Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Film Review--Scream and Scream Again

Scream and Scream Again
directed by Gordon Hessler
written by Christopher Wicking
based on the novel by Peter Saxon
starring Alfred Marks, Christopher Matthews, Michael Gothard, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Judy Huxtable, Marshall Jones

What we have here are three pistons of the macabre tied down in one singular production. Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing all “star” in this odd little tale about mad science’s overarching longing to access godhead and make pretty with flesh to create life where none stood before. It’s a genuine conspiracy involving a pseudo fascist military order, the scientific community and many dead humans who provide the limbs and internal organs for these peculiar experimentations.

This film doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a spy thriller, vampire flick, action film, serial killer adventure, dystopia science fiction, futuristic mumbo jumbo, etc. The result is a tangle of plot lines that never quite realize a satisfactory conclusion. There is so much more to be explored.
The absolute best part of this film involves English actor Michael Gothard as a goodly killer with a sanguine fetish. We first meet him in a swinging disco and he’s just there taking in the scene. He’s cool and mildly disinterested. We already know that a pretty girl has been found butchered with her throat slit so we have a pretty fair idea that this is our man. Gothard is all Jagger lips and terribly penetrating eyes. With his sharp cheek bones and his tousle of blond hair he looks like every rock god who ever stained the underthings of school girls the world over. He invites a lovely girl for a ride in his convertible and she gamely accepts. He grips the wheel maniacally and quickly ushers her into a secluded area. It’s not long before the chase is on and it culminates in another strangling and throat slitting. Poor girl. She was a perfect sixties child, all bright eyed and swaying ever so slightly in the dimly lit corridors. She merely takes one wrong step and the end result is her body being savagely broken into for fun and dynamic thrills.

Well, the cops put in one of their own, a woman named Sylvia (Huxtable), and her job is to lure the killer to a spot where the boys can waylay him. It works all to well and when the fiend (named Keith–a wretchedly awful name for such an elegant killer) starts sucking blood out of the officer’s wrist they swarm in. He’s seriously strong and knocks them all out which leads to a massive chase sequence which is truly one of the longest ever filmed. Keith ends up on a rock quarry and climbs so fast up the face that the wee officers can only marvel. Unfortunately our man slips and falls all the way down and they handcuff him to the car. Unobserved Keith gnaws through his own hand and escapes which leads to yet another long chase. Ultimately Keith offs himself by diving into a bin of acid which is kept by the crazy scientist Dr. Browning (Price) to get rid of contaminated spores.

So, the scene with the rockin’ vampire makes perfect sense. Unfortunately there are three other plotlines that aren’t so clear. The great work goes straight to the top where the British Government have sponsored Dr. Browning’s work to create a race of super beings who will ultimately serve the benefit of mankind. But there are many uses for such beings and the military, who possess a strange symbol that evokes images of Schutzstaffel smiling and waving in their massive black cars. This is clearly a Nazi-like order and they possess a cyborg named Konratz (Jones) who is quickly working his way up the ladder via his special killing technique of the vulcan pinch. It’s never quite clear just how this particular man-machine is related to the final scenes but it is a thrill to watch him kill. Indeed, the pleasures in this film all come through the many moments when human beings are eradicated for various reasons.

The opening sequence relates a man who is jogging and quickly ends up in a hospital attended by a sexy nurse. There are many shots inter cut with other plot lines of the nurse coming in and adjusting something and leaving. Then the poor sap looks down and realizes one of his limbs have been hacked off and he screams.

Christopher Lee looks impossibly dashing and carries himself with a tremendous sense of class. It truly feels as if he is in another film altogether as his performance expresses a quiet dignity underneath the steely resolve. He plays British Intelligent Minister Freemont who is particularly engaged in Browning’s work. He’s up against the wall as well because a British spy plane was shot down by the pseudo Fascists. What this has to do with anything I am at a loss to say. Regardless it allows Lee to play serious and it’s a seething joy to behold.

