Every time a hospitalized man wakes up, he’s lost another limb. Meanwhile, London police are on the hunt for a serial killer who drains the blood from his victims before dispatching their bodies. Also meanwhile (again), a Nazi-ish regime is being thwarted from an insider in an Eastern European country. Again meanwhile (and also again), I’m thoroughly confused. And you will be too! Welcome to Scream and Scream Again (1970), a joint Amicus/AIP production that’s as delightful as it is confounding.
Released in the U.K. in January 1970, and the U.S. the following month, Scream and Scream Again enjoyed box office success, bringing in over $1.2 million U.S. against a $350,000 budget. The film has enjoyed somewhat of a reappraisal over the years, with critics succumbing to its seemingly nonsensical charms. And you should too, as long as you keep a notebook and pen nearby.
Okay, it’s not that out of whack. But as I’ve described above, three seemingly disparate story lines are trotted out, and only in the last twenty minutes are they corralled into something resembling coherence. And to that I say (as I often do around these parts): who cares? I don’t need Swiss precision; sometimes a busted Timex that’s right twice a day will do the trick. And trust me, there’s plenty to keep your cranium occupied besides worrying about plot resolution.
Speaking of plotz, let’s check them out, shall we? First Strand: A jogger makes his way through London, and collapses from an apparent heart attack. He is awoken in hospital by a mysteriously gorgeous nurse as she checks on him. After she leaves the room, he pulls back the covers to discover one of his legs has been cut off. Cue screaming. The film cuts back to him intermittingly – another scene, another limb. Strand Two: A presumably Eastern European neo-fascist organization (not unlike the you know whos from you know when) is dealing with some business about a foreign soldier shot down behind enemy lines (lost my notebook) and a higher ranking official working his way up even higher by applying Spock’s nerve pinch on his superiors. (Found my notebook again!) Strand Three: A debonair lothario is killing off London’s hippest young ladies by sucking their blood after a night in the clubs. (Which apparently includes listening to ‘60s mod rockers The Amen Corner, who provide a super groovy theme song.) It’s up to London’s finest (Scotland Yard? Where’s that notebook…) to track him down.
So, eventually Strand Two rubs uglies with Strand Three while Strand One sits idly by like an emasculated cuckold. (Well, he does tie in, but if I told you how I would be giving away an important plot point, which the more I think about it, would probably be helpful.) The connective tissue between each strand is none other than Vincent Price, in another patented reserved madman role. And that isn’t a slight; he could have done them all as far as I’m concerned. And when he wasn’t doing them, Peter Cushing was – and he briefly appears here in Strand Two. But don’t get too used to him. (Hit the loo and you’re screwed.) Oh and Christopher Lee briefly shows up as a government official with a vested interest in all parties. So, he’s ALSO the connective tissue. There’s a lot of tissue going on.
As the strands unfurl across the screen, a realization comes to those who’ve decided to stick around for the duration: Scream and Scream Again is a tongue in cheek spoof. It’s a spoof of police procedurals, Cold War espionage (in a World War costume), and of Mad Doctor horror. Intriguing elements to be sure, and very British cinema for the time, complete with a jazzy soundtrack that would put today’s audiences more in mind of Austin Powers than Hammer Horror. None of the disparate tones can be taken terribly serious; the altered Nazi logo alone will have one waiting for Mel Brooks himself to goosestep in the background. Of course, with any good spoof, the cast plays it straight; British comic actor Alfred Marks leads the charge as Detective Bellaver, bringing the right amount of deadpan exasperation to his role that we’re always delighted to find in British horror. (Frenzy, The Abominable Doctor Phibes host some of my favorite cops.)
But the real draw is the first time grouping of Price, Cushing, and Lee. (Now there’s a law firm.) However, in keeping with the whole disjointed enterprise, all three do not appear together at the same time. (And I would hedge my bets on the scene at the end between Lee and Price – there’s not a two shot in sight.) But as I said, there’s enough going on, and Marks’ presence pulls you through the production when our trio are absent from the screen.
The film doesn’t really chase the chills; other than our poor amputee, the horror is more or less suggested until the grand finale in Price’s lab. But it never keeps you less than intrigued, and even manages to showcase a crackerjack car chase between the coppers and the “Vampire Killer” that takes up a 15 minute chunk of time right in the middle of the film. There is a touch of nudity as well so Amicus and AIP could show audiences that they were hip; a sign of their (slightly) loosening moral standards as the seventies dawned.
Where Scream and Scream Again really flies is in its audacity. Here’s a film that is so sure the separate streams will funnel into a coherent whole that the filmmakers string you along for an hour with a confidence that’s, frankly, quite impressive. The screenplay by Christopher Wicking (To the Devil a Daughter), based on the novel The Disorientated Man by Peter Saxon, cuts out an important piece of the puzzle – the bad guys are aliens. On second thought, that knowledge would just make the story more confusing. (*burns notebook in effigy*) But the script is mainly concerned with motion, is light on exposition (until the end), and breezes by in a tidy 95 minutes before you have a chance to attempt to try to possibly maybe figure out what the hell is going on.
And director Gordon Hessler is on hand to guarantee that doesn’t happen. Fresh off of working with Lee and Price in ’69 on The Oblong Box, he isn’t flashy but knows a good hodgepodge when he sees one. He actually manages to keep an even tone amongst all the hubbub and different set ups, which has got to count for something.
All I’m saying is this: if you watch, don’t complain that it doesn’t make sense – the movie is fully aware of that, thank you very much. Just sit back, enjoy the groovy soundtrack, the sights of swinging London, a couple of legends having fun, and embrace the absurd – with whatever limbs you have left.
Scream and Scream Again is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES