Wow. This isn't just a good Carry On film, but a excellent film in its own right. The Carry On team does Hammer horror, which proves to be an inspired combination. Both franchises had been wildly successful when they began in 1957-58, basically thanks to sex and/or violence, but after a while the world caught up with them and they started looking dated. Nudity couldn't save them and they fell by the wayside in the 1970s. However this is the 1960s and they're still going strong. Hammer are riding high, while the Carry Ons, after some teething troubles, have at last starting solving the problems I had with their earlier films.
Horror and comedy are an awkward combination, but here the danger is avoided by pastiching Hammer's look and feel but not even trying to be scary. It isn't horror. It's not even close. It's just having fun pretending to be, although it should be noted that the impersonation is nearly faultless. 'Jack'
had done a startlingly good job of recreating their chosen genres, but here on the production side there'd hardly been any difference between a Carry On and a Hammer in the first place. They were working to similar budgets, had access to identical resources and drew their production teams from the same 1960s British film industry. It would have been harder to make Carry On Screaming not look like a Hammer film!
Nonetheless it's still worth praising the fact that it looks this good. There are bad Hammer horror films, too. However here we have a detailed period setting, the best clues towards a date being the nods to Sherlock Holmes. Joan Sims hates her husband's new-fangled telephone, while electricity is a mysterious and sinister substance that can bring life to the dead and cause a complete Neanderthal to regenerate from a single severed finger. The production values are excellent, in exactly the right studio-bound way. Then we have the gothic visuals, with Fenella Fielding dominating the screen in an eye-popping red dress and Kenneth Williams turning out for the undead. I'm more impressed by Williams every time I see him. Vocally he's giving us his usual camp preening, but his physical performance is unlike anything he'd ever done. I adore how he looks and behaves here, especially near the beginning when he's just been resurrected. It's a joy just watching him.
The most surprising thing about the film though is the story. There is one! What's more, it works! This is something that by no means could be taken for granted. On the twelfth attempt, at last a Carry On film has managed to have a properly constructed story. There's nothing you have to forgive or squint past, like Rothwell's self-destructive idiot plotting or Hudis's lack of interest in plot in the first place. Here on the other hand we have kidnap, murder and abhorrent abuses of science from a band of deliciously evil villains. That's always good for a laugh. Everything in the film is driving forward, with the possible exception of Charles Hawtrey's bit. He was added at the eleventh hour at the request of the American distributors. Anyway, our heroes get put through the wringer, Kenneth Williams gets a memorable death and the conclusion is so perfect that it's impossible to imagine any other ending.
I'm not kidding about Kenneth William's death, incidentally. It's flamboyant enough to earn a place in any Hammer film, but what makes it special is Williams's strange evil glee as he goes under. "Frying tonight!" What it lacks in gore, it more than makes up for in uniqueness.
Harry H. Corbett makes his only Carry On appearance, clearly taking over the lead role from Sid James. Even the character's name is Sidney. Fortunately I really liked Corbett. He knows what kind of film he's in and is really getting into the Carry On spirit, giving his role as much energy as anyone. He finds quite a few laughs and is always well worth watching. The only problem with the breadth of his portrayal is that he's responsible for the only bit of the film that doesn't work, involving a Jekyll and Hyde potion. His character becomes a monster, but unfortunately Corbett plays it like a cartoon. It's too stupid to be funny. His scene with Joan Sims in particular would have been infinitely stronger had he been frightening.
Admittedly Jim Dale goofs it up too later on when he drinks the same potion, but not to an extent that damages the film. This failure is particularly disappointing since the film had been otherwise taking its horror pastiche seriously. Obviously it's all about the laughs, but what makes them work is that they're taking place in a strong framework.
Joan Sims plays Corbett's harridan of a wife, who's supposedly so unattractive that it's not clear why they didn't cast Hattie Jacques. Quite a comedown from the Sims cleavage in Carry On Cowboy
. Admittedly she's not exactly slim, but it's a bit harsh for Kenneth Williams to seem to think she's less attractive than Peter Butterworth in drag. The important thing though is that she and Corbett bring alive their slightly hackneyed material. They're great together, actually.
Butterworth is firmly in the sidekick role, but still gets enough to shine. He's also mysteriously convincing as a woman, albeit a boot-faced elderly one. Jon Pertwee's cameo is almost underplayed by his standards and I thought he was great. Bernard Bresslaw is playing the Addams Family's Lurch and never has his height been put to better use. He gets almost no screen time, but he still manages to be memorable.
These stalwarts are all strong, but running away with the film at every opportunity is Fenella Fielding in a role almost as iconic as Amanda Barrie's in Carry On Cleo. "Do you mind if I smoke?" Pay attention the scene where Harry H. Corbett comes to question her about a murder and instead ends up seduced, or perhaps I should say steamrollered. Fielding simply eats up the screen. She's colossal in the role, although less quirky in it than Barrie.
What haven't I said? There's Amanda Douglas as the girlfriend who can't act... no, that's not fair. Frank Thornton appears, six years before becoming Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served. The music's also surprisingly good, although they've put most of it at the beginning.
This film isn't scary, but it's not trying to be. Crucially, it's funny. The actors and the situations are all memorable and there are some terrific lines in there, even by the standards of this series. "Are you sure those are your feet?" This film genuinely impressed me and I didn't even need to put on my Carry On head first. If this is the direction the series is going in, they're on the right track.