BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The House in Nightmare Park / DVD Review

By the time he made The House in Nightmare Park in 1972, Frankie Howerd was again enjoying a period of sustained success in film and television after another of what Barry Cryer often referred to as Howerd's 'series of comebacks' from the unpredictable highs and lows of several disappointing projects he undertook in the late 1960s.

It was when, in 1967, his representation at Associated London Scripts (ALS) underwent a significant change that an unexpected partnership with The Bee Gees foundered and he suffered a thwarted attempt to play on Broadway. ALS had been formed by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan, Galton and Simpson, Howerd and his agent Stanley Dale. By 1955, writers such as Terry Nation, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus, Barry Took and Dick Vosburgh had joined the expanding team and they had a secretary, one Beryl Vertue.

Beryl, now highly regarded as a major British television and film producer, recalls, 'I started off in this funny old office and I did the switchboard... they had everything ancient where you'd put things in holes - you know, like a 1920s movie. I made loads of tea, up and down, everywhere. Typed the scripts, typed the Goon Show scripts and answered loads of fan mail.' (1)

Robert Stigwood, the Australian music impresario, merged The Robert Stigwood Organisation with Associated London Scripts in 1967 and Beryl, now managing Howerd, became company director and went on to steer several film versions of hit television comedies developed via ALS's own off-shoot, Associated London Films. At first, Howerd found himself working with one of Stigwood's clients, The Bee Gees, on a one-off television special, produced by David Frost for Thames in 1968, Frankie Howerd Meets The Bee Gees and later, on one of the strangest films of all their careers, Cucumber Castle (1970). When it came to filming this on location at Stigwood's country mansion in 1969, Robin Gibb had already split from The Bee Gees. The resulting film, which also featured Lulu, Spike Milligan, Vincent Price and Eleanor Bron is often regarded as something of a bizarre and embarrassing indulgence.
the cowardly hero aligned with the pomposity of a ham actor...
For Howerd, it was also sheer hostility that greeted Galton and Simpson's play The Wind in the Sassafras Trees when it arrived in Boston after a sell-out success during a limited run in Coventry. Rewritten, cut and rewritten again, then retitled as Rockefeller and the Red Indians, it limped on to a New York opening and, after being given the last rites by notorious New York critic Clive Barnes, sadly lasted only four performances before closing in October 1968.

Yet, even as Frankie steamed home from New York on RMS Queen Elisabeth, the BBC's Head of Comedy Michael Mills had been inspired enough by a trip to the ruins of Pompeii and memories of Howerd's triumph in the West End production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to commission a Comedy Playhouse script for him.

This was written by Talbot Rothwell, a veteran of nineteen Carry On films, and was very loosely based on the the writings of Plautus, already used as the basis of A Funny Thing..., 'featuring conniving slaves who manage to extract their grateful masters from sticky situations, adopting various disguises and deceptions to win love or money'. (2)

The result was Up Pompeii! (BBC, 1969-70, 1975 and ITV, 1991) and Howerd liked the pilot script enough to commit, seeing in it a potential to develop the technique of directing asides to the audience, using it to play against the material, other cast members and the staging, that he'd been trying out since he worked with Sheila Hancock on Tons of Money in 1956. (3)

The huge success of Up Pompeii! paved the way for an Associated London Films adaptation, written by Sid Colin and directed by Bob Kellett which went into production at Elstree in Autumn 1970. This was followed in quick succession by more Colin and Kellett capers (with some help from Galton and Simpson) in Up the Chastity Belt, which was shot in the Spring of 1971 and had to be edited down to 90 minutes from an original three hour cut. A final film from the same team, the less effective Up the Front, was made in 1972. All were based on the formula established by Howerd in the BBC series, one he would rehash again for Sid Colin's Whoops Baghdad sitcom in 1973.

The House in Nightmare Park eschews much of this well-trodden path and its lack of inimitable Frankie asides to the camera is often used to unfairly dismiss the film. Rather it indulges in other facets of the Howerd act: the faux-heterosexual veneer of Howerd as a 'ladies' man', the cowardly hero aligned with the pomposity of a ham actor, where 'the essense of his screen persona is retained but not to the detriment of the plot and atmospheric setting' and it comes complete with 'lavatorial humour, sexual coyness, self-absorbed self-deception and ingrained cowardliness.' (4)

Shot in six weeks between November and December 1972, it was produced and written by longtime ALS members Terry Nation and Clive Exton. Nation was one of the busiest television and film script writers working at the time, having contributed, edited and produced a range of slick action adventure series including The Avengers (ABC, 1961-69), The Saint (ITC, 1962-69), The Baron (ITC, 1965-66) and The Persuaders (ITC, 1971). However, his roots were in comedy and at ALS in the 1950s he had provided over 200 radio scripts for Howerd, Terry Scott, Eric Sykes and Harry Worth. By the early 1960s, Tony Hancock asked him to contribute to his post-BBC television series for ATV and stage act. It was a row with Hancock that sent him in the direction of Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89, 1996, 2005-) and his subsequent career as a writer of television high adventure and science fiction.

Exton had been equally prolific to this point, making contributions to The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) and Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), gaining some notoriety with difficult material when his play for the latter, The Trial of Dr Fancy, was held up for transmission for two years, until 1964, after fears that the black comedy about a murder trial might cause offence. He had also adapted John Wyndham's Dumb Martian for Armchair Theatre, a production which acted as an introduction to the science fiction anthology Out of This World (ABC, 1962), provided scripts for Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), ITV Playhouse (1967-83), Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72) and was also responsible for a number of screenplays, for Night Must Fall (1964), Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970) and Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place (1971).

Nation and Exton's script indulged Howerd's own love for comedy-thrillers, offering a pastiche of Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Universal and Hammer versions of The Old Dark House (1932 and 1963 respectively) and Christie's And Then There Were None. The House in Nightmare Park offered Howerd a recycling of the familiar genre tropes of storm-lashed haunted houses where eclectic groups of strangers are invited for the reading of a will or an odd family harbours a terrible secret and its members are killed off, one by one, during the night by a mysterious assailant intent on revealing a hidden legacy.

The House in Nightmare Park certainly looks the part with set designer Maurice Carter's interiors, the distressed Victoriana suggesting the decline and fall of the British Empire in one fell swoop, occupying Pinewood and complimented by exteriors shot at Oakley Court, the Victorian Gothic house that adjoined Bray Studios. It was similarly used for many Hammer films including The Brides of Dracula (1960), the William Castle remake of The Old Dark House (1963), The Reptile (1966) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and director Freddie Francis extensively used both the exterior and interior of the house for his own comedy-thriller about a dysfunctional family Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970). It would become 'The Frankenstein Place' in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

With this script presented to him, Howerd spent part of a trip to Los Angeles to woo Hollywood veteran and Neath-born Ray Milland and persuade him to co-star in the film. Milland did not need any persuasion, regarding Howerd as his 'favourite English comedian' and his cooperation was secured. Joining Milland were several highly regarded British character actors, including Hugh Burden, Kenneth Griffith, Ruth Dunning, Rosalie Crutchley and Aimée Delamain. They portray the highly dysfunctional Henderson clan who have machinations aplenty for poor Frankie's character, the ham actor Foster Twelvetrees. Stewart Henderson (Milland) invites Twelvetrees to give a recital at his country house and he soon finds himself trapped in a Gothic murder mystery as each of the Hendersons attempts to secure a diamond legacy left to the secret son of dead patriarch Victor Henderson. Twelvetrees is in fact the son and not only he is entitled to everything in Victor's will but he also has the clue to the location of the diamonds.
'Another two minutes and I might have cheapened meself.' 
Australian director Peter Sykes, a television trained documentarian, was also a Hammer alumnus and had just completed Demons of the Mind (1972) for them at Elstree during August and September of 1971. His visual flair permeates the film and it starts as it means to go on with Howerd clearly relishing his role as the purple prosed, gurning Twelvetrees in the opening scene. Sykes allowing his camera to drift through the bored and sleeping audience at Twelvetrees' recital to frame Milland's villainous Stewart Henderson wringing the life out of a white silk scarf and, outside the hall, proclaiming to his poker faced sister Jessica Henderson (Crutchley) 'It is he! Incredible!'

