Monday 4 December 2017

Guest Blog: David Powell on The House in Nightmare Park

While Halloween might be behind us, the nights are still drawing in.  What better time to watch a classic comedy-whodunit than these cosy evenings, out of the winter dark and drizzle?  And what better film to start with than 1973’s The House in Nightmare Park¸ starring the inimitable Frankie Howerd.
Howerd plays the fabulously named Foster Twelvetrees, a self-aggrandising monologuist who is booked to perform for an eccentric family at a crumbling pile isolated within a storm-swept wood (the titular ‘nightmare park’).  A few deaths and a snake pit later, and it transpires that his booking was not at all by chance, but instead part of a nefarious scheme by the family to find a trove of priceless diamonds hidden on their estate.

Nightmare Park is one of a small but perfectly formed wave of British comedy-horror films of the late 1960s/early 1970s, and builds upon foundations laid by What A Carve Up! (1961, which stars Carry On stalwarts Sid James and Kenneth Connor and occasional turns Esma Cannon and Shirley Eaton), Carry On Screaming (1966), and Horror Hospital (1972).  It is also, curiously, one of a number of contemporary British horror films to feature Anglo-Indian families, others being Hammer’s The Reptile (1965), and Tyburn’s The Ghoul (1975), which perhaps suggests much about the post-colonial anxieties bubbling away in the minds of British film-makers at the time.

Set in the late-Victorian murk and fog, the exteriors were filmed at the grandly gothic Oakley Court, Hammer Studio’s old stomping ground and also where a great many horror/mystery films were filmed, including Monster of Terror (1965), Witchcraft (1964), The Old Dark House (1963), and And Now The Screaming Starts (1973), as well as comedy-horrors The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Murder By Death (1976).  The interiors, sumptuously designed by Maurice Carter, have a luxurious tattiness to them, perfectly complimenting Oakley Court’s imposing, and slightly haunting, splendour.

In addition to the impressive locations and sets, Nightmare Park boasts a fine cast of British actors as the various demented members of the Henderson family.  Ray Milland, as Stewart Henderson and head of the family, is a perfect foil to Howerd’s vain recitalist, keeping up the appearance of geniality while at the same time horrified that he has to put up with the conceited man at all.  He is complimented by Hugh Burden and Kenneth Griffith as his brothers Reggie and Ernest, respectively a bluff major and a highly-strung vet; Elizabeth MacLennan as the young ingénue Verity; Ruth Dunning as Ernest’s imperious wife; and Rosalie Crutchley as the Henderson’s stony-faced sister Jessica.  

Howerd’s Foster Twelvetrees is drawn like a fly into this web of spiders.  Delightfully preening and pompous, Howerd is an absolute joy as Foster.  While his trademark wheezing and bleating are reassuringly all there in spades, free of the confines of Lurcio and his ilk Howerd seizes the opportunity to play an interestingly comedic straight-man against the bizarre behaviour of the family.  There are many stand-out scenes of pure hilarity, including a gleefully grumpy attempt by Foster to secure himself a breakfast, a rudely interrupted recital of Little Nell, and an attempt by Ernest and his wife to fatally relieve Foster of the toothache.  Crucially though, Howerd’s deadpan reactions to the increasingly peculiar (and psychopathic) antics of the Hendersons help to ground the film and give it a surprisingly dramatic edge so often lost in comedy-mystery films.

Indeed, thanks mainly to Peter Sykes’ stylish direction (which features skewed camera angles and spiralling shots, more the sort of thing you see in a Hitchcock film) and Harry Robinson’s exotically sinister music, Nightmare Park has moments of real drama.  The finale - involving an axe-wielding killer stalking Foster throughout the house, as well as a nerve-wracking journey to the centre of a snake pit – is genuinely thrilling.  The film also contains moments of proper uneasiness and blackly comic horror, courtesy of a thoughtful script by Terry Nation (who has written everything from The Persuaders to Blake’s 7, but will always be remembered as the inventor of the Daleks) and Clive Exton (who boasts a great number of genteel mystery credits, including Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Rosemary and Thyme).  The scene where the family members perform a childhood dance, dressed as dolls, is both deeply macabre and darkly funny, as is an attack on Foster by a cleaver-wielding old lady.  

The House in Nightmare Park is a perfect blend of mystery, horror and comedy.  If you are a fan of Howerd (and quite frankly, who isn’t) and you haven’t seen this one, you are in for a treat!

A big thank you to David for taking the time to write such a brilliant guest blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I hope you did too. You can follow David on Twitter @DPowell82 
If you are interested in some further Frankie reading, why not check out the interview I did earlier this year with Frankie's agent, the lovely Tessa Le Bars, as we marked his centenary. You can read that here: Carry On Blogging Interview: Tessa Le Bars
And if you fancy having a bash at a guest blog yourself, on any topic you like (as long as it's related to Carry On and classic comedy) why not drop me a line at ?

 You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

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