This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in October 2020.
Have you exhausted the Horror Channel’s catalogue of Hammer and Amicus classics? Watched every low-budget British horror from the 60s and 70s that Talking Pictures TV has to offer? Subscribe to The Dark Side? Well, did you know that there’s a whole other studio’s worth of terror awaiting the 21st-century viewer? One whose entire output practically vanished without a trace. No? You mean you’ve never heard of Blythewood?
It’s hardly surprising. In the same vein as portmanteau films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Torture Garden, in Studio of Screams five award-winning authors have rescued from obscurity the fruits of (the fictional) Blythewood Studios. In the press release, co-author Stephen Volk says: “many of us horror writers of a certain generation have treasured memories of Hammer Films, Amicus Productions and their ilk. Some of us have secretly longed for a way to relive and recapture the excitement we had when we first experienced them.” And that’s what this highly enjoyable collection delivers.
Four novellas – each one posited as the contemporary novelisation of one of Blythewood’s movies – are framed by interviews between reclusive studio head Lawrence Blythewood and Stephen R Bissette’s narrator, an academic who specialises in Cancel Culture. The novellas stand in for the films that our anonymous narrator watches throughout the course of a very specific day.
Mark Morris’s ‘Sword of the Demon’ is reminiscent of classic Hammer such as The Reptile or The Mummy. An expedition plunges into the remote wilds of China, funded by the wealthy and obnoxious Sir Clyde Stokeley, to discover the legendary treasures of a secret temple, including the fabled sword of Zheng. The expedition is a success – albeit one marred by mishaps and tragedy – and the spoils are brought back to Victorian London. One by one, our heroes – all-male, all-white – discover that they’ve brought something else back with them, too. The physical description of expedition leader Sir Winston makes it clear that in the ‘movie’ he is played by Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, which is a nice touch.
‘The Devil’s Circus’, by Christopher Golden, begins explosively: Yvette, daughter of a vineyard owner whose business has been destroyed by the phylloxera blight, flees her burning home. Left with nothing, she searches for her brother Claude who ran off to join the circus. She meets Hugo, searching for his own brother who he fears has been abducted by the same circus. Together, they hunt the mysterious Circus Furneaux. When they finally reach their goal, the dark secret behind the too-bright spectacle is revealed in all its horror. The reader’s expectations are continually undercut in a series of satisfying twists until the story culminates, as it began, in darkness and flame.
As if mirroring the loosening of restrictions in British cinema as the 60s progressed, the stories get progressively darker. Thus ‘Castle of the Lost’, by Tim Lebbon, begins with scenes that would make no cinematic cut: incestuous, orgiastic violence haunts the dreams of lead character Jack: the childhood horrors practised by his parents and sister are as dark as anything he experienced on the beaches of Normandy. With his new wife, Lucy and young son George they return to his ancestral castle in a West Country village, determined to exorcise whatever ghosts may remain there and to turn a place of dark memory into a bright public attraction. The ever-reliable Michael Gough ‘appears’ in this one, a work of retro-proto-folk horror.
Stephen Volk’s ‘The Squeamish’ is a battle of wills in swinging 60s London: in the blue corner is the repressed, puritanical censor Geraldine Copper (a name suggestive of her hair colour and of course a colloquialism for police); in the red corner is fiery young film director Marcus Rand (whose own surname is marvellously suggestive of both money and sex). Copper is determined to protect the delicate morals of the British public from the depravity of ‘The Mortal Sins of Dracula’, a sex and gore-fest that’s the debut feature of Rand (‘played’ by Oliver Reed). But not even death can stop this battle.
In between – and wrapping around – the ‘films’, are the interviews. Our narrator is under strict directions from the mysterious movie mogul, and it becomes clear that Blythewood has his reasons for showing these particular movies on this particular day.
There’s a heightening of tension throughout the book because each interview drops clues as to Blythewood’s motives. It transpires that there’s a box being used as a prop in each film (like the recurring figurine of a hare in Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton‘s Inside No 9) which the narrator is steered towards observing. He notes that there are jewels on display in it and that their number decreases with each film as if some esoteric message is being transmitted by Blythewood. This, ultimately, is the book’s one weakness. We have been teased, expecting some calamity that’s part of Blythewood’s master plan. And there is a calamity, but it’s a real-world one which – politics aside – feels like something of an anti-climax.
This minor niggle notwithstanding, Studio of Screams is a cleverly-constructed book in which there’s an interesting set of representations at work: we’re invited to read of Blythewood as if it were a real studio – and indeed so well-annotated and so well does our narrator mingle fact with fiction that Bissette initially had me wondering if it had indeed existed – and that these are ‘real’ novelisations of ‘real’ films. Therefore, paradoxically, we don’t read the novellas as trying to portray a reality on our own ontological level, but instead as re-presenting a very particular type of 1960s and 70s film.
But those of us who enjoy these old films can’t ignore the attitudes and assumptions they display, and there’s always a risk that any homage or pastiche may unconsciously incorporate them. A degree of ironic distancing is required: a delicate balance when you’re writing an ostensible ‘novelisation’ of a genre film – however fictional – from that era. Bissette makes this explicit and the other writers, through deft and subtle narrative choices, avoid falling into the traps inherent in such an enterprise.
Studio of Screams is an interesting prism through which we can examine our own responses to such films, but more than anything it’s a thoroughly enjoyable horror anthology.