The ubiquitous coach man abandons Twelvetrees to his cry of 'I hope your whip shrivels' and there's a splendid mocking of the horror cliches as he is stopped short by screams and a flash of lightning that splendidly illuminates Oakley Court's crenelated facade. Once inside, he stumbles upon an empty house with a drawing room left in some upset. Sykes beautifully frames Howerd through the arm of a gramophone at one stage and then uses some lovely overhead shots before Twelvetrees meets Patel, the Indian servant (played by John Bennett back in the day when it still seemed acceptable for white actors to 'black up').

The excessive flatterer Stewart offers Twelvetrees a weclome drink ('I had a packet of crisps on the train. Perhaps something to rinse the bits out of my teeth') and there's a wonderful scene driven by some great physical comedy between Howerd and Milland as Twelvetrees is prevented at every turn to bring that welcoming glass to his lips. As Stewart also moves into frame to explain his conversion to the Hindu faith, Ian Wilson's gorgeous cinematography bathes Milland's face in a sickly yellow light before the camera prowls over a statue of the goddess of destruction, Kali. Howerd's little whine of exasperation as Twelvetrees is packed off to bed early without a drop is a perfect coda.

Sykes and Wilson contrast a wonderfully off-kilter shot of Stewart and Jessica bowing and incanting before Kali with Twelvetrees arranging his knick-knacks and silver framed self-portraits on his dresser ('not bad for thirty-two' he claims into the mirror) before following him, in a hand-held tracking shot, to the inevitable toilet gag. Howerd's chaste sexual persona is summed up by a delicious bit of innuendo as during a dream, brought on by crashing window shutters, he murmurs to 'Melanie' he's saving himself for Ms Right until a thumping at the door is heralded by, 'Oh, no Melanie. Oh, it's the knockers, Melanie.' Getting out of bed, he grumpily asserts, 'Another two minutes and I might have cheapened meself.'

The scene at breakfast is also another rather glorious piece of physical comedy. Here, we meet Stewart's intolerant, blustering brother Reggie (Burden) and a duel between him and Twelvetrees to claim the last sausage from the breakfast buffet is played wonderfully by both. Another joke about knockers is delivered with great aplomb by Howerd later on when, upon meeting Jessica outside feeding rabbits, Twelvetrees offers to stroke them (the rabbits, that is). Crutchley's expression of alarm is priceless and she tops this with a sinister bit of business, her tongue darting in and out as she takes the rabbits and feeds them to the snakes in a basement reptile house.

As the thick plottens, various family members attempt to bump off Twelvetrees as he discovers that he has inherited Victor's estate and the hidden diamonds. Aimée Delamain is marvellous as the rather unhinged, black veiled matriarch who attempts to plunge a cleaver into his skull as she serves him tea. 'What lovely soft hair you have', she purrs, stroking Howerd's wig, an in-joke which allows him some self-mockery, 'It does give me some trouble. What with it being so fine.' Stewart's plaintive plea to persuade Twelvetrees to stay is also a great little scene, spinning a sob story about an idyllic childhood and a caring mother.

Among the many highlights is the evening's entertainment as, about to give his recital, Twelvetrees trades some fantastic insults with Reggie: 'Performance? Where's his hurdy-gurdy then?' 'I left it at home. I didn't know there'd be monkey here to sit on top.' When Verity (Elizabeth MacLennan), Reggie's daughter, offers him a choice between amontillado or chablis to drink, he asks, 'I don't suppose you do a brown ale, do you?' After an argument with Reggie, Verity tearfully storms out and while Twelvetrees attempts to cheer her up with a bit of Dickens, she screams and faints after seeing a face at the window. Howerd and Burden keep the antagonism going when Reggie is horrified to find Twelvetrees over Verity's unconscious body. Howerd almost turns to camera to explain, 'I was just giving her me Little Nell' and then allows Burden to upstage him with, 'you filthy swine!'

The face at the window heralds a scenery chewing turn from Kenneth Griffith as Ernest Henderson and Ruth Dunning as his wife Aggie. The ailing Victor, mocked up using a dummy in a bedroom, is revealed to be dead. That horrific revelation, when Victor's dummy head falls on the floor to the shocked surprise of all and sundry, is topped with a great piece of visual comedy as Peter Sykes pans across the now empty bedroom and we see Twelvetrees taking huge gulps out of an oxygen supply and chucking a bottle of pills down his neck. Aggie and Ernest decide to bump off Twelvetrees with an injection of poison to his choppers and again, Griffith and Howerd provide more physical comedy as Ernest attempts to inject him. 'I'd rather go round gummy than go through all that!' concludes Twelvetrees.
'Oooooohhhh. Please make it a crusher not a biter.'
Things take a very bizarre turn when the family agree to recreate their Henderson's 'human marionettes' Dance of the Dolls for Twelvetrees. The Dance of the Dolls sequence is decidedly unsettling, almost like something that would be seen later in The League of Gentlemen, wherein each brother and sister is made up as a doll and performs jerky movements to a Gothic lullaby. Sykes gets the maximum visual impact from it, with his cinematographer Ian Wilson using lenses to distort the big close-ups. Composer Harry Robinson also subtly picks up on the song in his score, its refrain reappearing at certain instances later in the film.

Beyond this the film descends into a farcical runaround with Twelvetrees and his newly acquired Henderson relatives searching the house for the diamonds and doing each other in with knives, cleavers, axes, scythes and snake bites. This culminates with Twelvetrees following the clues to the reptile house and wading through a floor filled with snakes.

Howerd recalls that this scene was one of the hardest to accomplish and he assumed he would be filming with prop snakes. 'It's a bit more elaborate than that', Peter Sykes informed him. 'Just how elaborate is it?' replied Howerd. He ended up working for three days in a pit filled with dozens of real snakes, something he reflected upon in an interview with Michael Parkinson, 'For a while I felt quite close to the snakes. They weren't horrible creatures at all.' (5)

The traumatic scene in the snake house, full of Howerd's characteristic whining and sighing, is brought to a marvellous conclusion as Twelvetrees, bending over, spots a cobra preparing to strike behind him and cries, 'Oooooohhhh. Please make it a crusher not a biter.' Equally intense is Stewart's attack on Twelvetrees with an axe, Milland's performance reaching a suitably unhinged pitch as he takes an axe to the door just behind Howerd's head. Sykes stylishly films Stewart's pursuit with tilting camera angles, almost turning the image upside down, to underscore Stewart's unravelling, twisted psyche.

The film ends with a glorious coup de théâtre as Twelvetrees sees his remaining relatives off in the back of a horse drawn Black Maria and starts to look for the missing diamonds, allegedly buried in the meadow in front of the house. Sykes's camera pulls back from Twelvetrees digging in the grass and ascends into the air, leaving him as a tiny figure in the landscape, searching alone in a huge expanse. This grand sweep confirms that The House in Nightmare Park is a beautifully shot film, Sykes and Ian Wilson adding a visual polish to what is, to all intents and purposes, a generic comedy-thriller. It's a fun, gently amusing outing and Howerd's performance, while it never achieves the intimacy and banter to camera of his sit-coms or the stand-up work's connection with a live audience, shows he is an effective, engaging, funny leading man and an exemplary physical comedian.

(1) http://www.spikemilliganlegacy.com
(2) Laughterlog.com: http://laughterlog.com/2009/01/06/up-pompeii/
(3) Graham McCann, Frankie Howerd - Stand Up Comedian
(4) Robert Ross, The Complete Frankie Howerd
(5) Mick Middles, Frankie Howerd - The Illustrated Biography

About the transfer
Going back to the original elements has produced a very pleasing presentation. This is certainly the best I've ever seen the film. Colour is particularly well represented, particularly greens and reds, flesh tones look natural, detail is plentiful and contrast is reasonably strong. It's a clean transfer, occasionally betraying some white blobs of dirt and very minor picture instability.


Special features
Full frame version
The 1.33:1 'as filmed' transfer of the film. I'll let Network explain the rationale behind this and the 1.66:1 (not 1.75:1 indicated by the press release) version presented on this disc. Regarding Hollywood's adoption of widescreen: "British films – cash-strapped by comparison – invariably filmed in the old 1.33:1 ratio and then basically blanked off the top and bottom of the picture (either during the making of the prints or during actual projection) so as to give the optical illusion that these were, in-fact, widescreen films. Dependent upon what point a British film was made (and the equipment used to film it) the standard ratio could be 1.66, 1.75, 1.85 or 2.35:1 so you will notice that different films in the new range will display different amounts of picture area and black space. This is not a problem with either your equipment or the disc itself – it’s how the films were originally shown and how they should be seen now."
 

Why there are two versions on the disc: "As an added bonus, some films shot in 1.33:1 but exhibited in a widescreen format still exist as original 1.33 negatives. Where these are still available we have included the ‘as filmed’ version alongside the ‘as exhibited’ main feature. Because the full frame was never meant to be seen to its widest aperture these ‘as filmed’ versions – if you look hard enough – can showcase production elements and other crew-related action which was definitely not intended to be seen."

There is more detail at the top and bottom of the frame in 1.33:1, obviously, but I didn't feel that the cropped 1.66:1 transfer, the 'as projected' ratio being framed centrally, was detrimental to the enjoyment of the widescreen presentation even if it is perhaps a bit tight in places. In this instance, it's good to have both ratios available in my opinion.
Trailer (02:59)

Bill Mitchell provides the voice over to this UK trailer featuring 'superstar' Frankie Howerd.
TV Spot (mute) (00:29)
Music Suite (29:34)
Generous half hour of Harry Robinson's rather lovely score
Gallery
Eight colour images, including film posters, and that's yer lot. 

Original Press Brochure (PDF)
Rather nice 8 page brochure that covers the cast and crew members and some aspects of the production and includes some black and white stills and posters.

The House in Nightmare Park
Associated London Films - Extonation Productions - Anglo/EMI 
1973
Cert: PG / Released 8 April 2013
Network DVD / Region 2 / Total Running Time: approx. 91 min / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Catalogue No: 7953856

The British Film Collection
The House in Nightmare Park is part of Network's 'The British Film' Collection, an ambitious initiative to establish a strong umbrella brand for the films within its library and mark the company as the primary destination for vintage British films in the UK with film-loving members of the public. This new film brand will aim to educate, enthuse and inform film lovers about the incredibly diverse output from all the British film studios. Starting with titles under license from Studiocanal each film will benefit from the following:

 - New transfers
 - Presentation in the correct cinema aspect ratio
 - Slim-line space-saving packaging, encouraging film lovers to collect the whole range of films
 - Many titles will be available to view on ITunes and at the company’s in house Networkonair platform

Network will also be building a community by launching a dedicated social media destination for fans of the sub-label at facebook.com/TheBritishFilm. Along with a specific twitter presence at #TheBritishFilm it is hoped that these channels will engage, inform and create debate with members of the public interested in the collection. Some of the titles will also be available through its in house On Demand service which is currently being developed.

Comments
One Response to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The House in Nightmare Park / DVD Review”
  1. My favorite film. Watch it at least once a year. "Ooof! I think I've broken something! If I haven't broken it, I've bent it!"

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