Britain’s Amicus film studio was in many ways a sort of Hammer Jr. in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Its output is often confused with Hammer’s–so many of its films also star Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee–but they can be distinguished by their wider use of source material. No Dracula or Frankenstein sequels here, but anthologies based on short stories by Robert Bloch and less well-known horror authors, plus original story ideas, and the occasional obscure novel brought to light.
This particular film, with its lurid title, is based on a ghostly gothic novella with the more sedate title of Fengriffen. Its implied horrors are spiced up with some shocking ’70s red-paint gore, and the extensive use of a bloody severed hand crawling around. Its heroine and hero, an extremely pretty young couple (played by the extremely pretty young Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy), are supported by a cast of distinguished actors in small roles. And, yes, one of them is Peter Cushing.
Like Dragonwyck, it’s a Rebecca-ish story, and this film gives us a Rebecca-ish opening voiceover:
“In my dreams, I go back to the year 1795, to a time when I was happy. I was on my way to be married. I was going to the house in which I was to find my days filled with fear, my nights filled with horror.”
Sir Charles Fengriffen and his fiancée Catherine are riding toward his home, Fengriffen, in a carriage. The couple are not yet married, so they are accompanied and chaperoned by her Aunt Edith. Catherine is viewing her future home for the first time.
Fengriffen House, when we first see it, is a place many people will immediately recognize. Oakley Court is a 5-star hotel just outside of Windsor today, but in the 1960s and ’70s it was abandoned. British film studios often made use of its handsome exterior and rooms within. The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be the most famous example. Some viewers may feel the urge to sing “There’s a liiiiiiiiiiight, over at the Frankenstein Place” at the sight of it.
I’m a little bit sad looking at it for this review; I had made reservations to have tea there in July, and of course that whole trip had to be cancelled.
Inside, Catherine tours the rooms of her new home. Her first impression, and question are, “What a lovely old house. Is there a ghost?”
“Ghosts galore,” Charles assures her, and lists a few in a joking manner. He doesn’t mention the one that will be so destructive to both of them. At this point, he doesn’t believe in it.
The couple goes up onto the open gallery above the Great Hall, where Charles shows his intended bride Fengriffen family portraits going back at least 200 years–fox hunters, witch hunters… And who is this? Catherine wonders as she looks at a scowling, mid-1700s portrait of Herbert Lom.
That’s Charles’s grandfather, Sir Henry.
Catherine stares at the painting, entranced. Sir Henry’s eyes seem faintly to glow, like Barnabas Collins’s, as they gaze intensely into hers. She’s only briefly distracted when her fiancé draws her attention to his father’s portrait, but as soon as Charles has gone to see if her room is ready, she heads back to stare at Sir Henry some more.
A bloody hand bursts through the painting, reaching for her.
Catherine screams and Charles comes running. The portrait is undamaged. “It’s nothing,” she tells him. Charles accepts this, and takes her over to show her his own brand new portrait.
This strange and disturbing incident does not deter Catherine from marrying Charles. The next scene is their wedding party, and the happy couple are just showing their guests out the door before they go upstairs. He romantically carries her into her bedroom, where he leaves her briefly while they both change out of their wedding clothes and into nightgowns and robes.
The camera and an ominous sting of music take us back to Sir Henry’s portrait before panning to the gallery floor, where a severed hand is crawling along.
Sir Henry’s hand, one might assume at this point… But that would be wrong.
We are not yet 7 minutes into this film, and are already at the key incident.
Catherine has changed into a lacy nighty, and sits combing her hair and primping at her dressing table. Behind her, one of the stained-glass, mullioned windows pops open. She closes it before she gets into bed.
What happens next may be a dream. At least, that’s what Catherine will tell herself later. Drowsing as she lies waiting for her bridegroom, she doesn’t notice that the key turns in the door, locking it. The candles at bedside dim. Suddenly, there is a hand on her face and a severed stump of an arm waves before her.
