Giggles and shudders in equal measure it's the quintessential horror-comedy
Come on … altogether now … “Frying tonight!”
Truly successful horror-comedies are very few and far between. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Gremlins, Shaun of the Dead. And this. The secret potion, or elixir that is needed to make them work is that as well as being extremely funny, they have to take the horror seriously enough to deliver some genuine shivers. It is a delicate balancing act to spoof something whilst still delivering the necessary thrills and chills. A rare alchemy.
The Carry On team was already successfully taking on many different cinematic themes and trends. There had been historical and hospital romps, royalty, the army and the admiralty had fallen prey to their ribald and innuendo-laden brand of Brit humour, and, just prior to this, they’d even tackled a Western. Then regular scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell hit upon the idea of lampooning Hammer Horror, which was proving immensely successful at the time, and he approached Carry On producer Peter Rogers with the suggestion that they tingle the sphincter as well as tickle the funnybone, and Rogers, thankfully, completely agreed that this would be a smart and material rich target to set their sights on. The result was one of the cleverest, wittiest and sharpest of the franchise, with everyone involved at the top of their game and clearly enjoying themselves immensely.
Monstrous ape-man throwbacks are stalking the woods and kidnapping young women in order that a spooky-ooky brother and sister combo can then vitrify them in the basement laboratory of their gothic mansion, the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home, and transform them into shop-window mannequins. When Albert Potter’s girlfriend, Doris, gets snatched, he turns to a beleaguered, bewildered and befuddled police force, in the form of Sgt. Bung and his loyal lackey Detective Slobotham (pronounced Slow-Bottom) to help solve the mystery and rescue her. There’s an old dark house. There are revived corpses and regenerated creatures. Murders and mummies are also on the cards. Gorgeous vamp Valeria pours herself into the tightest scarlet dress and pouts and purrs, melting the hearts of men and monsters with equal aplomb. She also has the power to turn men into salivating beasts … quite literally, as it transpires.
With body-parts dropping off ear, there and everywhere, Bung has his work cut out for him just piecing the case together and attempting to finger those responsible.
Yet with these immortal Holmsian clues, how can he go wrong?
But the film made several departures from the regular pattern.
Sid James reputedly got into a strop over how much he wanted to be paid and, as a result, he was not to appear in the film. Instead, the role of the hopeless, hapless and domestically terrorized Sgt. Sidney Bung went to Harry H. Corbett, who is so good in the part that it is impossible to imagine chimp-faced James doing it justice. Sgt. Bung (“That’s a fitting name!”) is a buffoon of the highest order and Corbett is outstanding, bringing a much greater range to the character than the grinning, giggling and ever-lecherous James ever could. Like most comedians, he had a serious side and, by some accounts, he wasn’t a great deal of fun to be around on-set. But this possibly gives his withering sarcasm and simpering cowardice a little bit more of an edge than the usual slap ‘n’ tickle that our Sid would have depended on to keep things moving.
Corbett was already a renowned stage actor, but he had become typecast as a constantly whinging loser courtesy of rag ‘n’ bone sitcom, Steptoe and Son, which could actually be quite morose at times. Here he gets to butt heads with a sharp-tongued Joan Sims as his harridan wife, Emily, fawn all over Fenella Fielding (and who can blame him?) and even become a hairy monster at the vampish vixen’s beck and call after a swig of her special potion. His performance as the Mr. Hyde/werewolf hybrid is splendidly off-the-wall and, once again, although I’d love to have seen him do it, I find it hard to imagine Sid James pulling the stunt off with anywhere near the same exuberance and fully-fledged impetuousness. Corbett actually does become another character entirely, not just Bung with fur and fangs.His performance as the Mr. Hyde/werewolf hybrid is splendidly off-the-wallJim Dale, looking like a cross between Steve Railsback and Christian Bale, is typically brilliant as the desperate Potter. His jittery, nonstop physical performance is the sort of caffeine-addled clowning that Norman Wisdom was famous for, and would then be lifted, wholesale, by Lee Evans. His live-wire antics are deliciously well-timed for that believably improvised spasmodic vibe. The shenanigans with the shotgun are marvelously underplayed, and his own turn as a Hyde-type monster boasts some of the most spectacular facial acrobatics you’re likely to see without the aid of Rick Baker’s prosthetics. Angela Douglas, who plays his year-long girlfriend Doris (and he still hasn’t got anywhere with her) claims that they had no chemistry between them and that this is plainly obvious in the film. But the truth is that they are hardly on the screen together, though even when they are I can’t see any evidence of a lack of credible camaraderie. Dale has a knack for being totally in-the-moment even when the daftest of things are going on.
