Saturday, November 14, 2009

Carry On Hammer

CARRY ON SCREAMING! (1966)

Delicious Fenella Fielding is the highlight in this Hammer pastiche.

AS British as you can get, the CARRY ON series spanned twenty years with hardly a pause for breath. In the process they became a national institution, evolving from typical 1950s comedy fare into the motion picture equivalent of a seaside postcard - saucy, lewd but underlying inoffensive. Each entry featured a well-defined character that rarely altered from film to film; Sid James generally headed the cast as the lecherous old devil, Bernard Bresslaw was his gormless side-kick, Kenneth Williams the camp authority figure, Charles Hawtry the effeminate chap brimmin with enthusiasm, and either Kenneth Conner or Jim Dale as the likable bumbler. From a female perspective, Barbara Windsor was the sex kitten, and Joan Sim played James’ long-suffering wife/girlfriend.

Part of the charm was the strange fantasy world that they created; where else could Windsor be constantly presented as the most desirable woman in the world, and what other set of films would have Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth in drag be mistaken for real woman? By the early 1970s, not only did the CARRY ON’s keep reviving the same “ideas,” they were already popular on television, which itself was churning out re-treads. Considering the fact that audiences could sit and enjoy the same joke over and over in the comfort of their own home, its hardly surprising that the films began to decline in popularity. With the parody of Just Jaekin’s French 1974 soft-core hit CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE (1978), the initial run came to an inglorious end, failing to adapt to the changing tastes of audiences and film distributors - a similar downfall to Hammer.

Delirious Kenneth Williams as zombie mad scientist Dr Orlando Watt.

In fact, Hammer had much in common with the CARRY ON’s; both were made on small budgets by a regular production team, both employed a repertory of actors, and the films were dismissed by the critical establishment for many years. CARRY ON SCREAMING! opens with a suitably daft song, then immediately sets the mood with a shot of a creature walking through a misty wood. The night-time sequences are inevitably filled with fog, a cliché mocked in a scene in which Valeria (Fenella Fielding) is enveloped in a huge cloud after asking if the Sergeant (Harry H. Corbett) minds if she smokes. The film ably captures the lurid Eastmancolor look of Hammer, especially with the laboratory set, in which Watt (Kenneth Williams) memorably cries “Frying tonight!” as victims are plunged into a vat of bubbling wax. Aided by Oddbod (Tom Clegg) and Oddbod Junior (Billy Cornelius), Watt kidnaps young women - virgins, for some reason - and vitrifies them, to be sold as store dummies.

The standout performance belongs to the graceful Fielding as the voluptuous Valeria, a worthy companion to Vampira, Elvira and Morticia Addams, with a striking difference: Valeria wears a blindingly scarlet dress instead of the traditional vampire black. Williams also relishes his role as Watt - animated by regular juicing of electricity - and comes across as a fusion of Peter Cushing and Ernest Thesiger.