, this obsequious idler is inept. However, he is played by Patrick Magee, best known for portraying the wheelchair-bound writer who gives Malcolm McDowell a whole heap of shit in A Clockwork Orange. Alas, in this film, even with full-mobility, he’s fairly passive. Things don’t get righteously shook up until the arrival of the benevolent spirit of Peter Cushing as the aforementioned Dr Pope. Up to that point, not simply had Catherine’s own encounters with spectral forces been brushed off as residue from her lunacy, but an array of deaths had been disregarded as nothing more than “an accident”, or as a result of the foul pranks of “natural causes.”

Dr Pope, rather than carelessly embracing the easy options, decides to give this unusual situation the intense critical examination for which it cries out. Putting on his analyst hat, he interrogates Catherine’s dreams, pondering on what repressed urges lie awaiting-discovery underneath the sheen of manifest dream-content. He lounges on a divan, flicking through a copy of Malleus Maleficarum, that legendary textbook for would-be witch-hunters. Finally, he demands answers that will tie-up all the loose-ends in the plot, and allow him to move on to his next schlocky horror picture. Nervous under the glare from Cushing’s menacing cummerbund, Truth’s dictatorial custodian Charles relents and spills all the words of resolution we’ve been waiting over an hour for.

The legend goes back to the time of Charles’ grandfather Henry, that same grimace graffitied inside a frame on the stairway, who led the good name of Fengriffen into disrepute during his time as head of the family. Cue flashback. Henry didn’t simply shirk an social commitment here and there, or use his cutlery in a fashion offensive to the Nazis of etiquette. No, he was a full-on debauchee. There was nothing he liked more than revelling in some Sadean pleasures, especially if it was whilst flanked by a troop of peasants rejected from The Decameron for being too sleazy.

Looking like Herbert Lom from The Dead Zone, old Henry decided to prematurely end a drinking/sexing session in order to visit his woodsman, the newly-married Silas. Unlike Kevin Bacon, this woodsman preferred the company of adult women. Anyway, off march Henry and his entourage, heaving ales and merriment with them. Embarrassingly they arrive just as Silas and his good lady wife are preparing to reap the benefits of a church blessing. Unluckily for Silas, Henry takes a shine to Mrs Silas, and, with his cohorts reprimanding the spouse, the scene descends into a poor man’s Straw Dogs, with some split-second raping and a faint groan from the arbiters of good taste.

After this, in a blur of anger, Silas proclaims a curse on Henry and his kin, whereupon the next virgin-lovely to live in the Fengriffen castle will be raped either by him or his ghost, depending on life expectancy statistics from 1795.

That there, my friends, is the cause of all that fuss, all that terrorising of hapless Catherine, all those silly contorted faces, all those period-setting tracking shots, all those dull methods of accentuating tension, all those soft-focus bosom shots, all those week-long pregnancies, all that stalling in hackneyed dialogue, all those allusions to better films, all that screen time without Cushing, all those purposeless digressions, all those repetitive plot-points, all those paltry effects, all those strolls through the woods, all that sense of anti-climax, and all that damn screaming!


Blogger Emily Maher said...

THANK YOU!!!! I started watching this the other night with a friend (it was on cable, and the title sounded absolutely frightening) but we both fell asleep about halfway through; before everything was revealed. Well, before anything was revealed. I woke up confused, and have been trying to find a summary of the movie that explains the unattached hand and "accidental" deaths of nearly the entire cast. And I found this. So, thank you.

11:47 pm  

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