Peter Butterworth was one of the team’s stalwarts and another very fine actor. The range of talents that this crew possessed often goes overlooked, but many of them reveal hidden layers even during these knockabout farces. Butterworth was renowned for making other cast members corpse on camera – just a line, a word or an expression was enough to do the trick – and he found the environment on the Screaming set very conducive to his wicked sense of humour. He allows Slobotham moments of authoritarianism, but these are consistently undermined by virtually everyone around him. His innate likeability, particularly when garbed-up as a lady in a frock, make him one of the warmest characters in the film and it is amazing how much you worry for him once he’s been captured … and how silly he doesn’t look running about in stocking, corset and petticoat.
John Pertwee gurns his way to a bone-breaking death as the police scientist who unwittingly grows another primitive marauder from a severed finger that has been found at the scene of Doris’ disappearance. This sequence, as the slightly smaller, but inordinately hairier new ape-fiend suddenly developed in a great, though appropriately vintage optical effect, actually scared me to death when I was a kid. Still does, in fact. Pertwee, himself, looks pretty unusual with his wacky eyebrows, billygoat tuft of a beard and bushy sideburns, almost as though he is sporting one of Worzel Gummidge’s scruffier heads.Listen out for him reading the titles of the books in his cabinet, and for the classic line when attempting to identify what kind of creature the lost finger may have been dropped by … “Wrong Homo …” Pertwee was as fine with comedy as he was with dramatics, but it is his ability to combine the two together that would ensure him wise eccentricity as the Doctor and an acute sense of pathos as the ever-roaming scarecrow.
Dan Dann the Gardening Man may have changed careers and become Dan Dann the Lavatory Man, but Charles Hawtrey is at the team’s convenience as the genial proprietor of the gents who may have some information regarding the missing women. Whilst we can see the rest of the regulars actually stepping out beyond their more typical Carry On personas, Hawtrey, perhaps, is the most restricted by physical appearance and acting style. His “Oh, hello!” was hardly ever going to stretch to Othello, but he was perfect as the weirdly asexual stick-insect prancing through these bizarre yarns. And, once again, it comes as something of a shock that such a much-loved element of the franchise gets bumped-off.“This awful looking “thing” happens to be my wife!”
“Oooh, bad luck!”Poor Joan Sims bears the brunt of a lot of stick, as usual. “Is this the best you could do? What am I supposed to do with this? It’s a load of old rubbish!” exclaims a dismayed Orlando Watt when he first surveys what his hairy scouts have brought back this time, revealing Mrs. Bung half undressed and out cold on the slab. A brilliant actress, and superb with radio vocal roles of a huge variety, Sims genuinely began to feel quite aggrieved at the constant putdowns that she received regarding her looks when compared to the bombshells that she was usually surrounded by. This belittling is compounded even more when Peter Butterworth’s dunderheaded detective, disguised as a woman in a police sting that has gone disastrously wrong and ended-up with him captured as well, is praised as being far more attractive! It may be true that she gets the last laugh, but she has to earn the opportunity by getting put through the wringer this time.
“There’s something out there!”
“Wuh … well I don’t know, but whatever it is there’s two of it!”
Blending in the delicious and irresistible flavours of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, House of Wax, the Missing Link and numerous other genre offerings and concepts, Rothwell’s screenplay treats its horrors with respect. The two main monsters, Oddbod and Oddbod Junior straddle that fine and rare line between being terrifically funny and really, really scary. The colossal Oddbod was played by real-life wrestler Tom Clegg, and his size and bulk sure do intimidate. His fanged grin and slow shake of the head to Bung to imply that his revolver will do him no good makes you whimper right along with Corbett – who brilliantly then places the barrel to his own head in desperation! His amorous advances towards Valeria are also bestially understandable. “Oddbod! Drop, I say! Naughty Bod!” There is a great moment when Billy Cornelius, who plays the mewling, babyish Oddbod Junior, who has somehow managed to find his way to Bide-a-Wee, after being grown from that errant finger that fell from his bigger buddy, emerges from the woods and heads for the main gate. For some reason, Cornelius turns back to the camera to openly grin at us … and he does it a couple of times. To me, this looks like a rehearsal take, with Thomas shouting out to his caveman to get a comedy reaction after pushing through the bushes … and the moment just tickling everyone so much that they decided to keep it in. Both Clegg and Cornelius would appear in several Carry On pictures, but this is definitely their most memorable outing.
