Sunday, 19 May 2013

FEATURE: AMICUS / AIP 'SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN' WITH COLOUR GALLERY


Peter Saxon’s book The Disoriented Man was published in 1966, and were it not for the fact that it inspired the first-ever (and highly contentious) pairing of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, it may well have disappeared into obscurity long ago. As a piece of pulp fiction, it offers up some energetic plotting, but by the time it made its way on to the screen, little enough of the original material was left in place. Amicus co-head Milton Subotsky saw great potential in the book however, and after snatching up the rights, he proceeded to adapt it to screenplay form himself. The picture wasn’t intended to be a vehicle for the genre’s biggest super stars, but when Amicus struck a deal with American International Pictures to secure added financing, the project took on a life of its own…


The story deals with an apparent government conspiracy involving a string of grisly murders and even stranger abductions. Intrepid Detective Superintendant Bellaver (Alfred Marks) is on the case, with the assistance of brash pathologist David Sorel (Christopher Matthews). Sorel discovers a link between the strange goings-on and the experiments of the mysterious Dr. Browning (Vincent Price), but the intervention of shadowy government official Freemont (Christopher Lee) throws the investigation into jeopardy…


An ardent fan of science fiction, fantasy and genteel horror, Milton Subotsky was a staunch believer in the “less is more” school of genre film making. He was a derivative screenwriter, and directors who found themselves in charge of filming his scripts frequently found themselves struggling to overcome their deficiencies. Subotsky was also fond of taking over his productions in the editing room, thus creating further friction with his filmmakers. More than once, he would claim to have “salvaged” one of Freddie Francis’ pictures in the editing room, an allegation that made the pragmatic cinematographer-turned-director get a little hot under the collar.


In short, Subotsky saw himself as a hands-on, creative producer - a la Val Lewton. In the case of Scream And Scream Again, however, his control was virtually non-existent. Having enlisted AIP to provide financial assistance, he sat by helplessly as they took control of the picture. They brought in Gordon Hessler to direct, based on his work on their previous Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Oblong Box (the first film to co-star Price and Lee, with the latter reduced to a cameo appearance). Hessler didn’t like Subotsky’s script one bit and brought in his favored screenwriter, Christopher Wicking, to do a complete rewrite. 

 
Subotsky was furious, but AIP put their faith in the more youthful and innovative approach of their writer and director and backed the decision. When filming commenced, Subotsky started coming on to the set, as was his wont; Hessler found him meddling and obtrusive, though he liked him on a personal level, and eventually asked line producer Louis M. Heyward to intercede. Never one to mince words, Heyward blocked Subotsky from the set - a very strong move indeed, when one considers that he was still credited as the film’s producer. Hessler favored a non-linear approach to the editing and storytelling, which sat in contrast with Subotsky’s more conservative approach - thus, he was also blocked from tinkering with the film in editing, and he surely had kittens when he saw the deliberately obtuse, even confusing film unspooling for the first time. Hessler also brought a matter of fact quality to the blood letting, resulting in a film with a bit more blood (and nudity) than was the norm for Amicus. At the end of the day, the film grossed a ton of money - its takings no doubt improved by the impressive roster of stars. Subotsky, for his part, claimed to be baffled; he didn’t think much of the finished film, though inevitably his feelings were colored by his unpleasant behind the scenes battles with the AIP brass.


As a film, Scream and Scream Again is too often under appreciated for what it ISN’T, as opposed to being embraced for what it IS. In many respects, it can be seen as a forerunner to the X Files TV show, with Sorel and his female assistant (Judy Bloom) functioning as a sort of “flower power” era version of Mulder and Scully. The overall theme of paranoia and distrust also links it into the more overtly political sci-fi films of the past, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse thrillers and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hessler and Wicking were outspoken admirers of Siegel in fact, and sought to deliver a combination of Body Snatchers-style sci-fi and the two fisted approach of the director’s crime thrillers, such as Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff. 


The end result is a work of brazen style and energy, vacillating between various plot strands, all of which pull together at the end of the picture. Viewers accustomed to a more linear, coherent approach have long described the film as incoherent - a view shared by Vincent Price, for what it’s worth - but more patient, open minded viewers are likely to disagree. While the film is definitely difficult to follow the first time around, it is never boring - and by the end it all pulls together in a satisfactory manner. Typical of the film’s “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, it can be classified as a horror film, a thriller, a sci-fi film, a police procedural, even a political allegory. Whether it is successful in blending these strands is open to debate, but it marks a welcome departure from the more staid product that was typical of Amicus and AIP at that stage in the game; compared to Hessler’s previous picture, the stillborn Oblong Box, it is a real breath of fresh air: stylish, engaging and inventive, where the previous film was staid, tedious and predictable.


Where the film really loses points, for many fans, is in the use of its three stars. As noted previously, the film was not specifically designed as a starring vehicle for Price, Lee and Cushing. Indeed, when Subotsky first optioned the material and wrote the script, Price wouldn’t have been a realistic prospect, given his contractual ties to AIP. It was Sam Arkoff who realized that, working in tandem, they could finally engage the three big “titans of terror” on the same poster - and sooner than find a way of accommodating them all properly, the urge was simply to sign them on and shoehorn them in wherever possible. It could have been a budgetary restriction, but it’s clear that they could have cast all three actors in suitable, meaty roles.


