‘For your horrification. Don’t see it alone – bring the children’
It was one of a number of British comedy films that parodied the successful British horror genre, closely associated with the Hammer horror films. Its plot follows that of a traditional “Old Dark House” story. In the US it was released as Crazy House.
Struggling artiste, Foster Twelvetrees (Frankie Howerd) performs his excruciatingly over-sincere readings of the classics in the flea pits of London, oblivious to the fact his meagre audiences are, at best, asleep. Never one to turn down a paying gig, he accepts an offer from Stewart Henderson (Ray Milland, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes; Frogs) to perform for his family in his sprawling Gothic mansion.
Despite the spooky surroundings and odd behaviour of Henderson’s sister, Jessica (Rosalie Crutchley, 1963’s The Haunting) and their Indian servant, Patel (a ‘blacked-up’ John Bennett, also in The House That Dripped Blood) who seem particularly intent on rifling through Twelvetree’s luggage.
During the night the house is stirred by the arrival of Henderson’s brother, Reggie (Hugh Burden, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb) plus his niece, Verity (Elizabeth MacLennan, Hands of the Ripper), who seem to be looking for handouts from the ill brother of the family, Victor, who is apparently locked in his room, convalescing. Elsewhere, it is apparent their aged mother is in a locked room in the house – Foster gets along with her very well until she attempts to murder him, Patel coming to his rescue.
Suspicions are roused that there may have been unknown changes to Victor’s will and the confusion builds to a head when it is found that Victor isn’t in his room, only a dummy – not only that but Twelvetrees hasn’t been led to the house for reasons of entertainment but because he is in fact yet another brother and may hold the key to the missing family diamonds.
With the family plotting between and against each other, the action leads to the peculiarly placed snake-house where it becomes clear that only the last person standing will have a chance of claiming the lost hoard…
The 1960’s had seen a remarkable change in the fortunes of Howerd who had despaired throughout the 50’s as both bad project choices, changing fads and crippling stage-fright had devastated his career as one of the UK’s top comedians. By recognising his strengths as an almost avant garde performer, able to spin on a sixpence and deliver out of character/script bon mots, he had embraced the variety background rather than rebel against it.
Regardless, he still harboured thoughts of giving at least one great performance on the silver screen, especially since he had been denied the opportunity to reprise his successful stage role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, overlooked in favour of the original star, Zero Mostel.
Howerd’s previous big screen appearances had usually missed the mark, often by a significant distance – he harboured a lifelong grudge against director Michael Winner for, in his opinion, almost ruining his career, after appearing in his production of The Cool Mikado.
Ray Milland was particularly keen on the project, as he was a big fan of Frankie Howerd.
The House in Nightmare Park was essentially from the stable of Associated English Scripts (ALS), a company founded by Howerd and his agent Stanley Dale alongside the comedy writers, Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, later to expand to include the likes of Terry Nation (who here co-produces) and their secretary Beryl Vertue (now recognised as one of the most important figures in British television).
In 1967, ALS merged with the Australian Robert Stigwood Company and through this antipodean connection led to Peter Sykes being installed as director (later to offer forth the rather less comedic Demons of the Mind and To the Devil a Daughter for Hammer).
Screenplay duties were handled by both Terry Nation and Clive Exton, who between them covered everything from Doctor Who to 10 Rillington Place over their relentless writing careers.
It is perhaps odd then that where the film fundamentally falls down is the screenplay. It is almost crushingly overworked and fussy, introducing so many brothers you half expect Howard Keel to start dancing at the end of the dining room table.
There is also the perennial problem of pitching a comedy horror at the right level to please both audiences – it’s a pretty decent effort, Howerd’s character as a lousy ham actor allowing his whimsical one-liners to carry without dragging you out of the film.
The film is clearly steeped in the history of both The Old Dark House (the 1963 version rather than the 1932 classic) and The Cat and the Canary (Bob Hope version) and it is aided by the excellent cinematography of Ian Wilson (before he did Queen Kong!) in the recognisable surroundings of Oakley Court in Berkshire, seen in everything from The Plague of the Zombies to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not to mention the oozy credits of TV series Hammer House of Horror.
Keeping with the Hammer connection, a word on the score – a masterful one from Harry Robertson (here, Robinson), famous for many horror scores, including The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil. Some may say the score is too good for the film but that only lends the film even more of a peculiar air – so many familiar actors of such great standing and yet, somehow, it doesn’t quite work.
The film very much belongs to Howerd, Milland stays in the shadows, never really able to build on a character that is far more crucial than the action suggests. Only Hugh Burden gets a good run out, constantly referring to Twelvetrees as a ‘swine’ – it borders on annoying but re-watches are surprisingly forgiving.
It goes without saying that violence is not a core part of the film and beyond the threat of interrupted sleep and some snakes, the fear is largely non-existent – this is even more frustrating when we are treated to an incredibly effective surprise ending, which only serves to remind the viewer how unnecessary the long introductions the characters get are.
The film, alas, did nothing to change Howerd’s luck at the box office but it remains his best film and the one he was most fond of. It’s a film which is well worth persevering with, a unique venture in many ways, despite its familiar influences and one which has more laughs than many comedies of the era and more atmosphere than plenty of horror films.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia
“Ably shaped and paced by Peter Sykes (who drew on his experience not only of the genre of Hammer horror but also that of the mainstream British comedy), the movie covered (and quietly mocked) most of the old dark house clichés, while making the most of the somewhat laboured comic material, and pushed the plot on to its predictable conclusion. Compared to The Cat and the Canary, it was decidedly second-rate, but, compared to most of Howerd’s previous efforts it represented a well above average attempt (and, thanks to Sykes and his cinematographer Ian Wilson, it looked far better than many other British comedy productions of the time).” Graham McCann, Frankie Howerd: Stand-up Comic
“Films encountered at an impressionable age often fail to hold quite the same magic when re-evaluated later. The House in Nightmare Park is a glorious exception. The horror conventions are lovingly embraced rather than mocked and Frankie Howerd is at his best. It needs no greater recommendation than that.” Robert Ross, The Complete Frankie Howerd
“Sykes directs in his best high romantic style (the opening is brilliant) and Howerd restrains himself sufficiently; but though some gags work, towards half time the strain begins to tell and it all falls apart.” Time Out
“Very funny, very Hammer… and very, very good. Who says there’s only ever been one successful Hammer-alike horror comedy ever produced? Carry On Screaming, you’ve got competition…” British Horror Films
Cast and characters:
- Frankie Howerd – Foster Twelvetrees
- Ray Milland – Stewart Henderson
- Hugh Burden – Reggie Henderson
- Kenneth Griffith – Ernest Henderson
- John Bennett – Patel
- Rosalie Crutchley – Jessica Henderson
- Ruth Dunning – Agnes Henderson
- Elizabeth MacLennan – Verity Henderson
- Aimée Delamain – Mother
- Peter Munt – Cabbie