Gothic horror has fallen by the wayside in the last twenty five years of so. Back when I was a kid, late Saturday night TV was filled with dark and mysterious adventures in dank and haunted castles, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, and any number of buxom women fleeing the spooks and scares that seemed to plague mid 18 th century landed gentry. The big names in gothic horror were Hammer Films (for their series of Dracula and Frankenstein franchises) and American International (for their Poe adaptations). But they weren't the only producers of this sub-genre, Amicus, known primarily for anthology horror, produced And Now the Screaming Starts, based on the novel "Fengriffen" by David Case.
Had the Victorian steam engines of this genre not succumbed to more modern horrors such as The Exorcist, The Omen, Jaws, and later Halloween, Amicus may have joined Hammer Films at the top of the gothic horror pantheon. Alas, such as the case with extinction of steam driven trains at the hands of diesel engines, gothic horror fell from the mainstream and collapsed like Dracula caught in a cleansing beam of sunlight.
And Now the Screaming Starts offers all of the usual mechanics of a typical gothic horror film: The manor house, the clouded history, the naïve heroine, the dashing hero, and the man of science (Peter Cushing) who assails the supernatural with the awesome power of enlightenment science until all of the shadows are illuminated and all the ghosts called to account for their action.
Catherine (Stephanie Beacham), betrothed to Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy) moves to stately Fengriffen Manor with all the hope and wonder of a young woman about to marry into the landed gentry. And while the manor isn't overtly creepy (the scullery maids keep the spider webs to a minimum) one of the family portraits is. As Charles recounts the titles and accounts of his ancestry in the house of Fengriffen, Catherine becomes transfixed by a portrait of Charles' grandfather, Henry Fengriffen (Herbert Lom). Charles though, refuses to say anything about him other than "I don't know much."
A disembodied hand leaps from the portrait and startles Catherine. So begins her slow descent into fear at the hands of the manor house. She is attacked eyeless man, his right cheek scarred red, his right hand severed. Charles suggests she's overtired.
While walking the Fengriffen grounds she meets Silas (Geoffrey Whitehead) a woodsman who lives on the property but is otherwise unattached to the manor. He is hostile to Catherine, though humors her request to see both his hands (which are in a tub of laundry). Silas has the same birthmark on his right cheek as the eyeless ghost.
Catherine begins asking about the woodsman but her queries are diverted. Each night though the attacks get worse. The ghost shatters a window. The ghost ravages her in her sleep. Catherine savages the portrait of Henry Fengriffen before collapsing.
Charles brings in Doctor Whittle (Patrick Magee) to examine her. Perhaps Catherine is delirious from pregnancy? Catherine, though, knows that the house is to blame and begins asking about the past, Silas, and Charles' mysterious grandfather.
No one will tell her anything, and those who give up any information at all, die: the family solicitor, killed, Catherine's personal maid, killed, the maid of the house, killed. Surely all of these deaths are accidental and coincidental, right?
Dr. Whittle calls in man of science Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing) to determine if Catherine is truly crazy. Cushing, as always, turns in a stellar performance that mirrors his best outings as Dr. Van Helsing/Frankenstein for Hammer studios. Pope, unable to determine Catherine's condition, knows that it is related to the history of Henry Fengriffen and, currently, to Silas. He is no believer in the supernatural though, and dismisses hauntings out of hand for more logical explanations.
Silas is probably to blame, but he needs proof.
Like Catherine though, his investigation is stymied, Dr. Whittle dies seconds before divulging the history, and Silas threatens to murder Dr. Pope and Charles if Catherine's baby dies.
Thus, Dr. Pope forces Charles to lay clarify the past, and the curse laid upon the Fengriffen family. The outcome of which will lead to madness and death.
And Now the Screaming Starts follows the storytelling formula used in almost all gothic horror cinema, the first two acts build suspense, the third act reveals the source of the mystery, the finale shows the repercussions. Thus, while the first forty minutes of so seem somewhat slow and repetitive, that is to the genre's benefit. That time allows the script to build a tapestry of dread around poor Catherine that only Dr. Pope can unravel. By the time the revelation of the curse appears in the third act, all of the plot pieces fall into place. Generally in these films there is no clear good or evil. Certainly Henry Fengriffen was a rabble rousing asshole, and a rapist, but he did try to recompense Silas' grandfather in the aftermath of his drunken rampage. Surely Silas is far enough removed from his grandfather's sad legacy that he could not make the conditions of the curse come to pass. Surely Charles, an enlightened man of the 18 th century isn't bound by the trespasses of his ancestry.
But "surely" isn't so sure.
While Corman managed to capture the gloom and darkness of a manor, Roy Ward Baker allows the sets to exist as if the manor house is actively lived in. In fact, I'd say Fengriffen Manor is the cleanest and least creepy gothic mansion ever captured on film. There are no dungeons, no dank medieval passageways, no velvet drapes to flutter in the midnight breeze. In fact, Baker shoots And Now the Screaming Starts almost as if it was a TV episode. Considering his background contained a whole lot of television (The Avengers, The Saint, etc…) that isn't surprising. Also, unlike today's music video-film directors, the directing limitations are only that he eschews sweeping camera work, tight close-ups, and long shots, for more TV style conventions. The actors are usually in center frame, there are usually a few feet of dead space between the camera eye and the actor, and the set.