She screams. Charles, in his adjacent dressing room, hears her and tries to get into the room. He first attempts to break down the door by throwing himself at it, then runs downstairs to fetch one of the old battleaxes hanging on the wall. Catherine is screaming all the while.
We don’t see what’s happening to her–a close-up remains on her horrified face with a man’s hand over it–but we can guess at it from later events.
The screaming stops just as Charles finally hacks the door open. Catherine, sobbing, flings herself into his arms.
While the young couple cling to each other, the housekeeper Mrs. Luke (Rosalie Crutchley, probably best remembered for another housekeeper role, the creepy Mrs. Dudley in the original film version of The Haunting) comes in. She closes the window, which has popped open again, draws the curtains, and goes out again without saying a word about the screaming or the broken door. She seems to know what’s going on.
Charles follows her out, and the two have a brief conversation on the stairs. “It was all in her imagination,” he tells Mrs. Luke.
“Why that?” is her cryptic reply.
In the next scene, presumably the next day, Charles is talking with his lawyer, Mr. Maitland (Guy Rolfe, who was the grotesquely grinning Mr. Sardonicus in the William Castle movie of that name). Charles is updating his will; his new wife will be the principal beneficiary until they have children.
This isn’t at all unusual, but at the mention of children, Maitland looks at him as if he’s suggested leaving the estate to the kitchen cats.
Second night. Catherine and Charles make another attempt at having a honeymoon. While they sit on the bed kissing, she glances over her husband’s shoulder, out the window, and sees the face of a grinning man with his eyes gouged out. It’s definitely not Sir Henry, and the bedroom is on the second floor.
Catherine is startled and disturbed by what she sees, but when Charles turns to look, no one’s there. Determined not to let these bizarre and gory hallucinations spoil her happiness, she firmly pulls her husband down to her.
Not that married life puts a stop to further hallucinations. When she stops to look at Sir Henry’s portrait, that same eyeless ghost appears from it, grinning and waving its bloody stump of a right arm at her.
On a walk around the estate grounds, Catherine finds the Fengriffen family graveyard, and the ivy-covered tomb of Sir Henry. A man is there. He looks just like the apparition (both are Geoffrey Whitehead), but his eyes are intact and he has a large red birthmark on his face.
When she mentions this man to Charles, he tells her that the fellow is a woodsman. He lives on the estate in a cottage of his own, but doesn’t actually work for the Fengriffens. Charles is evasive about the circumstances.
Catherine then asks the housekeeper, who doesn’t really give her an answer either. Mrs. Luke says that she’s not responsible for the outdoor servants, but then admits that the man isn’t one of the servants.
Catherine continues to investigate the next time she’s out walking, and heads for the woodsman’s cottage. She finds him there, and talks to him while he’s doing his washing; his arms in a tub of water up to the elbows. When she asks him to take his hands out, he makes a prolonged game of showing her first his left hand, then finally his right hand. He’s got both hands, but he obviously knows about the stumpy-armed ghost.
He tells her that he’s “Silas, son of Silas,” and he’s lived here at the cottage all his life. Sir Charles’s grandfather–Sir Henry–gave his family the property.
When Charles won’t explain this to her, Catherine goes to Maitland. The lawyer says that he can’t give her that information without consulting Charles first, but he will try to come to Fengriffen tonight and speak to them both about it.
After she leaves, the camera goes to the window of the lawyer’s office, where the ghostly severed hand sits on the windowsill as if it’s been eavesdropping on the conversation.
Question: How does a severed hand listen in? It’s got no ears.
The lawyer does not make it to the house. While riding through the woods toward Fengriffen that night, he’s thrown by his spooked horse and killed by a cloaked man, presumably Silas, with an axe.
When Maitland doesn’t show up, Charles goes out searching for him and finds his riderless horse and then his body under a tree.
Meanwhile, Catherine sits in the beautiful library reading Milton’s Comus. The stained-glass, mullioned window opens; she tries to close it, and the eyeless apparition appears outside. He shoves his stump through the glass.