Rothwell and Thomas knew just how to use them for maximum effect too. The monsters’ combined pursuit of the blundering heroes during the finale is a corking set-piece. You really wouldn’t want to see these two coming down the hall after you. In fact, the grand climax is more exciting than you’ll find in many bonafide horror films, with lots of shivery dread-filled narrow escapes and mini-crescendos all building towards one of the greatest pay-offs in the entire series. And in a film whose plot revolves around cast members being made into dummies, you can’t help but admire the brazenly obvious use of inert prop versions of the two Bods for Jim Dale’s deceptively strong alter-ego to hurl about. And yet it actually feels quite violent at the same time as being patently ridiculous.You really wouldn’t want to see these two coming down the hall after youThere’s a Bondian/Dr. Phibes-style assassination attempt via a trapdoor and a slithering snake, and an playful take on the “two men in bed together” shtick.Another inspired moment has Bernard Bresslaw’s Lurch-like butler, Sockett, imploring Valeria not to send him “back … there,” after he has made the gaff of allowing the police into the house, really giving the impression that his mistress truly has uncanny powers from beyond the grave. The ominous thudding footsteps that the butler makes as the cops wait outside the front door is marvelously offset by the fact that he is actually shown to be wearing slippers. It is touches like these that expertly lampoon the genre whilst also investigating it and adding some food for thought. Bresslaw’s trembling face when he says “there” is priceless. Sadly, outside of the Carry On films, the big man, who was absolutely terrifying as an Afghan warlord in Carry On Up The Khyber, was not so lucky in his parts. The giant who is merely quite tall in Hawk The Slayer, and the most ridiculous looking Cyclops in Krull – two British fantasy flops – didn’t do him any favours, I’m afraid.
The ever outrageous Kenneth Williams has a whale of a time, as you would expect. With the right level of camp to satisfy his followers, he brings a tremendous eccentricity and zeal to the undead Orlando Watt. “Watt’s his name!” “That’s what I’m asking – what’s his name???” With a future Doctor Who in the cast with John Pertwee, it is also quite prescient that they manage to fit in an appropriate joke pertaining to the hit TV SF show. “Who’s my cousin,” declares Watt. “But I haven’t seen him in ages.” And this all ties-in with the Hammer connection too, because Peter Cushing, inarguably Hammer’s leading man, was just about to portray the timelord in the lavish Amicus cinematic treatment, Dr. Who and the Daleks. Williams was a dreadful gossip and a bit of a playful troublemaker, but he plays Orlando Watt with style to spare. He may be in need of recharging half the time, but there are definitely sparks flying whenever he is on screen.
Denis Blake doesn’t get to do much as Watt’s prized Mummy, Prince Rubbatiti … but he is responsible for instigating one of the most celebrated death scenes in the genre when he finally comes to life and goes after Orlando. You have to hand it to Williams for taking the plunge into the vat of yellow gunk so willingly. No stunt double there. He takes the dive and we can see how shocked he is at the sheer smothering he gets.
“I’ve got a feeling someone’s watching us.”
“Well, good luck to them. I’ve been courting you a year and there’s been nothing worth watching so far.”
Angela Douglas was Brian Blessed’s girlfriend in Z Cars (in which the bellicose, bearded, man-mountain demigod played the fan-favourite Fancy Smith) and she’d also be seen in The Avengers, both of which were broadcast live at the time. She had come straight to Screaming after being in Carry On Cowboy and, truth be told, she doesn’t get a great deal to do in this outing. But we can at least enjoy the investigation of her waxwork replica as Slobotham is tasked with searching for the birthmark that will identify the dummy as being Albert Potter’s girlfriend. But then she couldn’t expect not to be upstaged by Fielding, who absolutely steals the show as the gothic Carry On Scream Queen to die for. In the same year she would actually appear for Hammer in their less-than-satisfying adaptation of The Old Dark House, produced alongside gimmick-king William Castle, but it would be this role that would cement, or vitrify, if you like, as a pop culture icon. She was also seen as Penny Panting in the episodic Carry On Regardless opposite Kenneth Connor. Although it is an arch performance, I always feel that time stands still whenever she is on-screen, she is soooooo captivating and sultry.
