Vincent Price’s diabolical surgeon produces a new breed of supermen, except that his latest ‘composite’ creation is also a serial-killing vampire. While the mayhem keeps the cops busy, the conspiracy spreads to a foreign dictatorship, where another composite is consolidating power through high-level murders. British agent Christopher Lee is ferreting out the conspiracy– or is he part of it?
Scream and Scream Again
1969 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 95 min. / Ship Date October 13, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alfred Marks, Christopher Matthews, Judy Huxtable, Yutte Stensgaard, Anthony Newlands, Michael Gothard
Cinematography John Coquillon
Production Design Bill Constable
Film Editor Peter Elliott
Original Music David Whitaker
Written by Christopher Wicking from a novel by Peter Saxon
Produced by Louis M. Heyward, Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Directed by Gordon Hessler
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Scream and Scream Again hangs in there as a genre curiosity, and I must admit I come back to re-check it out every few years. This year the added benefit is a sharp new Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
About thirteen years ago, MGM began releasing its Orion / American-International holdings on DVD, and their first branded-line Midnite Movies double bill was this title paired with The Oblong Box, itself newly available on Blu-ray. Scream and Scream Again is a 1969 sci-fi / horror thriller directed by Gordon Hessler, a prolific German-born director who got his start on the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Joining A.I.P. when the company expanded filming in England and Europe, Hessler worked constantly since the late ’60s in both film and television.
Scream and Scream Again is always interesting, even if it’s not very good. What reads as a unique blend of crossed genres, plays more like a sprawling story chopped down to fit a television budget. We’re told that it went through more than one writer on the way to the screen, but the movie we see follows the original book, Peter Saxon’s “The Disorientated Man” fairly closely. In the book, the mysterious foreign dictatorship is meant to be East Germany. Scream invents a vague new totalitarian state. We assume it is Fascist, because they all wear Nazi-like armbands with a symbol that looks like a demonic pitchfork.
Several plots dovetail in a story of intrigue that jumps between Great Britain and the other European dictatorship. Konratz (Marshall Jones), a military spy who can kill with one hand, is consolidating personal power. When his secret police torture citizens like Erika (Yutte Stensgaard), he avoids official censure by murdering government ministers, including the ethical Benedek (Peter Cushing). Konratz has an unclear relationship with top Brit security minister Fremont (Christopher Lee), and other agents are watching both of them. To obtain new military technology, Konratz’s people have shot down a British spy plane and captured the pilot. Meanwhile, an ordinary police case becomes extraordinary. Superintendant Bellaver (Alfred Marks) and his detectives close the net on a brutal serial killer, Keith (Michael Gothard), who rapes his victims and drinks their blood as well. Assistant pathologist David Sorel (Christopher Matthews) and policewoman Sylvia (Judy Huxtable) aid in the capture of Keith, who turns out to be a cyborg-like ‘composite’ human of great strength and agility. Finally, a jogger who collapses on a morning run wakes up in hospital, to find that he’s been made the victim of appalling surgery. The loose threads lead to the quiet country medical clinic of Dr. Browning (Vincent Price). Alarming experiments are being conducted, with the failures consigned to an acid bath…
As the synopsis tries to indicate, Scream and Scream Again is a complicated web of spies, police procedural, and Frankenstein-like medical experiments. Part of its notoriety comes from rave coverage in the late Phil Hardy’s film encyclopedias, where it rates write-ups in both the Horror and the Science Fiction volumes. Many writers defend the film by citing the enthusiastic approval of Fritz Lang, presumably for its similarities to Lang’s superb paranoid ‘Empire of Crime’ movies about the diabolical Dr. Mabuse character. Although I’m not claiming that the quotes are bogus, Lang’s reported endorsement of this movie, Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, and Jesús Franco’s Succubus (Necronomicon) have always seemed suspect. I met Fritz Lang when he visited a UCLA screening in 1973 or so, when he was functionally blind. He told us that in 1968 his eyesight was so poor that he only heard the soundtrack of 2001, and enjoyed it through the description of a fully sighted person. Scream and Scream Again does have elements in common with Lang’s groundbreaking Mabuse and spy films, mainly its seemingly unrelated mysteries that eventually dovetail into a single menace. But that’s where the resemblance ends — the show is a style-challenged potpourri of disconnected scenes.
Horror fan expectations are immediately foiled when Scream limits its three major stars, each given prominent billing, to a few short minutes of screen time as relatively minor players. They have almost no scenes together. Peter Cushing’s role should have been billed as a cameo. Christopher Lee’s is so devoid of context, even his formidable presence makes little impression. We see Lee only three or four times, and in each brief appearance he could almost be a different character. Vincent Price has somewhat more to do, but he’s an obvious mad doctor from the start, which drains all the suspense (and frankly, any freshness) from the medical horror subplot.