Lee would have seemed a natural for the role of the steely and villainous Konratz, while Cushing would have been quite at home as Bellaver. Price, for his part, was perfect casting for Dr. Browning - and indeed, he would be cast in the part. Instead of making the best of this “dream team,” however, the decision was made to put Cushing in a small cameo appearance, while putting Lee in an important but still-smallish part as the shadowy government agent who may be playing both sides of the equation. 


While this is regrettable, in a way, one is hard pressed to criticize the performances as they stand. Alfred Marks, best known in the UK as a comic, gives a terrific, scene stealing account of himself as the harried and sardonic Bellaver. “Copper” roles in British horror are frequently of the plodding variety - see Cushing as Inspector Quennell in The Blood Beast Terror for another noteworthy exception - but Marks invests the role with much shading, nuance and credibility. He comes off as a perfectly efficient and intelligent professional, albeit one who has been rendered a tad callous by the nature of his profession. Marks delighted Hessler by improvising many scenes - just look at the marvelous scene wherein Hessler’s camera follows him through the squad room as he fires off one great ad lib after another, as when he picks up a sandwich, sniffs it and says “Smells like cheese, looks like ham” (takes a bite) “Not far off - it’s chicken!”. Marks’ dynamic performance breathes life into scenes that are typically the bane of many horror films and thrillers of the era: the police procedural bits.


As the ice cold villain, Konratz, Marshall Jones is truly imposing. Jones made plenty of appearances on British TV in the 60s and 70s, nabbing guest bits on City Beneath the Sea and Division 4, but his film work is spotty - he did, however, play three roles for Hessler: as Konratz in this film, a sympathetic priest in The Cry of the Banshee, and an actor with a shady past in Murders in the Rue Morgue. This is certainly his best role, not to mention his most substantial one, and he clearly relishes the chance to dominate so many scenes. The part requires him to play it completely devoid of pity and emotion, and Jones never disappoints.


As for the three stars, Price gets the showiest part, and he plays it with a bit more sincerity than usual at this stage in the game - though he does mug it up a bit during the fight scene with Jones towards the end. Price had risen to prominence on the stage, and his background in the theatre put him out of fashion in the 1950s, with the rise of “Actors Studio” almuni such as Montogomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Price found himself typed as a heavy in horror films due to such popular hits as Andre De Toth’s House of Wax and William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, and he embraced his image with tongue in cheek glee. By the late 60s, however, Price was growing discontent with the quality of the films he was being offered. Scream and Scream Again would prove to be a highlight during this period, but apart from continuing his friendship with Lee (they bonded over laughs during the making of The Oblong Box) and making a new friend in Cushing, he didn’t appear to recognize the film’s merits when the topic was raised in interviews.


Lee’s part is smaller, though of equal import in the narrative, and he does a very good job with what he has to work with. The role affords him a chance to play it “straight,” without any hint of anything supernatural, and if it doesn’t give him any real challenges, he still approaches it seriously and without condescension. Cushing fares the worst of the three, in so far as screen time is concerned. He plays a senior officer, part of the vaguely Nazi-esque military organization that employs Jones, and he’s basically required to chew out Jones before being offed in his first scene. True to form, Cushing performs with fire and intensity, but it’s a minor appearance and doesn’t give him a chance to really shine. The remainder of the cast performs quite capably, as well, especially the late Michael Gothard. Gothard, later to appear in Ken Russell’s notorious The Devils, as the crooked exorcist Father Barre, plays a so-called “vampire” who drinks blood from the slashed wrists of various female victims.


The film moves like a house on fire, and it also looks terrific thanks to the contribution of the gifted cinematographer John Coquillon. Coquillon had previously shot Michael Reeves’ brilliant Witchfinder General (featuring arguably Vincent Price’s finest genre work) and would soon become Sam Peckinpah’s cinematographer of choice on such pictures as Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron. Like Hessler and Wicking, he was a young, energetic and innovative talent - and the enthusiasm that these men brought to the picture gave it a life and energy that was far removed from so many other, more disposable British “B” pictures of the period. Special note also has to be made of the electrifying jazz score, provided by David Whittaker.


Whittaker would go on to score Vampire Circus and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde for Hammer, and his work here is crucial to the film’s impact. Sadly, for many years, his music was erased on home video due to rights issues - it was only in the mid-90s, when the film was released by Orion as part of a series of Vincent Price movies on VHS, that the score was quietly reinstated; prior to that, the film lumbered under the limp and uninspired electronic doodling of Kendall Schmidt, who performed similar duties on the early VHS and laser disc editions of Witchfinder General and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.


It may not be the “star vehicle” some had in mind, but Scream and Scream Again remains one of the most thrilling British genre films of its era. It’s a feather in the cap for both AIP and Amicus, even if Milton Subotsky remained immune to its charms.


    

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