By 1973, the British horror film industry was collapsing. The smallest of the three main studios focusing genre films, Tigon, released its final film in that year; the largest, Hammer Films, very famously spent the first five years of the decade desperately trying every new idea they could scrounge up, which in 1973 meant a short-lived attempt to pivot away from horror and into comedies based on television series, releasing only one horror film (and not even in the UK), The Satanic Rites of Dracula - itself one of the foremost examples of Hammer's desperate bid for relevance, with its flop-sweaty attempt to keep churning the studio's fusty old-fashioned Gothic horror in modern-day clothes. Ironically, the second film that Amicus Productions, the little studio in the middle, released in that year took almost the exact opposite approach that Hammer had been failing to make work since the turn of the decade. Having first staked its claim as an alternative to the Hammer monolith by making films set in the present day at a time when Hammer was exclusively making period-set Gothics, Amicus's --And Now the Screaming Starts! was that studio's most direct attempt to do an unabashed Gothic of their very own, an old-fashioned ghost story set in a spooky old mansion that came out at maybe the single most hostile time for that kind of movie in the whole history of English-language horror.

I do not know if --And Now the Screaming Starts! was greeted at the time as an old-fashioned throwback that nobody could possible want, but I can say this much: viewing it decades later, after Amicus has long since ceased to exist, and there are no stakes left to whether this film was the right release for the marketplace as it stood in 1973, it definitely feels like tired bag of clichΓ©s older than the people making the movie. This story, in nearly all of its particulars, and much of its execution, could have been released at pretty much any point after 1930, though I am not sure that it would have felt fresh or original at any point after 1932 or so. It's pure ghost story boilerplate, with just enough of a sexual edge (presented in a purely family-friendly PG-rated way) that it seems vaguely edgier than an actual '30s or '40s version of the same material would have been, but that's about it. The only thing that came as a surprise at any point in the film's 90 minutes was that I took it for granted that it was going to turn out to be a Gaslight-style thriller about a man trying to drive his wife crazy, and when it became clear as the first act turned into the second that nope, there's an actual ghost, and the man is in fact trying to drive his wife sane, I was impressed in the most peacefully mild way.

Initially, it feels like we're in for a Rebecca riff, with a dazzled young bride, Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) being taken to Fengriffen Castle, home for many generations of the Fengriffen family - her family, now that she's married young Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy), current head of the family. The place is suffocating on history and thick dark shadows, with cinematographer Denys Coop letting the early scenes of the film smolder in underlit gloom that does great work accentuating the textures and surfaces of the handsome old place. Still, Catherine is more taken by the history than alarmed by the menacing atmosphere. The titular screaming starts when she spots a particularly dour portrait of a Fengriffen patriarch, with a bloody hand suddenly bursting through the canvas to grab at her. A moment later, everything appears to be fine, but it's the first of many encounters with that spectral hand that Catherine will be plagued by, with most of the household clicking their tongues darkly about what it might mean relative to the Fengriffens' dark past. Charles, for his part, absolutely refuses to tell her what it might mean, insisting that it's all rubbish and superstition in the snappish tones of a man who really, desperately hopes that it's rubbish and superstition, though he believes otherwise.

Nothing particularly elaborate, and it never really become otherwise. In broad strokes and most of the details, the nature of the Fengriffen family curse is pretty much exactly what such curses tend to be, and the film's attempt to build a faith vs. reason conflict atop that is also, frankly, pretty much exactly that such things tend to be. If there are pleasures to be found in ANTSS, they are mostly the pleasures of seeing a standard ghost story executed well on handsome sets by good actors. And even these pleasures are fairly muted. Beacham is quite good, always making sure to play Catherine as a character with very personal wants, fears, and drives, in addition to going through the mechanical needs of being shocked and jerking screaming and all that. She doesn't just beam out rays of uncomprehending terror at Charles, she reacts to him, regards his vagueness about the past with annoyed curiosity that emerges even through her panic. It's certainly more than the film demands, and it's enough to bring a little margin of human interest to offset how generic and boilerplate the story is.

But she's kind of it, as far as acting goes. Peter Cushing gives what it probably the objectively best performance in the film, as a rationalist psychiatrist who comes in around halfway through the movie, and there's just something off about the role; it's a little weird to bring in a character so late, have him serve entirely as an adjunct to other characters' arcs, and still give him so much damn screentime. Particularly when he's also played by the most recognisable face in the cast. It imbalances the film quite a bit, so even despite the great joys of seeing Cushing in a part so well-suited to his talents, it's hard to say that it's actually in the film's best interest to have him sweep into it so late (he receives first billing for it, too). At least when the next-most-famous person in the cast, Herbert Lom (second-billed), shows up near the end, it's expressly in the form of a flashback, where having a bigger name feels like a reasonable strategy. And Lom is pretty fantastic, for that matter, playing a disgusting beast of an aristocrat with a casual naturalism that feels very little like Lom's usual bombast and pomposity; it's as though the actor has reasoned, quite correctly, that the best way to deal with with the artifice of the setting is to contrast it with an unusually restrained portrayal of piggishly evil selfishness devoid of melodrama. Still, he's hardly in the film, and not at all in the actual story, which gets back to Beacham doing all the work of supporting the narrative herself, while Ogilvy skates through a blandly-written part.

As far as the other source of pleasure, the richness of the production, Amicus at least proves that they could do a good Gothic horror if they wanted to, with the help of a top-notch location. Director Roy Ward Baker, with his Hammer training, takes to the atmosphere extremely well, framing everything a little bit close to make this grand, palatial home feel claustrophobic and ill-suited for human life; with the help of Coop's grainy, dark cinematography, he captures something of the dusty, filmy air, still and stale. The film does a great job of making the castle seem lavish but also unappealing and looming; it is, at the very least, a good location for Gothic haunting, even if the color palette of 1973 film stock isn't meant to do this kind of thing, and only does it modestly well.

Still, a bit of good atmosphere, important as it is, can't do much if there's nothing interesting happening within that atmosphere. And when it comes down to it, the haunting of ANTSS is just not very engaging. There are some well-done double exposures that get a nice flare of uncanny, ghostly energy, but the film never gets around to making us care about the ghosts. It has the ingredients of a good Gothic horror film, I guess we could say, but it forgot to actually cook them into a dish, and so no matter how mechanically good individual shots might be, they don't add up to a good ghost story. It's just showing off a location, with some occasional special effect of a floating ghost hand to stand-in for a very good spooky horror picture to be filled in later.