If audiences were baffled by The House In Nightmare Park on its 1973 release, then time has only added to the bafflement factor.
Knowing now the full spread of the careers involved causes your brain to just shut down when you try and process the idea of innuendo machine gun Frankie Howerd taking on a classic, turn-of-the-century household-with-a-dark-secret spoof, co-written by Daleks creator Terry Nation, and directed by the underrated Peter Sykes (Demons Of The Mind, To The Devil A Daughter).
This meeting of unlikely talent clearly has executive producer Beryl Vertue (the mother-in-law of current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, trivia fans) to thank, as manager of both Nation (who was a comedy writer anyway, before Doctor Who beckoned) and his co-writer Clive Exton, and Howerd, and the result is more Roman Polanski’s casually surreal Fearless Vampire Killers than the shriekingly pantomime Carry On Screaming you might expect.
Very much cobbled together from the same crumbling brickwork, rain-lashed window panes and creaking doors as James Whale’s 1932 parody progenitor The Old Dark House, The House In Nightmare Park‘s major deviation from this micro-genre of gentle mockery comes in the form of dearly missed British comedy legend Howerd,
Despite his more sober performance – his eyebrow-raising asides and innuendo (“I hope your wick shrivels up” he fires at a departing coachman) are mumbled, rather than hooted like randy owl for the benefit of the music hall latercomers – but the aura of high camp that surrounds him like a halo in a mediaeval fresco is at odds with the capable aura of weirdness and dread that Sykes weaves into the proceedings, all low angles and creeping tracking shots,
Frankie Howerd, forever slightly out of synch tonally with the scenes playing out around him as his self-absorbed, delusional actor Foster Twelvetrees struts around inside the film’s other great personality (oo-eer, please yerselves etc), the superbly atmospheric Oakley Court – a favourite Hammer h(a)unting ground, featuring in The Reptile, The Brides Of Dracula and Plague Of The Zombies, and later in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show – the home of one of those obviously weird families that only seem to exist in gothic horror, and Addams Family-style parodies thereof.
A troupe of returning colonial gentry, Kali-worshipping Hindu converts with a blacked-up (hello 1973) Indian servant and a cleaver wielding matriarch in mourning dress, the Henderson clan plot and scheme over the will of a secretly deceased older brother, ensnaring the gullible and easy manipulated Twelvetrees, culminating in a visually striking and still deeply unsettling ‘human marionette’ sequence – sort of like the music box bit in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, if it was supposed to be creepy instead of accidentally creepy – with the fantastic Sykes unleashing some delirious extreme closeups to milk the maximum oddness out of the situation.
The subject and the setting may be a collusion of threadbare cliches, and the tone jarringly uneven in places – largely whenever the camera lingers too long on Howerd for his boggle-eyed reaction shots – but The House In Nightmare Park is a gorgeously shot, surprisingly sedate and unsettling horror comedy, and this newly restored DVD transfer (in the original aspect ratio) emphasises the best of it. One would imagine on the blurry VHS you got little of the richness and wonder, and rather more of the gurning.