Active in British show business since the mid-‘40s (when he made his debut on BBC Radio’s Variety Bandbox), much loved British comedian Frankie Howerd forged an act that remained largely the same across a career spanning six decades, going in and out of fashion at regular intervals until unexpectedly taking off once again just before his death in 1992, when he was embraced by the alternative comedy circuit and found a new lease of life playing to student audiences all around the country. After a successful TV career in the 1950s, early attempts at dramatic diversification into Shakespearian roles, etc., failed to click on with the general public and Frankie found himself unable to get work until the sixties comedy revival in anti-establishment satire provided a new venue for his individualistic comic persona through guest appearances on “That Was the Week That Was”. Some of the best British comedy writers of the day, such as Galton and Simpson and Barry Cryer, were soon drawn to work with him, as Howerd honed his unique rambling monologue style of delivery, complete with its scripted off-the-cuff asides and appealing catch phrases, all packaged alongside a collection of archly comic facial expressions often feigning outrage at his audiences’ propensity for finding double entendres in his ‘innocent’ jokes. Throughout these highs and lows in his popularity Howerd also maintained a sporadic film career, from his Val Guest directed debut “The Runaway Bus” opposite Margaret Rutherford and Petula Clark in 1954, to” The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery” in 1966, which led to a handful of appearances in the late-‘60s run of Carry On films. The success of the 1970s sit-com “Up Pompeii” briefly revived the comedian’s flagging screen career once more but his final, and possibly best, adventure upon the British silver screen (he also appeared in the ill-conceived Robert Stigwood produced Beatles ‘rock opera’ “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1978, opposite an unlikely cast combining the likes of Peter Frampton and Donald Pleasence … ‘It was like “Saturday Night Fever” without the fever!’ quipped the comedian, later) was 1974’s tribute to the British Hammer/Amicus tradition of horror, “The House in Nightmare Park”.
This was one of the last handsomely mounted British horror films of the 1970s, since the characteristic but dated plush Gothic style which the look of the film so lovingly pays tribute to was already struggling to survive in the recession hit Britain of the 1970s, as the American money which had flooded into the country during the sixties now as quickly drained away again. The screenplay, by Terry Nation and Clive Exton, harks right back to that Hollywood staple “The Cat and the Canary”, which had seen numerous screen adaptations based on the 1922 John Willard stage play being regularly cranked out down the years, one of them (the 1939 version) also mounted as a comic horror vehicle, in that instance for the US comedian Bob Hope. The scenario had also been reworked in the 1961 British comedy “What A Carve Up!” with Sid James and Kenneth Conner, but “The House in Nightmare Park” layers the original’s simple plot about a group of claimants to an inheritance being killed off one by one after assembling in a remote manor house for the reading of a will, with an extra helping of macabre by combining the plot with elements borrowed from James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” and Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.
In this outing, Frankie Howerd plays a hopeless Edwardian tragedian by the name of Foster Twelvetrees: a vain and self-regarding ‘master of the spoken word’ who tours his one man show around half-empty venues in the back rooms of public houses, oblivious to the snores of indifferent audience members and raspberry blowing schoolchildren alike, while he floridly hams his way through sentimental scenes from Dickens novels, ‘the murder of Nancy’ and ‘the death of Little Nell’ being particular favourites. The penniless thespian from Putney is lured to a remote mansion on the Yorkshire moors one night, with the promise of five guineas for giving its occupants a private viewing of one of his ‘inimitable performances’. Here he finds a sinister brother and sister, Stewart (Ray Milland) and Jessica (Rosalie Crutchley) Henderson, living in the thrall of the Hindu Goddess of Death, Kali, with their Indian man servant Patel (a blacked-up John Bennett) and a hot house full of Indian cobras that are fed on a diet of cute bunny rabbits while being housed in a steamy but dark dungeon cellar. The duo is also secretly hiding their mad meat cleaver-flourishing mother (Aimée Delamain) in the attic and an unseen