Ian examines the well-regarded Hammer Horror spoof.
GeekPlanetOnline’s cinematic Odysseus, Ian Wilson, is a man on a mission: to brave the sniggers, the nudges and the single-entendres to revisit and rank every film in the Carry On... series. With just as many clunkers as classics he may well be calling for Matron sooner than you think…
Genres are broad, simple ways of categorising both a film and its potential audience. People choose to watch action films because of the rush of seeing near impossible stunts or a well-choreographed fight scene. People choose to watch comedies because laughter is a cathartic release and, when successful, can really cheer up their audience. People watch horror films for a similar catharsis, merely substituting an effective joke for an effective scare, because some people get a rush from being frightened. I was never one of those people when I was growing up, and I actively shied away from sections of the video store that proudly displayed images of demons from hell with nails in their head or knives attached to their fingers. Nowadays, I can sit through a horror film if I choose to, although I rarely seek them out at a cinema. And if I watch a horror film at home, I will ensure that I have access to the volume controls. I appreciate the horror genre much more than I used to, but I feel unable to get fully invested in it due to an almost inherent mean-spirited set-up at its core: some characters fundamentally exist so that they can die, often via horrific means.
Of course, t’was ever thus and horror films have been a part of cinema since the medium came into being. Modern horror films may be able to show or imply more graphic violence than James Whale or F.W. Murnau would have got away with in their day, but the genre has a long and proud legacy. An important chapter in that legacy belongs to the Hammer Film Productions company, a venerable British institution which dabbled in many genres but would become synonymous with its horror output. Boasting the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in a number of iconic Gothic horror roles, Hammer’s run of horror hits spanned the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, when it started to taper out in terms of quality and commercial success. The fact that its heyday almost mirrored that of the Carry On franchise, which has not enjoyed quite the same legacy of reverence, invites a number of comparisons. Both series made films quickly on low budgets and were familiar sights in British cinemas at the time. Aware of this, Hammer founder James Carreras reportedly told Carry On producer Peter Rogers “you make the comedy – I’ll make the horror”. Rogers decided to go one better, resulting 1966’s Carry On Screaming.
After an attempted woodland tryst between window cleaner Albert Potter (Jim Dale) and his girlfriend Doris Mann (Angela Douglas) results in the latter’s disappearance, a severed feral finger is the only clue. Albert seeks the help of the local police, leading to the investigations of Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung (Harry H. Corbett) and Detective Constable Slobotham (Peter Butterworth). All signs point to the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home, run by the undead scientist Dr Watt (Kenneth Williams) and his sister Valeria (Fenella Fielding), but it’s only when a mannequin resembling Doris appears in a shop window that the investigation picks up pace. But as the body count starts to rise and more women start to disappear, including Bung’s nagging wife Emily (Joan Sims) and Slobotham in drag, time could well be running out for everyone involved.
What makes Screaming so atypical – other than the horror aspect, of course – is the casting. Whilst Williams is on hand as the villain and Charles Hawtrey makes an appearance (albeit in a one-scene cameo), the trio of protagonists were not played by the biggest Carry On stars of that time. Conspicuous by his absence is Sid James, particularly when the lead role is named Sidney. But in his place is one-time Carry On actor Harry H. Corbett, best known as Harold from Steptoe and Son (which the film even references by playing a snippet of the television show’s theme at one point). Unfamiliar territory though it is, there’s something about Corbett’s portrayal that really adds to the film. Nominally the authoritarian straight man that the likes of William Hartnell and Ted Ray would play in the early entries of the franchise, Sidney Bung nevertheless gets to play off against his slow-witted assistant, his harridan of a wife, a mistrustful member of the public and the vampish delights of Valeria. Whilst all are characters in their own right rather than specific foils to the central role, Corbett plays off against everyone with perfect comedic timing which only serves to elevate the dialogue. That Corbett was not the easiest actor to work with, and reportedly called for his lines to be rewritten, would explain why he did not return to the series, but his contribution to Screaming cannot be overstated. Besides, he got to mug about as a werewolf, which has to appeal to a comedic actor to some degree, even if he was otherwise a bit of a sourpuss.
One final boon to Corbett’s performance is the double act he forms with Butterworth as his deputy Slobotham (pronounced “slow-bottom”). In only his second Carry On, Butterworth demonstrates just how good a comedic performer he is when given the chance, which he rarely got in Carry On Cowboy. From the constant fainting at the sight of something terrible, to his gameness towards spending the final third of the film in drag as part of a trap that goes horribly awry, Slobotham is arguably responsible for the majority of the film’s humour. Simply watching him and Bung interact is magnificently entertaining, ranging from the chalkboard gag in which the five words that best sum up their lines of enquiry spell out “Foul feet smell something horrible” to Slobotham’s uncertain dictation taking and the process of elimination he is ordered to carry out to find where upon a dummy’s anatomy he is meant to find a birthmark. Added into this dynamic to great effect is Jim Dale, who continues to prove his worth as the younger male, desperate to find out what has happened to his girlfriend and getting increasingly fed up with the detective styles of Bung and Slobotham. The crowning example has to be their quick-fire repartee when explaining the situation to Dr Watt, which is too good for me to simply type out here, but it ends with Dale getting in a jab at the police’s expense.