Catherine runs out of the room and into her aunt just outside the door. When the two women venture back into the library, the glass is unbroken. Catherine runs upstairs and into Charles, who has blood on his hands from the dead lawyer. She faints.
She’s lying in bed the next morning, and the family doctor, Dr. Whittle (Patrick Mcgee), is examining her.
“It could be one of two things,” he tells the concerned young couple. “A boy or a girl.”
Catherine is not as delighted at this announcement as one might expect a newlywed lady to be.
Down in the library, over a decanter of claret, Dr. Whittle suggests that Charles take his wife away from the house to have her baby. Charles replies, “Certainly not.” All heirs of Fengriffen have been born at the house, and he isn’t going to break with tradition.
The conversation tells us that Charles knows as much about the family curse as everyone else–except Catherine–but he’s a modern young man from the Age of Reason and doesn’t believe in this type of superstitious nonsense.
Dr. Whittle confesses that he believes in it since Lawyer Maitland was murdered. He thinks Charles should tell Catherine, but Charles won’t do this either. He doesn’t want to feed her imagination during this delicate time. He’s certain that Maitland’s murderer is an ordinary man who will be found. Who must be found.
The local constable does question Silas, since the lawyer was killed with a long-handled axe like the woodsman’s–which was left at the crime scene next to Maitland’s body. Silas denies that it’s his, or that he was in the woods that night.
“It wasn’t me,” he tells Charles. “My time is coming.”
The murder investigation seems to be dropped there.
Catherine mopes through the first months of pregnancy. She’s not eating. When Mrs. Luke urges her to “think of the baby,” she replies that she doesn’t want the baby.
“You know why,” she tells the housekeeper. “You all know, but you won’t tell me. What is it?”
Eventually, Mrs. Luke relents and agrees to show her something. She goes downstairs to the library and fetches a huge family Bible that’s hidden in the back of a top shelf behind row of other books. A Fengriffen family tree is written on the flyleaf. One name below Sir Henry’s is scratched out and obliterated, as if Charles’s father Simon had a sibling.
This doesn’t make sense with what we’re shown later. I’ll discuss that further down.
Mrs. Luke carries the Bible back upstairs, but the house is suddenly in turmoil. The library window opens and wind blasts through the Great Hall by the time she reaches the stairs. Portraits all along the stairs and up on the gallery swing violently back and forth. A mirror shatters as she walks past. The chandelier swings and creaks. The eyeless ghost pops out of every portrait she passes it. She presses onward.
At the top of the stairs, the phantom hand comes at her. She grabs at her own throat as if choking, and tumbles down the stairs. Which is where Catherine finds her and the book sprawled on the floor.
The maid says that Mrs. Luke must have tripped and fallen, but Catherine is not convinced.
This ghostly murder hasn’t prevented her from looking at the family tree. The Bible sits open on a stand in the library for the rest of the movie, and Catherine has the opportunity to examine the scratched-out name closely with a magnifying glass. The most she, and we, can make out is part of a curling initial letter that might be an S or an L.
By this time, Aunt Edith wants to leave; she’s barely been present since she arrived at Fengriffen and there’s no reason for her to be in the film any longer. She wants Catherine to come back to London with her, and just for this suggestion also gets ghost-hand-strangled. In Aunt Edith’s case, the hand is a solid prop rather than transparent, and now that I’ve put the two photos together I can see that one is the right hand, but the one that throttles Mrs. Luke is a leftie.
Catherine puts all these deaths together: all these people were trying to tell her the secret of Fengriffen or wanted her to leave the house. Charles has rational reason for each–a murder by Silas, a bad fall down the stairs, a heart attack–but he’s concerned enough to offer to pay Silas to go away and leave them alone (Silas won’t go).
Catherine’s mental state deteriorates. She takes a big knife from the sideboard and slashes the portrait of Sir Henry to ribbons. Then she tumbles downstairs herself, but neither she nor the fetus is harmed.