brother called Victor is apparently confined to his upstairs room with a mystery incurable illness. As other members of the crazy Henderson family turn up – bluff Sergeant Majorish Reggie (Hugh Burden) and his pretty daughter Verity (Elizabeth MacLennan), followed by murderous vet Ernest (Kenneth Griffith) and his snob of a wife Agnes (Ruth Dunning) – it becomes apparent to Twelvetrees that no-one is here to catch his extravagant theatrical performance and that each seems to be under the impression that the mother in the attic is dead and that they are all due the proceeds from a hidden cache of diamonds when her sickly eldest son Victor finally dies. The plot thickens when it is revealed that Foster is actually related to the Henderson clan and next in line to inherit everything, while Stuart has been keeping the death of Victor a secret (the body in his bed actually belongs to a ventriloquist’s dummy). Stuart and Jessica have divined that Foster Twelvetrees is unknowingly in possession of a secret that would reveal the whereabouts of the diamonds hidden on the estate and are plotting to winkle the information out of the bewildered thesp, then have mad mummy in the attic finish him off with her meat cleaver. When Ernest thinks he’s accidently stumbled upon the key to the mystery he and his wife set about trying to kill Foster themselves, while the beleaguered theatrical finds help from the demure Verity, who proves to have a sharp mind and a steely streak about her. But it’s not long before the entire family itself becomes the prey of a killer from within its own ranks; while the insane, black veiled mother breaks out of her locked attic rooms and stalks the corridors and grounds of the mansion, also with murder on her mind.
From Foster Twelvetrees’ stormy coach ride through the Yorkshire wilds, to his first sighting of the ornate Henderson pile, it becomes clear that “The House in Nightmare Park” is happy to mantle itself in the expected clichés of the Gothic horror film tradition, and if the coach driver’s unwillingness to convey Twelvetrees any nearer to his chosen destination than half a mile outside the grounds isn’t indication enough of the type of experience the unsuspecting actor (now clad in Sherlockian Ulster coat) can expect from his hosts, then the fact that the exterior of the house, when at last glimpsed through bluish lightning strikes, takes the shape of Oakley Court -- that Frenchified former Winsor production home of (and frequently filmed venue for) numerous Hammer outings -- should be more than enough evidence to at least alert the viewer of the sort of area that’s about to be covered, especially when allied with the fact that Twelvetrees’ night-time storm-lashed stumble through the mansion’s fogbound grounds was filmed at familiar Hammer films exterior locations spot, Black Park. The interiors of the house were created at Pinewood studios by Maurice Carter and are dripping with faded Victorian splendour and gilded with the exotic influence supposedly brought over with the Henderson’s stint in India, while also providing subtly indicative evidence of the family’s mental disintegration through the hints of damp and mould noticeable in the edges and corners of the florid wallpapering, and by the gloom of the upstairs corridors.
More striking still are the crooked house-like fairy tale furnishings of the mother’s attic room -- all lopsided portraits and creaky grandma rocking chair – and the vault-like home of the family’s pet pythons and cobras in the underground cellar. Cinematographer Ian Wilson (“And Soon The Darkness”, “Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter”) manages to whip up a convincing approximation of the late Hammer visual style and composer Harry Robertson completes the effect by resisting the urge to camp it up and delivering instead a ‘straight’ horror score, reminiscent of his work on Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. The Hammer connection is completed at the top of the production pyramid since the film’s Australian-born director Peter Sykes had just come off the company's lyrical Freudian period chiller, “Demons of the Mind” and later went on to helm its last traditional horror vehicle for Christopher Lee, “To The Devil A Daughter”. Sykes makes no concessions to the comedic core of the screenplay (focused, as it rightly should be, on Howerd’s enjoyably scatty but pompous stage persona) but enhances many an authentically nightmarish scenario with the use of offbeat camera set-ups and wide angle camera lenses, which are utilised during the film’s more macabre moments to produce startling eerie effects which hold their menace amid Howerd’s string of stuttering one-liners and hilarious facial gurnings.
