Looking Back At CARRY ON SCREAMING - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony went down to the woods tonight. Had a very big surprise…
Carry On Screaming, the 20th of 31 films in the Carry On series (Yes, we’re counting Columbus, die mad about it), is in some ways an entirely standard, if relatively low joke-count entry in the range.

On the other hand, if you look at it particularly hard, there are some key differences between Carry On Screaming and many of the other key Carry Ons.

For one thing, it lacks many of the ‘classic’ Carry On ensemble. That there’s no Barbara Windsor here is understandable – she joined the team for Carry On Spying in 1964, and the nature of Carry On Screaming is such that it would be difficult to find a part that made the most of her comic potential.

But there’s also no Hattie Jacques, who’d been with the team since the very first Carry On.

And, probably more significantly overall, there’s no Sid James – for whom the central role of Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung was written.

But, ironically for the kind of humour of which the Carry Ons were exemplary, James was booked in to play the pantomime Babes In The Wood during the time of the Carry On’s filming, so he missed the chance to play in Carry On Screaming.

What we have instead is Harry H Corbett, able to escape from Steptoe & Son for his only Carry On, thanks to Steptoe co-star Wilfred Brambell being off trying to break into Broadway.

That lends a very different feel to the action, simply because of Corbett’s size on the one hand, and his different approach to comedic roles on the other. In fact, depressing as this would no doubt be to him, it’s difficult not to envisage the DS Sidney Bung that we get in Carry On Screaming as anyone other than Harold Steptoe, beggaring about the place in a vaguely Sherlock Holmesian fashion. But when that feeling starts to descend, it’s probably time to take a chill pill and enjoy life more.

Also, the use of Corbett as Bung does open up the picture to some material that would have worked less well with James in the role. In particular, there are some lovely bits of music hall-style cross-talk in Carry On Screaming which simply wouldn’t have worked with more of the established Carryers On. In particular, Corbett as Bung and Peter Butterworth as Detective Constable Slobotham nail this rapid-fire to-and-fro, with help from both Jim Dale and the always-perfect Kenneth Williams.

This sort of cross-talk adds a different dimension to Carry On Screaming, certainly compared to the usually more ‘racy postcard pantomime’ style of many of the Carry Ons.

But then, it’s different in other ways, too.

While Joan Sims is in familiar territory as Bung’s wife – she usually had one of two roles in the Carry Ons, either steaming sex kitten or frequently misunderstood wife, and as Emily Bung, she buries the needle in that second stereotype – there is about Carry On Screaming something more in the way of purpose than many of the Carry Ons managed.

Many movies in the Carry On line were simply comedic experiments in racy mishap within professions or scenarios – Matron, Nurse, Cabby, Camping, etc. But there had begun to be a notion of the Carry Ons as broadly comic satires of other genres, too. Carry On Spying (1964) was more or less Carry On, Bond. Carry On Cleo (1964) was a satire – or at least a parody – of the big budget historical epics, not least Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra of 1963. Carry On Cowboy (1965) satirized both western movies and particularly the TV shows that had begun to pipe the wild west into houses up and down the UK. And so on. While the attempts at genre satire were eventually more frequently interspersed with films within the genre that the Carry Ons were developing for themselves, Carry On Screaming (1966) was slap bang in the middle of the run of more satirical Carry Ons – and it’s the favourite of lots of people for that reason.

Having a plot that borrows heavily from other familiar sources makes Carry On Screaming, if you will, the Airplane! Of its day, rather than just another Carry On full of lechery and stereotypes.

So what is Carry On Screaming satirizing? Some of the best Hollywood B-movie horror shockers, and some of Hammer Horror’s most ghastly inventions, too. And, hey, a touch of the Addams Family never hurt anyone, especially as it was airing while Carry On Screaming was being filmed. As with Cleo, Screaming was an example of the Carry Ons very much succeeding at satirizing the very recent or even current trends in popular film and television.

The actual plot is more of a device through which the cast swerve, trying to hit as many reference points as possible, than it is a single cohesive idea. Kenneth Williams is Doctor Watt (“Who is my uncle, or was, I haven’t seen him in ages.”). Technically written and made up as a kind of vampire, he gets his regenerative power from Frankenstein-style electricity, rather than gallons of the red stuff, and he’s brought to life an example of Homo Giganticus named Oddbod to fetch and carry.

Unfortunately, most of the things he fetches and carries are hapless women from in and around Hocombe Woods, for use in Watt’s fiendish business – vitrifying real women into shop dummies for use by high-class fashion boutiques.

Aiding Watt in his diabolical business is his sister, Valeria, played by the never-bettered Fenella Fielding. Again, while she never particularly engages in vampirism, she’s the classic seductive vampire, channelled significantly through Carolyn Jones’ Morticia Addams. She’s both purring seductress, trying to distract or co-opt the dogged detective, and eager accomplice in her brother’s vitrifying business.

While we’re in Addams Family territory, the cast also includes Bernard Bresslaw as Sockett, the Carry On’s Lurch-alike butler. He’s not a major player in the film, but a nice satirical touch, blowing major reveals like the fact that Watt is dead – but will see the policemen in a moment.