Dr. Whittle prescribes a tonic that is supposed to calm her and help the baby. Catherine takes it outdoors and tosses the bottle off the little bridge that spans the decorative lake. In a scene that The Changeling will steal, by the time she’s back in her room, the dripping wet bottle sits on the nightstand. Head between her hands, Catherine laughs as if she’s truly going mad.
Charles and the doctor then send for a specialist from London, asking him to treat Catherine. A century later, this specialist would be a psychologist but it’s 1795 and they don’t have a word for that yet.
Dr. Pope arrives and, finally, halfway through, Peter Cushing enters the story.
He starts picking up clues as to the trouble at Fengriffen even before he speaks to Catherine. He makes note of the damaged wall in the gallery, where Sir Henry’s portrait used to hang. He sees the creepy woodsman hanging around outside the house at night. He chats with the maid, who has graduated at a young age to housekeeper following Mrs. Luke’s “accident” and observes the knife on the sideboard that’s been recently resharpened–the blade was dulled after hacking at canvas. The maid says of her mistress, “It’s a priest she needs not a doctor.”
When he finally goes to Catherine’s room, he notices the axe-mangled lock on the door.
Like a modern psychologist, he asks Catherine about her dreams. She tells him about the phantom rape on her wedding night, although she doesn’t go into any more detail about it than what we saw, and then bursts into tears. Even though he tries to hint to her that it was only a bad dream, she can’t tell herself that any more. She is by now certain that something horrible did occur that night.
A little later, Dr. Pope will follow her to the library and discover that she’s been reading Malleus Maleficarum, which he describes as “the most sinister classic ever written on the subjects of demonology and witchcraft… Not one scientific fact in 600 pages.”
Catherine’s interest in particular is on the part concerning incubi or, as Dr. Pope terms it, “sexual relations with demons.” By this point it’s perfectly clear to him that Catherine rejects the baby she’s carrying because she doesn’t believe it’s Charles’s, but is the result of that supernatural violation on her wedding night.
He first tries to question Dr. Whittle, who denies that he knows anything about the Fengriffen curse, then says he can’t talk because it’s too dangerous. Dr. Pope insists, and Whittle turns out to be absolutely right: before he can say more than “There is a woodsman on the Fengriffen estate,” the poor man is the latest victim to be ghost-strangled and drops dead. The phantom hand has been eavesdropping on the windowsill again.
Finally, it’s Charles who reveals the story of the curse to Dr. Pope. Apparently, as the Fengriffen heir, he’s the only person who can, and won’t drop dead for it.
The story is shown in flashback. Sir Henry was one of those 1700s hell-raising gentlemen who cared for nothing but his own pleasures. One evening, he was enjoying a drinking and wenching party with his friends in the Great Hall, when they decided to burst in on woodsman’s wedding night.
Using the excuse of Jus primae noctis–the legendary reputed right of a medieval lord to have the first go at any woman on his estate–Sir Henry raped the woodsman’s bride and chopped off the man’s right hand when he tried to intervene.
Sir Henry must have felt some remorse about this double atrocity later on, since he was the one who gave the woodsman the property. But in spite of this rather feeble attempt at recompense, the Fengriffens have since been under a curse: the woodsman would be revenged on the next virgin bride to come into the Fengriffen family.
Dr. Pope says that would surely have been Charles’s mother–but no, Charles answers; his mother had been a widow and Charles’s father was her second husband. Catherine was the first virgin bride in the house since Sir Henry’s time.
“Does she know this?” Dr. Pope wonders. He’s still working on a psychological basis for what he believes to be Catherine’s delusion.
“She might have found out,” Charles admits, and asks if Dr. Pope will stay until the baby is born. He’s not an obstetrician, but it’s not as if there’s another doctor or a midwife around and Catherine is very near now to her delivery date.
In fact, the very next scene has Catherine in labor. She asks Dr. Pope to promise that she will be the first person to see the baby, before Charles or anyone else.
The eyeless ghost peeks in through the window during the birth, and Catherine passes out. Silas is also hanging around outside the house, grinning in the rain.
