Frankie Howerd (Foster Twelvetrees), Ray Milland (Stewart Henderson), Hugh Burden (Reggie Henderson), Elizabeth MacLennan (Verity Henderson), Kenneth Griffith (Ernest Henderson), John Bennett (Patel), Rosalie Crutchley (Jessica Henderson), Ruth Denning (Agnes Henderson)
Director – Peter Sykes, Screenplay/Producers – Clive Exton & Terry Nation, Photography – Ian Wilson, Music – Harry Robinson, Makeup – Jill Carpenter, Art Direction – Maurice Carter. Production Company – Associated London Films/Extonation Productions. UK. 1973.
Foster Twelvetrees (Frankie Howerd) is a small time actor on the Edwardian stage - and the stages are usually small time as well, as are the audiences. Tonight he has just finished performing a monologue when he gets the offer to venture to a very big house in the country and entertain its residents, but he should have known better to accept a job without at first making sure he knew what he was getting into. For a start, the carriage taking him there won't go any further than half a mile from the mansion, so Foster is forced to trudge the way though the oncoming storm, getting spooked at what sounds like a scream in the forests... and that's not all.
Although probably most successful in his work in radio and television as far as his media work went, eccentric comedian Frankie Howerd did grace the cinema in a few vehicles for his unique style and delivery. This one was a horror comedy in the mould of The Cat and the Canary, a genre that had once been a staple of the movies (admittedly a lot of them pretty cheap ones) but by 1973 was dying out aside from the odd try at recapturing those glory days of comedians starring in their own tailor made roles: that happens now, of course, but humorous thrillers don't appear to have made it back onto the public's radar, not of this type at any rate.
Howerd had his script penned for him by two writers best known for their television work, Clive Exton and Terry Nation. Exton might be most celebrated for bringing both Jeeves and Wooster and Poirot to the small screen nearer the end of his career, while Nation of course was the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who; he had started out in comedy so was better suited to Howerd's persona than he might have appeared, and besides, this was still a horror film, with Nation a man who knew how to put the wind up his audience. If The House in Nightmare Park wasn't frightening exactly, it did place its star in a selection of perilous scenes that could just as easily be played for scares.
And there was still a light mood of disquiet, mainly down to the tatty nature of the production, though whether that was by accident or design is debatable. When Foster visits the old dark house, he thinks the place is deserted initially, but then discovers appearances can be deceptive and meets with a motley collection of relatives, all of whom turn out to be his own relatives too, not that he has any idea about that for most of the plot. Ray Milland plays Stewart Henderson, the patriarch, who tells Foster that he's simply there to entertain the gathering, and never mind that his elderly, veiled mother has just tried to bury a meat cleaver in his bonce as there's nothing for him to worry about really.
Naturally, this indicates that there's a lot to worry about yet Foster keeps getting coaxed back to stay, especially when he cottons on that there's a fortune in diamonds to get his mitts on. Howerd seems as if he's in a different film to the other actors, delivering his florid, vain comedy quips and observations with only us in the audience appreciating how well he's doing in such airless surroundings. He does get a few very funny moments, yet for the larger part of the film he is in something of a humour vacuum as the gloomy, even queasy atmosphere of madness and imminent murder tends to suck the lighthearted aspects out of the film. On the other hand, these moments of chills, while tugging in a different direction to Howerd, aren't too bad at all, with the Hendersons' idea of drawing room diversion - a weird musical act - a notable highlight. If Frankie never really found a fit in the movie world, then this was more amusing than some Britiish comedians' tries.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark
Images: Marcus Brooks