The film’s actual primary characters are played by relative unknowns. Chief among the villains is Marshall Jones’ Ruritanian spy Konratz, who has the most screen time of anybody yet projects little personality. Although he could be Patrick MacNee’s unpleasant brother, we tend to forget what Konratz looks like when he is off-screen. Konratz is central to every sidebar event in the movie, but actor Jones rates only fifteenth billing in the confused main titles, buried down in the third or fourth block of actor’s names. To make matters worse, although his name in the credits and the book is Konratz, everybody in the film calls him Konrad. (No, they’re not calling him comrade.) Even A.I.P. seems to have been confused, for they mis-identify actor Jones in the trailer as Peter Cushing. The book may be “The Disorientated Man” but this entire production could be described as “The Disorganizized Movie.”
Next to Konratz the most developed character is the dedicated police detective Bellaver (Alfred Marks), a stock harassed cop granted a modicum of dignity. We like Bellaver even when his foolish police underestimate a foe that continually demonstrates that he’s an unpredictable near-superman. Most every main character in Scream and Scream Again is violently eliminated, which leaves us little to care about when the narrative fails to cohere. Each big big story surprise does little more than tell us that the last two or three scenes we’ve been seeing — innocents tortured, ministers murdered — are irrelevant to the big picture. No compensating sense of humor, or self-awareness steps in to offset the awkwardness of all this.
Often, a reviewer will slam a complicated movie as incoherent simply because he didn’t care enough to pay attention to the details. We see that sometimes with American reviews of English genre movies. The Variety reviewer thought Quatermass 2 was ‘murky and muddled,’ when it is one of the most brilliantly paced fantasy thrillers ever, and a worthy successor to Fritz Lang’s espionage stories. But this is not the case with Scream and Scream Again. What may have begun as a great concept remains a confused mess, even after a second close viewing. A script-writing class might find it a better subject for study than a truly good movie.
What we’ve got here is indeed a poorly structured script, with characters that do not develop and connections that don’t connect. The choice of what to show on screen is the opposite of ellipsis: key narrative material is missing and what we see is the flat and predictable stuff that could have been skipped. The bulk of the film is a standard police drama padded with car chases and dancing action in a discotheque. The pace is fast enough, but too many of the scenes are flat and predictable filler. All we see of Konratz’s mysterious foreign country is a frontier gate in a divided city, a green field, and several confined offices. Time is wasted with the capture and torture of the sexy refugee Stensgaard; Konratz’s sketchy activities don’t explain if he’s killing state officials as part of a personal power grab, or if he’s an impostor seizing the government from the outside.
The best thing on view is actor Michael Gothard, a cult figure who decorates movies as disparate as Don Levy’s Herostratus, Ken Russell’s The Devils, Barbet Schroeder’s The Valley… Obscured by Clouds and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. Gothard’s ‘vampire killer’ Keith is at least interesting, even after a long and uneventful highway pursuit. But the movie tries our patience to the breaking point. Keith has killed or seriously maimed several policemen. They’ve seen him bite the throat out of one of their policewomen. They’ve watched him climb the side of a steep mountain with superhuman ease. He seems capable of anything, yet they merely handcuff his wrist to a car grille and turn their backs to him.
Vincent Price’s Dr. Browning practically hangs signs outside his clinic reading ‘Mad Maniac M.D. On Call, No Waiting.’ Even though logic incriminates the good doctor from the very beginning, Superintendent Bellaver accepts whatever flaky excuse he offers. We’ve known the connection between Browning’s nurse Jane (Uta Levka) and various evildoings with body parts from the very start, so the movie’s last-act revelations have no impact. We’ve figured out what’s happening for ourselves long before the answer is officially revealed in Dr. Browning’s freezer. Frankly, we were hoping it would be a little more interesting.
The gruesome ‘running gag’ of the jogger would have potential if the show showed a sense of humor or any kind of flair. It’s almost a ‘crazy ward’ Burlesque skit (“Nurse! Nurse!”). But successive returns to the jogger’s bedside fail to carry any surprise. Director Lindsay Anderson seemingly borrowed this idea for his bizarre ‘pilgrim’s progress’ satire O Lucky Man, and hit a precise balance of Theater of the Absurd humor and jolting horror. Anderson’s mad science episode is truly appalling-hilarious, and one of his film’s best scenes.
Fritz Lang’s characterizations are often simplistic, yet we’re always given strong identification figures. The only time that happens here is when the pathologist Sorel and the lady cop Sylvia go sleuthing on their own. We are happy to at last find a couple in which to invest our concern. But she becomes a standard damsel in distress, and he serves as little more than a listening board for Dr. Browning’s complex but pointless conspiracy. Browning makes no more sense than our favorite old crackpot Doctor Vornoff: ( “I will perfect my own race of people! A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”) When Konratz and then Fremont arrive to wrap things up, it’s like they’ve come from a different movie. The finish is just more predictable mad-doctor fighting in the mad lab.
