There have been a few attempts at blending horror with comedy in a spooky mansion setting. The two that spring immediately to mind to the cognoscenti, are the evergreens The Cat and the Canary (three versions) and The Old Dark House (two versions) – to say nothing of Carry on Screaming. In 1973, it seemed time for another attempt at cracking this rather difficult genre. Top writers Clive Exton and Terry Nation (who also produced) came up with The House in Nightmare Park for (then top comic) Frankie Howerd. Surely it was written for him and really, who could have played the part of ham actor Foster Twelvetrees like Howerd?
Howerd is clearly in his element (even without a live audience), though, believe it or not, the man did once entertain ambitions of becoming a serious actor! Unfortunately, he failed an audition for RADA. That said, he fared slightly better at the Old Vic, where, in 1957, he played ‘Bottom’ in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (titled the ‘The Tit and Bum Show’ by Howerd in reference to Titania and Bottom). Howerd’s idiosyncratic delivery (“Oh no missus, don’t”) would have precluded his success in that field. As a comic, his timing was always exemplary and despite adverse criticism at the time, his performance in Nightmare Park remains one to be relished. Quite frankly, he could never have performed a serious Dickens monologue.
Howerd always did his own thing and here he seems at ease acting alongside theatrical muggers like Kenneth Griffith. As for Rosalie Crutchley, she just had to look at you – her dead-pan expression said it all. And it was none other than Howerd himself who persuaded veteran actor Ray Milland to take up residence in The House in Nightmare Park. Milland (unlike Vincent Price, another ham actor) always tended to play his parts straight, thus complementing the offbeat-chemistry between the comic Howerd and him. Hugh Burden is easily at home and Elizabeth MacLennan is not without gravitas as the young Verity Henderson.
Maurice Carter’s cluttered sets do this period piece justice and we even have a score from musician/composer Harry Robinson, who had previously worked on various Hammer Horror films among others. Director Peter Sykes (whose other comedy Steptoe and Son Ride Again was released that same year) maintains the suspense and clearly was the right man for the job – the bizarre ‘Dance of the Dolls’ sequence is weird enough on its own.
The House in Nightmare Park may not be a classic of the genre, but still has more than enough going for it in order to ‘re-discover’ this little gem all over and celebrate its newly remastered Blu-ray release.