Charles sits waiting anxiously downstairs, until he hears the newborn baby’s first cry. The new housekeeper tells him that it’s “a fine son.”
He goes upstairs to find Catherine asleep, and Dr. Pope isn’t there. So in spite of the doctor’s promise, Charles gets the first peek into the cradle.
He doesn’t like what he sees, and goes tearing off to woodsman s cottage with a pair of loaded pistols. Silas taunts him, but the woodsman’s triumph is short-lived; he gets both his eyes shot out. Dr. Pope has followed Charles, but arrives too late to prevent this murder.
The doctor catches up to Charles at the Fengriffen graveyard, where Charles has taken the woodsman’s axe and is using it to break open his grandfather’s tomb. So he knows now who’s responsible for this tragedy that’s overtaken his family.
When Dr Pope tries to stop him, Charles turns with madness in his eyes and brandishes the axe. This scene gives Ian Ogilvy the unique distinction of menacing both Peter Cushing in this film and Vincent Price in Witchfinder General with axes. I’ve always though it a great pity that he never got a chance at Christopher Lee to complete the trifecta.
Dr. Pope wisely retreats, and Charles returns to his work. Once he has the tomb open, he pulls out Sir Henry’s skeletal remains and bashes the bones to pieces against the gravestones. (This grisly ending to the scene was cut from the US release of the film.)
Back at the house, Dr. Pope reports to the servants that their master has gone mad and is wielding an axe before he returns to Catherine’s room. We finally get a look at the baby–a little boy, who has distinct and entirely non-genetic deformities that declare its paternity and the extent of the woodsman’s revenge on the Fengriffens.
The doctor puts the baby down next to its mother, but Catherine wants nothing to do with it. There’s madness in her eyes too, and a strange look of defiance when she does at last pick the baby up.
From opening narration, she appears to have resumed her sanity at a later date, but we are left to wonder how Catherine managed to go on from this moment, what became of her, her husband, and the child that they both know is not a Fengriffen.
I like most of these actors very much, and I want to like this story with its period setting, lovely costumes, and the wonderful interior set of Fengriffen House (which isn’t the real interior of Oakley Court). But I always come away from this movie disappointed and feeling that it should be a better movie than it is.
And Now the Screaming Starts begins powerfully, and has a strong ending, but it feels muddled in the middle, as if there isn’t enough plot to carry through an hour and a half of film time and easy scares are piled up on top of each other without leaving much of an impact. An axe murder and three ghostly hand strangling deaths in short order should create a feeling of horror building around the young couple at the center of the story; instead, there’s more a feeling of “oh, no, not again” as the hand claims another victim. There are also a couple of minor incidents, such as Catherine being menaced by one of the mastiffs that guard the grounds, that I’ve skipped in the above summary because they really don’t amount to anything. I don’t know if this an overall problem of writing, or of the story’s pacing.
The clues we’re given are also somewhat confusing. The first impression that Sir Henry is the bloody-hand ghost is perhaps a case of deliberate misdirection, but once we have all the information about his crime and the curse, the matter of the family tree in the Bible remains a mystery.
Whose name was removed? It looks as if Sir Henry had another child–in the context of his story, this suggests that the woman he raped had his baby, but Silas the woodsman in 1795 can’t be an illegitimate Fengriffen descendant of Sir Henry’s; he looks just like the woodsman of the 1750s and must be that man’s grandson. Was there a child who died? What is this gap in the family tree meant to tell us and why did Mrs. Luke die trying to show it to Catherine?
With regard to the two woodsmen played by Geoffrey Whitehead, is the later Silas meant to be reincarnation of that elder, wronged man as well as a descendant? He seems to know everything about the curse as each event unfolds, and to have a part in their unfolding. The murder of Mr. Maitland was never solved, and the wielding of an axe during a dark night in the woods looks much more like the act of the living man than of the vengeful ghost.
The ghost, by the way, bears not only the mutilated arm of the 1750s woodsman, but foretells the eyeless death of the 1795 Silas, suggesting that they are in some way a continuation of the same person.