Amongst his TV work, Sykes had directed several episodes of “The Avengers”, including one of Terry Nation’s episodes, “Noon Doomsday”, and it was Nation and co-writer Clive Exton, in their capacity as the film’s producers (former DOCTOR WHO producer Verity Lambert was also a co-producer here too) who chose Sykes for the job after supposedly screening every recent British horror film under the sun in order to find a suitable director. Although these days mainly remembered as a TV writer and producer of great distinction involved with various action series, and for his contribution to British Sci-fi as the originator of the Daleks concept for DOCTOR WHO -- as well as creator of numerous shows such as “Blake’s 7” and “Survivors” -- Nation had also written for many British comic greats in his time, such as Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Ronnie Barker. Both Howerd and Nation had recently shared an agent in Beryl Vertue, and so when Vertue moved on to producing films for her agency’s sister company Associated London Films (the film version of sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part” was the company’s first project) Nation’s experience in British comedy made him a natural choice to write this star vehicle for Howerd’s particular comedy talents.
The writer finds ingenious means of incorporating the peccadillos and tics of the comedian’s by now well-established TV persona into the characterisation of Twelvetrees; Howerd’s patented brand of bumbling procrastination – forever failing to get to the point of the anecdote he’s supposed to be relating – and nervous dithering around the opposite sex are neatly conveyed in an enjoyable scene during which Twelvetrees talks aloud in his sleep while dreaming he’s fending off the advances of someone called Melanie (‘Oh... no. Melanie, don't... you mustn't... I'm saving myself for Miss Right!’), only for his imagings to be interrupted by persistent knocking at his bedroom door (‘They won't let you enjoy anything in this house’). Twelvetrees’ ludicrous vanity is beautifully illustrated when his bedside table set-up is shown to consist of a large mirror surrounded by posed portraits of himself (‘Not bad for 32!’). Other members of the cast play varying degrees of deranged (including Kenneth Griffith who had appeared in Nation’s episodes of “Hancock”) while Ray Milland plays it deliberately straight and purposely bland, seemingly forever unaffected by Howerd’s persistent comic blustering but gradually revealing a creepy mother fixation. Rosalie Crutchley, meanwhile, is imposing and sinister as the mostly mute but deadly Jessica, who’s incipient madness reveals itself when Twelvetrees witnesses her in the cellar, feeding her Indian Pythons two huge rabbits from an outdoor hutch (‘May I stroke them … I mean the rabbits!’), and flicking her tongue in demented sympathy with the reptiles as the poor furry victims are digested. Twelvetrees responds by falling into an exaggerated swoon, but he later must venture into the snake pit himself in order to claim his inheritance, coming up against a cobra about to strike at his nether regions. (‘Please make it a crusher not a biter,’ he prays as the snake rears up between his legs!)
The comedy and the macabre successfully go hand in hand throughout this movie, but nowhere more so than in the film’s weirdest and most effective sequence: while taking tea with the deranged bald headed mother figure kept locked upstairs (and before she attempts to bisect his skull with a meat cleaver) Twelvetrees learns how the entire family once practiced its own variety turn under the banner Henderson’s Human Marionettes, performing across their adopted country a musical piece entitled The Dance of the Dolls during the period they were stationed in India when the brothers and their one sister were still young children. He gets treated to a demented re-enacted performance of it later in the film during a scene that could’ve sat comfortably in any episode of “The League of Gentlemen” or “Psychoville”. The now grown-up troupe don soldier, sailor and golliwog make-up and prance in jerky marionette movements in the background while Jessica, as a rouged up ‘nurse’ in surgical smock, delivers a sing-song nursery rhyme in eerily childlike tones. No other part of the movie matches this for full-on creepiness factor but the movie’s unusual mix of Howerd’s familiar and comforting comic persona and the well-executed mode of traditional British horror atmosphere surrounding it ensure “The House in Nightmare Park” is worth seeking out as a last hurrah of a dying form, by anyone with an interest in the British horror tradition.
This release by Network features an excellent transfer and gives you the option of watching the film in its matted-for-theatrical-display aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or in the original full frame version, with extra information at the top and bottom of frame preserved. A theatrical trailer, a mute TV spot, an image gallery and a music only audio track are the only other extras, but this is a very worthwhile addition to British horror fans’ collections, and has been given a very nice release by the always reliable Network label.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!