So we’ve got a mediocre police investigation about the hunt for a mad killer. That’s intercut with a mostly irrelevant spy story. They both dovetail into a cartoonish mad-doctor plot that wandered in from The Frozen Dead, with crazy-quilt Frankenstein monsters. The styles don’t mesh and there’s no synthesis. The parts not only don’t add up to something bigger, they don’t even fit together.
At the finish we still have a million unanswered questions. Are Sorel and Sylvia to be eliminated for knowing too much? Is this medical conspiracy separate from the government or part of it? Is Konratz the ‘foreign’ agent for the conspiracy, or just a renegade composite gone wild in a different way than serial killer Keith? What does the conspiracy want, anyway? A master race? Political control via the substitution of synthetic people for politicians? How did Keith get loose, or did Browning just set him free? Why is Keith a killer? Why is he a vampire? Is Konratz a vampire as well? How can Fremont back Browning into the acid bath just by staring at him? Is Fremont a composite too? Not only is the unfolding of this story not very exciting, it’s frustratingly unenlightening — we know less at the finish than when we started. More people turn out to be patchwork composites, yet they don’t seem to recognize each other. There’s no big reveal moment where one of them finally says, “Hey, we’re ALL Bozos on this bus!”
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Scream and Scream Again is a handsome encoding of what persists as a popular gore/sci fi thriller with a good reputation. And I’m not trying to throw a wedge between a popular picture and its fans. Colors are fine, but for whatever reason, the cinematography is haphazard. Just as director Hessler is praised in the extras, so is cameraman John Coquillon, despite the fact that his show is riddled with out of focus shots and just plain ugly lighting. Coquillon was a favorite D.P. for Sam Peckinpah, but I’ve never seen much artistry in his Michael Reeves and Gordon Hessler movies.
Twilight Time understands that genre buyers like extras. The isolated Score track for David Whitaker’s music is welcome. David Del Valle should get an award as the most prolific audio commentator of the last two years, and on much more than just Vincent Price movies. If you like the feeling of being in Del Valle’s parlor to listen to his casual, scene by scene thoughts about Vincent and the show, the track will more than suffice; it fits in with the ‘fireside chat’ tenor of other Twilight Time commentaries. Joining Del Valle is Tim Sullivan, who contrasts the film with the original book source. Much of the narrative murk can be traced to the fact that, in the book, some of the characters are aliens, and possess telepathic and hypnotic powers. The book’s Browning uses these Jedi-like talents to kidnap medical subjects. One person vanishes from a gymnasium because Browning zaps the witnesses. Nobody notices a naked man walking out of the locker room and into a waiting car.
Film historian Steve Haberman does his utmost to convince us of Gordon Hessler’s genius on the documentary featurette Gentleman Gothic: Gordon Hessler at A.I.P.. In this case I don’t agree with the assessment of Hessler’s talent or the significance of his movies. To me, The Oblong Box is weak and they go downhill from there. But I’m as always impressed by Haberman’s research insights and serious approach to his work.
But wait, there’s more. Actress Uta Levka appears in an amusing session recalling her horror roles; she becomes more candid as the interview continues. Twilight finishes with a still gallery, a radio spot and an original trailer. Its editor uses alternate takes for the “Keith climbs the quarry wall” sequence. A couple of moments are cut much better in the trailer than they are in the film itself, even though we see Keith clearly being helped up the wall with a cable.
( Note: In the feature, Gothard is seen at the bottom of the cliff in a wide shot, and then in a closer angle, with some broken-up white rocks behind him. He then scrambles up the cliff wall to a different spot, with a much different surface. He turns around to face the cops waiting below — and the close shot of his reaction is much too obviously filmed in the first, lower setup with the broken-up rocks. Hessler, Coquilllon and editor Peter Elliott do this sort of thing all through the picture. )
Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo begins her essay by referring to the Fritz Lang quote, which even her researches can only attribute to “cinema lore.” She makes the most of the film’s erratic lunacy, which clearly appeals to many. If some marvelous revelation about Scream and Scream Again will nullify all my whining in the paragraphs above, I’m perfectly willing to admit that I didn’t get the joke. I remember staring at a big newspaper ad for S&SA in my first year of college, and regretting that I had no way of getting off campus to see it. The same thing happened with No Blade of Grass later the same year. I didn’t catch up with either film until I went to work for MGM/UA home video, twenty years later.
Thanks to Gary Teetzel for help on this review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Scream and Scream Again Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Vincent Price expert David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan, Gentleman Gothic: Gordon Hessler at AIP, interview with actress Uta Levka, still gallery, radio spot, original Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 29, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson