Review: The House in Nightmare Park / Cert: PG / Director: Peter Sykes / Screenplay: Clive Exton, Terry Nation / Starring: Frankie Howerd, Ray Milland, Hugh Burden, Kenneth Griffith, John Bennett, Rosalie Crutchley, Ruth Denning / Release Date: Out Now
There’s a genre of movie that we’re going to call the “old dark house comedy” that started, appropriately enough, with James Whale’s classic and rather strange The Old Dark House (1932). The idea usually involved an eccentric and dysfunctional family with a dark secret in an inevitably old and dark house with equally inevitable hilarious consequences. The genre had a bit of a revival in the seventies and early eighties with such mirth-free offerings as House of the Long Shadows (1983) or Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984). But what you probably don’t know is that we can, with some accuracy, pin the start of this revival to this fairly obscure Frankie Howerd vehicle, The House in Nightmare Park (1973). This is presumably why this new transfer to DVD is being so hyped as a cult piece of cinema and why so many critics are falling over themselves to tell you about its overlooked greatness. Unfortunately, it would seem nostalgia has clouded their vision.
Howerd plays Foster Twelvetrees, a Victorian actor of dubious abilities invited to entertain at a country house for the nefarious purposes of the old colonial Henderson family. There’s real talent at work here with Ray Milland appearing alongside the aforementioned Howerd and no less than Terry Nation involved in the screenplay. Peter Sykes and Ian Wilson have even come up with some brilliant cinematography with some crazy and effective camera angles that really make use of Oakley Court (a veteran of numerous Hammer Horrors) as the titular House. But you know a movie is in trouble when it’s a Frankie Howerd comedy and you’re talking about the cinematography. We love the late, great Howerd as much as the next man (in fact this reviewer once saw him live and he was quite sublime) but this movie would seem an abject lesson in how not to use his talents. Howerd’s real skill was his fantastic ability to address asides to his audience. This was brilliantly turned into a fairly innovative series of fourth-wall-breaking exercises in Howerd’s TV work and his more successful film outings of Up Pompeii (1971) and Up the Chastity Belt (1971). But for some reason, here that wall stays firmly intact and Howerd just mutters his asides to himself. It doesn’t work; it doesn’t engage with the audience and Howerd hardly seems to engage with the rest of the cast.
Despite the great camera work and some bizarre imagery, this was never going to be a frightening film. These things live or die by their ability to make you laugh and, with the exception of one or two lines, it just doesn’t. Sadly, most comedy-horror is neither funny nor frightening and this is no exception. If you want to watch one that nearly works, search out the pre-revival Carry on Screaming (1966) instead.
Extras: Full Frame 4:3 version / Music-only audio track / Original theatrical trailer, TV spot (mute) / Image gallery