The Frankenstein motif creates its own sort of blind magic as it feeds the longing to see Science take its machinations to the ultimate end. Body parts kept in cold storage are employed to realize a grave and sensational potentiality. Vincent Price possesses a strange innocence as he works to realize the societally-sanctioned transition into the brave, new world where only the choicest of all man-bots are given the keys to the castle. As it turns out Keith was one of his prototypes and he escaped into the void to embody the downfall of such experimentation. Why he is a vampire is not clearly stated. Indeed, his peculiar tastes for warm blood is not explained nor is his choice to terminate his existence in such grand fashion.

The eyes and ears of this piece come in the form of Supt. Bellaver (Marks) who is the head of the investigation into the murders of sweet, hot tender things. He’s no-nonsense and Marks gives him a genuine sense of meticulous order and common sense. Bellaver is the grounded, essential man of superior knowledge who is nevertheless flummoxed by the crime spree. Through his eyes we get a fine overview of the predicament the police force is in. Granted, once Keith is eradicated the film loses a bit of its luster. Still, Bellaver is present to remind the viewer of the vitality of police work and its dedication to get to the bottom of the cases that find their way to the station.

The film possesses a blatant sexuality that is exploited early on. It does romanticize the vampire mythos by casting such a pretty face to play the blood-sucker. There is something exquisite about the movements of Keith as he snakes his way through the disco relying on nothing but his charm and good looks to lure his victims to their untimely ends. It would have been a much more engrossing film if it stuck to Keith and his peculiar hobby. Of course it would have to include the whole cyborg element to create an attention-grabbing story of the perversions of science and how easily and necessarily they can create monsters who are utterly unable to feel anything whatsoever and subsequently can kill at will.

Dr. Sorrel (Matthews) is the inquisitive one who attempts to seek out the mystery and gets closer to it than any other character. His own curiosity leads him to witness the full scope of Browning’s work and he stares fascinated unable to take his eyes away. Still, once he realizes that Sylvia is about to have her brain removed for the creation of yet another cyborg, Sorrel is thrust out of the dream and acts to stop this truly diabolical act.

There is another element that is underplayed in this film but would certainly be useful in creating the new social order. Cyborg soldiers who cannot be killed could do quite a bit of work in hostile territories and could lead to a revolution within the construct of war games and occupations. Cyborg leaders devoid of emotions could enact draconian rule and tighten their grip on every facet of society. It certainly is an intriguing idea considering all the possibilities that could evolve from such a nasty set up. Good science, intending specifically to better the lot of mankind by eliminating defectives, fills valuable posts with its own who become the true leaders of mankind. It’s the great eugenics promise brought coldly and methodically to life. By eliminating genetically inferior organisms a holy perfect order of goodly men and women might lead mankind into the realm of the truly god-like. But the processes will not necessarily be implemented by those who share science’s utopian vision. Thus we have Keith raging through the vulnerable and sating his lusts on their tender flesh. This film might have unleashed a thousand Keiths wreaking havoc on a completely helpless population of eager, innocent lovelies and turned this thing into a true bloodbath.

There is one character whose name eludes me who represents much of what is possible in this cruel realm of science gone amok. She is a nurse who was created out of composite parts by Dr. Browning and her blank face and sense of pure routine suggests a cold order that might be exploded into a whole army of senseless creatures who could also create a whole lot of mayhem due to their superior physical strength and inability to be stopped by anyone at any time. An entire workforce could be engineered to control every sector, to administer grave punishments because they are not susceptible to any measures that would limit their behavior. It’s a charming idea and one that is only slightly hinted at here.

Peter Cushing is only in this film for five minutes but he leaves his mark. He plays a military officer who seems to have little to do with the actual plot. He’s offed way to early by Konratz but his character manages to haunt the rest of the film regardless.

Ostensibly everything is tied up at the end but the results is less than satisfactory. As mentioned the vampire aspect has nothing to do with the narrative as a whole. It’s delicious and formally executed but it adds nothing to the plot. Still, it’s the most thrilling aspect of the film and coupled with Dr. Browning’s work makes for a potentially superior film. Alas we are left with a rather confusing sequence of events that make for only a marginally enjoyable film in the end. But the performances are solid and it’s nice to see the three giants of horror united even if they scarcely spend much time on screen together. Ultimately it’s a flawed work that generates a great number of questions and possibilities. It works mostly as a science fiction/horror film even if it wastes the vampire dynamic too early and involves various aspects that do little to inform the basic premise.

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