Another case of precognitive casting was in taking on Frank Thornton as Mr. Jones, the manager of the dress shop receiving the waxed ladies. This was clearly an instance of him getting some training in for his similar role in the long-running comedy Are You Being Served? in which he ran the famous department store for Grace Brothers.Fielding, who absolutely steals the show as the gothic Carry On Scream Queen to die forThe Hammer-look was consistently maintained by DOP Alan Hume, who had already clocked-up some superbly atmospheric horrors by this time – Kiss of the Vampire, Dr. Terror’s House of Horror – as well as some prior Carry Ons. He supplies a sumptuous look to the film, immaculately framing the action and elevating its mood immeasurably. With so many characters who all have a unique look and lots of varying sizes, he does a fabulous job of ensnaring them in the same shot. He would go on to lens Return of the Jedi, Lifeforce for Tobe Hooper and the snowbound, high-speed Runaway Train for Andrei Konchalovsky. Using some exquisite sets at Pinewood and actually filming in Hammer’s stamping ground of Black Wood, the film enjoys an air of class that feels both attentive to period detail and wacky with SF paraphernalia. There can’t have been too many Victorian cop-shops that had scientific labs in them, complete with gyros, diodes and voltmeters, but Pertwee’s colourful cubbyhole gives him a clear foretaste of what he will encounter once he enters the TARDIS in a few years time. The vitrifying foundry and laboratory in the basement of the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home is a gloriously large set that would certainly do Baron Frankenstein proud. Check out the superb, fluid camerawork that moves through the place as our less-than-intrepid heroes attempt to flee. It is also worth mentioning that the art design and director do not forget that Oddbod Junior has a tendency not to use doors and simply walks through walls – these holes do not miraculously disappear in the next scene and even form a crucial plot-point towards the end. “Use your own hole!” commands Orlando when the beast-men cannot break through a barricaded door.
“We seem to be at loggerheads.”
“No, this is Bide-a-Wee. Loggerheads is just down the road.”
The score from Eric Rogers is also superbly done. There is the usual amount of quirky Mickey Mousing, but this is a more sophisticated score than those that usually graced Carry On films. Its little main theme jingle is appropriately amusing and quaint, jaunty with Victoriana, but it still contains a hint of cosy eeriness too. There is also plenty of enjoyably spooky material to help provide a fine old sense of menace as lumbering monsters plod through the woods or stalk after our heroes during the helter-skelter finale. With a story that was throwing in everything including the kitchen-sink, Rogers even got away with playing some little pastiche elements from the theme to Z-Cars and even Steptoe and Son for when a monstrously transformed Bung rides alongside Bresslaw’s butler on a horse and cart. The opening title song from Myles Rudge and Ted Dick, and sung in pure Cliff Richard fashion by Anon, is also quite memorable – Britain’s swinging sixties answer to the famous theme song from The Blob.Giggles and shudders in equal measure, Carry On Screaming carries on delivering the goods and is the quintessential horror-comedyCarry on Screaming was popular with audiences, both fans of the franchise and those who followed Hammer, but critics were hugely dismissive of it upon its initial release, some even claiming it to be a complete bore. Then again, only a select few of the Carry Ons really gained any kudos at the time. It is only with the passing of years and the repeat appreciation of television airings that their cult status has been properly allowed to flourish. For me, Screaming remains my absolute favourite and I could watch it over and over again – and, indeed, have done just that since this BD arrived. Carry On Camping, Carry On Jack, Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head, Carry On Up The Khyber and Carry On Up The Jungle are, naturally, right up there too … but this one, despite being something of a slight departure in tone and casting, hangs together so well that it is just boundlessly rewarding. Being a confirmed devotee of horror films has probably helped to sway my opinion as well, but Rothwell structures his story so well and creates so many indelible characters and situations that you just have to give him credit for taking the tried and trusted formula and attaching a rocket to its derriere. Plus, he brings some suspense to the vitrifying pot and injects a few original ideas into the veins of subject matter that was highly prevalent on cinema screens at the time.
Giggles and shudders in equal measure, Carry On Screaming carries on delivering the goods and is the quintessential horror-comedy.
It’s a scream!
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