Another first of sorts is that Screaming is the first film that actively sets Williams up as an antagonist, who revels in his own evil: “why can’t everybody be thoroughly horrid like us?!”. Whilst his defined role in the franchise to begin with was that of the haughty, superior intellectual, the role of Dr Watt allows Williams to retain an air of authority as a (mad) man of science whilst giving him a certain freedom to go off on his own with terrible puns, amusing himself first and foremost but likely to appeal to sections of the audience as well. “Frying tonight!” may be a dated reference to the signs that fish & chip shops would use as promotional tools, but other puns – “Fangs ain’t what they used to be!” “Ear today, gone tomorrow!” – are more translatable, albeit as old as the hills. Bearing the brunt of these puns is Fenella Fielding in her second and final franchise instalment following Carry On Regardless. A friend of Williams in real life, Fielding would have originally been playing Valeria as Watt’s daughter until Kenneth decided that he wanted to play his role younger, and the script was altered so that they became siblings instead. And whilst they are villains, overseeing a plot very reminiscent to that used in the classic Vincent Price film House of Wax, the manic glee of Watt, the sensuous charms of Valeria and the family dynamic between them, along with Oddbod (their reanimated prehistoric monster servant), Oddbod Jr., and Bernard Bresslaw’s turn as the Lurch-like butler Socket, altogether makes the residents of Bide-a-Wee Rest Home eminently watchable. And throw in the building’s resident mummy, Rubbertiti, and we have a reference to almost every classic horror icon that existed at that time.
Wisely, the film largely revolves around all of these characters as the driving force of the story and, by extension, the comedy. It follows that the remaining supporting roles do not get nearly as much attention, although to the story’s credit, they’re all important to keeping the momentum of the film going. Arguably the largest of these supporting roles falls to Joan Sims, who has the rather thankless task of playing the irritating, unsympathetic wife character. Even though Sims hated playing such a role, her professionalism saw her perform it with aplomb, even though the film makes frequent, unkind remarks about her figure and appearance. However, looking at this from the other point of view, some of the resulting moments are pretty funny, as Watt exclaims in exasperation when the unconscious Sims lies on his slab, “what am I expected to do with this?!” before Oddbod Jr. brings in the dragged-up Slobotham whom Watt is temporarily fooled into thinking is a more attractive woman. Such glee is short-lived when Watt and Valeria discover the identity of their newest would-be mannequin: “perhaps his parents wanted a girl!”. And whilst Angela Douglas again shows her natural chemistry with Dale, her speaking role is restricted to the very beginning and end of the film as the victim who acts as the catalyst to the plot. That both Sims and Douglas (and potentially Sally Douglas, a regular Carry On supporting actor who also played a victim of the evil scheme) had to prepare for their parts by having a full body plaster cast, demonstrates their commitment to relatively unsung roles.
Then again, consider the contribution of Charles Hawtrey. Though he was one of the most prolific Carry On actors at this point in the franchise’s lifespan, sharing the honour with Williams as both had only been absent for one film so far, his role of Daniel “Dan Dan” Dann was very much an eleventh hour affair, as the role had been intended for Sydney Bromley, who had played the rancher character in Cowboy. Rumours of the purported absence of Hawtrey spread to America, where he was quite highly regarded, and with distributors considering the potential impact on the film’s business, Peter Rogers ensured that the role of camp lavatory attendant who used frequent euphemisms to visiting the toilet went to the man for whom the role was seemingly written in the first place. Another familiar face is Jon Pertwee, who has a small role as the police forensic scientist who accidentally grows Oddbod Jr. from the finger of the original Oddbod, and gets in some impressive gurning in the process. Frank Thornton of Are You Being Served? fame also appears as the manager of the shop that is buying up the realistic mannequins, whilst Marianne Stone, a regular Carry On supporting player as well as a veteran of British horror films, has a very small cameo as Mrs Bung’s suspicious friend.
What also sets this film apart is its look. The laboratory set is hugely impressive, with the two vats of goo that make up the process of the villainous scheme and the beds with electric chargers above them. The lighting, for both that set and the woods, is atypical of previous films in the series, and the cinematography is a lot more akin to a Hammer film than a Carry On. Similarly, the music is somewhat chilling as opposed to bouncy and upbeat, although there are comedic sound effects peppered throughout. The audience are also treated to a bizarrely smoky seduction, the suggestion of domestic violence and a scene in which both Corbett and Dale share a bed. The addition of a snake to the latter leads to a certain amount of innuendo, and this would not be the last time a phallic snake would be utilised as a Carry On joke. Finally, the police vehicle, which would be vandalised and damaged by Butterworth’s many graceless dismounts, firmly reminds the audience that the film is set at a time that pre-dates the contemporary familiarity of the 1960s and has more of a Gothic horror vibe as a result.
It is often said that the mark of a good horror comedy is that it would work as a horror film if the comedy was stripped out of it. On those grounds, Carry On Screaming is an excellent horror comedy, as the plot still allows room for the deaths of at least two big name Carry On actors and the uncertain fates of a few more, due to the machinations of the film’s villains. Now, with that being said, it is still a silly film with awful puns, but the real genius of Screaming is how accurate a parody it is and how effective it is as a spoof. It liberally borrows from other films of the genre, but even with a special guest star in the title role, the film feels like a Carry On. That it does so without the likes of Sid James, Hattie Jacques or Barbara Windsor shows the strength and depth of the franchise at this time, in that the show could go on without some of its most famous stars. As it turned out, contemporary critics much preferred Cowboy to Screaming, and that’s fair enough; Cowboy is a very strong, and often overlooked, entry to the series. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I would say that Screaming has weathered the test of time better given the legacy of Hammer Studios that exists today. That there was a contemporary spoof of the Hammer output, which was executed near perfectly by some of the finest comic actors of the 1960s, really pushes Screaming to the higher echelons of the Carry On franchise. I believe that Carry On Cleo still has the advantage for lasting mainstream appeal in addition to overall quality, but make no mistake, Carry On Screaming is one of the best examples of a horror comedy, irrespective of franchise or time period. And that deserves nothing but praise.
Carry On Ranking: