TITLE: The House in Nightmare Park
YEAR RELEASED: 1973
DIRECTOR: Peter Sykes
CAST: Frankie Howerd, Ray Milland, Hugh Burden, Kenneth Griffith
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES reviews the Frankie Howerd Horror-Comedy, The House in Nightmare Park (1973)
Foster Twelvetrees (Frankie Howerd) is the kind of actor whose one-man performance of Oliver Twist sends his (depressingly small) audience into a near comatose state.
Strange, then that he is invited to give a performance at a small family gathering by Stewart Henderson (Ray Milland) for his assorted siblings and relatives. There is an ulterior motive, however: The clan want Twelvetrees dead, for reasons which he has yet to discover…
Terry Nation teamed up with Clive Exton in one of the more intriguing writing partnerships you’re likely to come across.
It’s not as strange a coupling of writers and star as it may appear, as Nation had previously written material for Howerd’s radio show.
What the authors came up with here was a pleasing variation on the murders-in-a-country-house theme, liberally sprinkled with gothic-horror touches in its killings and setting.
Even the location chosen for the country mansion is a true horror icon, being none other than Oakley Court, utilised as everything from Dracula’s castle (for Hammer’s 1958 classic) to Frank N. Furter’s lair in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Frankie Howerd (one of Britain’s greatest comics, in my view) once described this as the film he enjoyed making the most, and it’s certainly different to his usual screen outings of the period.
Here, the star is in more restrained form. Although there are enough classic Howerd-isms to please his fans, they are used sparingly and he is given more room to give an actual film performance, as opposed to his usual act writ large. He gets to co-headline with a bona fide Hollywood legend in Ray Milland, who brilliantly underplays his part with just the right underlying current of malevolence.
Both are more than ably supported by a team of familiar faces making up the rest of the Henderson family. They’re a right bunch too, bickering constantly and giving the distinct impression they would stab each other in the back without a second thought. Then there’s the elderly matriarch of the family, locked away upstairs…
Comedy horror is an incredibly tough thing to pull off – after all, how many truly great ones can you think of? In a field where many have tried and failed, The House In Nightmare Park succeeds far better than most, with some real belly laughs in places and some of the most bizarrely memorable moments in Brit-horror. With its blend of English Gothic, murder mystery and Carry On-style humour, not to mention a downright surreal scene where the guests present their dance act, its sheer eccentricity alone makes it irresistible viewing.
Sadly, The House In Nightmare Park was not the box office success it deserved to be. Perhaps audiences wanting more in the vein of the Up Pompeii spin-offs weren’t willing to accept Howerd in something more left field.
In any case, the film has become something of a hidden gem in both Howerd’s career and the pantheon of classic Brit horror, caught by the fortunate few on one of its infrequent outings on late night TV. Its recent and long overdue appearance on DVD will hopefully garner the audience it always deserved.