St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Carry On Screaming! (1966)

'Carry On Screaming!' title card.

This is the first film I’ve written about from the long-running Carry On franchise so I should start by describing what the hell they are. They’re almost unknown to Americans, but for twenty years the English made thirty of these movies, all with names like Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Doctor, or Carry On Cleo. They started as fairly snappy comedies that mixed a few no-hopers together to mock respected institutions like the army and hospitals. As they inched towards the 1970s, however, sexual innuendo became more and more the lynchpin of the Carry On style. What was some cheeky colour in the 1950s films turned into some pretty outrageous and tasteless raunch by the mid-70s, so what you get out of a Carry On very much depends on which one you see. On the whole they are sexist, tacky, outright racist in places, and almost universally homophobic.

So why are they so much fun? These films each starred largely the same cast of actors playing largely the same roles, so you always know what you’re going to get. You get to see familiar faces goofing around for ninety minutes; you get to see them put in more and more outrageous roles from cowboys to Julius Caesar; you get frankly some of the best puns and innuendo ever penned; and you get to see the campest bunch of actors ever assembled, because for the long time that homosexuality was outlawed in England being a performer was the only way these actors could let it all out in public. And it comes out in spades. Watching Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey chewing the scenery is always a complete delight.

Take this example from Carry On Matron (1972), featuring an exchange between Williams and Hawtrey in a hospital:

Hawtrey’s hideous wig, Williams’ flaring nostrils, and both of them outrageously camp… How can you not love it? For my money the second Hawtrey saunters onto the screen and demures, “Oh, helloooo,” is the highlight of every film. So no, I can’t defend the things these movies get wrong, but there is so much to love about what they get right. Even nowadays there is no modern version of the Carry On films. Seeing one of these is like seeing old friends, and what’s more you can tell you’re watching a movie where the cast is having a ball. Compare Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy (1999), where everyone is clearly having fun with the material, with Tom Cruise’s The Mummy (2017), which the cast is visibly miserable, and you’ll see what I mean. There is a real delight in watching people enjoy themselves.

A young man in Edwardian clothes.

Carry On Screaming! is a middle-of-the-road entry in the franchise. It’s not as much of a real film as the earlier ones, but it’s not the straight-up smut of the later ones. It comes at the time the franchise started doing direct parodies of other genres — Westerns, Roman epics, James Bond, and in this case the Hammer horror films, which makes it a great October flick for me. Jim Dale plays a young man on a date in the woods with his paramour when they are disturbed by something wandering around in the undergrowth.

A hairly wolfman type thing.

See, what I love about the English is their unerring dedication to cinematic realism.

A very camp evil scientist.

Kenneth Williams is our main Carry On regular here, starring as a mad scientist Doctor Watt (“Doctor Who was my uncle, but I haven’t seen him in years.”) A school chum of Doctor Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll, Watt has pioneered a revivification process that can bring back the dead. He’s also invented a vitrification process that turns living people into plastic mannequins, which he sells to department stores because we all know how stingy universities are with their grants. You bring a couple of neanderthals back to life and suddenly no-one wants to give you funding because your research is “unholy” and “usurping the role of God.” All I know is if Watt had been born a hundred years later he’d have made a fortune. There isn’t an actress in all of Hollywood who wouldn’t pay to be preserved young and brought back to life.

A Vampira-like woman and an evil scientist.

It’s typical for Carry Ons to have a dolly-bird type character, often played by Barbara Windsor. The female lead in this one is Fenella Fielding, who seems to love the chance to bust out a Vampira impression. She has one of those whiskey-soaked voices that makes her completely wonderful to watch.

The elfin-looking Charles Hawtrey.

A last-minute addition to this one was Charles Hawtrey. It’s a pity he doesn’t have a larger role here because he’s one of my favourites. He has this perpetually impish twinkle in his eye and his whole presentation is so light-footed and elfin that, even though Hawtrey was obviously gay, he comes off on screen as having no sexuality and no gender. It was one of the great tragedies of the Carry On franchise that, even though the actors were having fun with the material, they were often very unhappy in their own lives. Hawtrey, for example, resented being in these low comedies and wound up drinking himself to death some years later. Williams was another one — tormented by his unfulfilled sexuality and by a host of medical problems until he couldn’t stand the pain. I’ll be honest, when I watch one of these movies, I also enjoy the feeling of being in the company of people who I know had problems. Their laughter makes the world a little brighter, but their sadness makes it a little less lonely. Carry On Darkly, for anyone interested, is a documentary about how troubled the cast were in real life.

A man in very unconvincing drag.

And of course, because the English find it endlessly hilarious, we have a man in very unconvincing drag. Peter Butterworth is another great comic actor. He was also a war hero and took part in an escape attempt from a German POW camp during the Second World War. When he later auditioned for a part in a film about the escape, he was turned down because he wasn’t good looking enough.

The Skinny

Doctor Watt in a vat of something nasty.

“Frying tonight!”

It’s camp, it’s goofy, and it’s very funny. Carry On Screaming! has about the normal mix of genuinely wonderful jokes and groan-inducing stinkers, and as ever the enormous talent of its cast not only helps carry the film, it makes the film. There has never been another franchise like the Carry Ons, though I could possibly name the Leprechaun and Scary Movie franchises as close cousins. I’d love to see something that takes the charm and wit of the Carry Ons and brings them into the 21st century — something that sheds the sexism and homophobia and brings us something irreverent, satirical, and clever — but until then, it’s hard to beat the classics. If you want some honest Halloween fun, Carry On Screaming! is a great watch. Of course I had to wait until my boyfriend had gone to sleep to avoid his vocal protests, but I suspect he’s just getting back at me because I fell asleep in the middle of Suspiria.