We’re dragged into the plot – remember, there’s one of those in this Carry On – by Jim Dale’s Albert Potter, who, having gone to Hocombe Woods to get passionate with his girlfriend Doris (Angela Douglas), is disconcerted when she disappears – carried off by Oddbod, who accidentally leaves a finger behind (a side effect of the electrical regeneration process being, as Watt puts it, that “you’re never sure what’s going to drop off next”). From Potter, we meet Bung and Slobotham, and begin investigations at the creepy old house in the middle of the woods, where the Watts and their ghoulish servants live.

Not to overstate the importance of Carry On Screaming, you could make an argument that in its fundamentals, it lays the groundwork for that later pastiche on Hollywood horror movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. True, the things it satirises are similar, and exist independently for each version to use, but still, it’s a comparison that can’t be entirely shrugged off.

There are, to be fair, seemingly unnecessary side-journeys in Carry On Screaming. One involving an ex-gardener of the Watts, “Dan Dann the gardening man,” played by Charles Hawtrey for around 6 minutes of screen time, and another involving a fairly dapper Scottish police doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, who looks distinctly at home among the levers and dials and electro-coils of the police laboratory. (Just one for the geeks – when Pertwee took over as the Third Doctor Who, his first story involved creepy shop dummies that came to life. Just sayin’…). Pertwee’s part, while funny in its own right and a celebration of comedy ‘business,’ and while it generates an Oddbod Junior, satirizing the ”Son of…” trope used by both Hollywood and Hammer to eke moremileage out of their horror concepts, doesn’t really add anything to the plot as such, any more than Hawtrey’s does. Still, it’s fun to have them in the film, for all that Hawtrey feels like he’s phoning it in from the somewhere much more interesting he’d rather be.

There are diversions too, as both Bung and Potter at different times take a potion lent to Watt by his friend Doctor Jekyll, and turn into ravening, slavering monsters (another sequence where Corbett convinces in a way it’s difficult to imagine Sid James doing).

And while there are plenty of horror notes throughout – the supernatural seductress, the regeneration by electricity, the man-beast wandering the woods, and, not for nothing, the creepy central premise of turning women into shop dummies - after a while, the true spirit of Carry On (pantomime meets postcard) begins to creep more and more in to Carry on Screaming. When Sergeant Bung and Constable Slobotham (pronounced Slow-bottom, naturally) set out to trap the woman-stealer of Hocombe Woods, to ensure the predator notices its typical prey, they pretend to be a courting couple, with Peter Butterworth dressing up in heavy drag to entice the monster.

That they’ve been followed by Emily Bung, who thinks her husband’s spending his energies on something other than policework, adds the joyful but also ghoulish complication that Oddbod Junior takes Emily home to get vitrified, and Bung suddenly has some skin in the game.

Meanwhile, Watt’s plan moves into its final phase. He’s been practicing with regeneration through electricity with the ultimate aim of reanimating an Egyptian mummy – you knew there had to be a mummy, right? We’ve had vampires, wolfmen, Bung and Hyde, Frankenstein’s butler, it wouldn’t be a complete Carry On without a mummy.

The mummy, Rubbatiti (Told you the spirit of Carry On was alive and well in this movie!), should be able to spill stories of Egyptian orgy barges and other such sensual delights – at least, that’s more or less the only rationalisation Watt gives to his plans.

However, when he finally succeeds, it seems that the Mummy was quite happy slumbering through the ages, thank you very much, and in very Frankensteinian terms, pursues its new father figure to a somewhat sticky end, even allowing for Kenneth Williams’ character to utter a catchphrase to camera before his final demise.

Having discovered a way to de-vitrify Doris, there’s a happy ending for the young courting couple who pulled us over to the dark side in the first place, but there’s one entirely horrible denouement that it would be a shame to spoil for you. Needless to say, though, it’s horrible both in its Hammer Horror vibe, and, from a modern perspective, horrible for its Carry On sexual politics too.

Overall though, Carry On Screaming is a much more watchable example of the breed than many of the less tightly themed Carry Ons. In fact, most of the satirical Carry Ons fair pretty well compared to the more ‘seaside postcard’ entries in the canon, and Carry On Screaming is a good example of why that is so.

Here, the actors are less regularly striving for reactions out of thin air. They have actual roles to inhabit, rather than simply an attitude. Kenneth Williams, for instance, was frequently called on to play one of three moods – either an evolution of his “Snide” character from his days on Hancock’s Half Hour, an effete brainbox, as in Carry On Sergeant, or a repressed authority figure, ready to be scandalised by mentions or visions of sex, as in Carry On Camping. Here, as an undead mastermind with a ghastly plan, he plays the character, and we as an audience are not left waiting for his next funny grimace.

In a sense, it’s perhaps just as well on that score that Sid James was replaced in this picture by Harry H Corbett. James was no slouch as a dramatic actor, certainly, but had he been in place, it’s more likely the producers would have used him for more standard Carry On jokes and expressions – a “Phwoar” here at Fenella Fielding’s seductive powers, an “Oh blimey!” of exasperation in his dealings with Slobotham, etc. All of which would have been perfectly in keeping with the developing Carry On brand, but would have made Carry On Screaming feel like “just another Carry On.”

In its points of difference, in allowing the actors to play actual characters at least some of the time, and in its possession of a plot beyond racy (not to say pervy) jokes, Carry On Screaming is one of the more 21st century-friendly Carry Ons, at least until the end. Give it a go now it’s available on Britbox, and give yourself a shock at how relatively well it’s aged.

Watch Carry On Screaming today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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