Thursday, May 1, 2014

Much Ado About Murder


"What a funny lot!" Frankie Howerd holds the key to 

SINISTER shenanigans are afoot in Peter Sykes' THE HOUSE IN NIGHTMARE PARK, an alleged horror comedy written by Clive Exton and Terry Nation. Described by George Melly as "as British as nailing a kipper to the underside of an unsympathetic seaside landlady's dining-room table," the film follows Edwardian thespian Foster Twelvetrees (Frankie Howerd) - "Greatest Master of the Spoken Word" - scraping a living by giving hammy performances to embarrassed audiences. Invited to provide a reading - so he believes - at a spooky mansion owned by the Hendersons, the actor finds himself embroidered in a nefarious plot involving deadly snakes, hidden family secrets and a mad woman in the attic. 

For the turn of the 1970s, the sets have a fittingly tired look for the dilapidated gothic subgenre, and direct references are plenty: THE CAT AND THE CANARY and PSYCHO are chiefly evoked, and the Hendersons heritage - like the protagonists of THE REPTILE and THE GHOUL - are Anglo-Indian. Yet Howerd looks uncomfortable in his starring role: with no asides to camera and his opportunity for innuendo cut to a minimum, the comedian seems subdued (apart from the classic line "Do I play the piano? Does Paganini play the trumpet?"). Aside from Howerd, the actors portraying the Henderson's are an arresting group: Ray Milland heads the clan as the blandly evil Stewart, Hugh Burden is abrasive retired major Reggie, Kenneth Griffith is homicidal vet Ernest, and Elizabeth MacLennan is effective as unconventional heroine Verity. If the humour falls flat, the film works better as a straight horror, especially a veiled old crone in black with a meat cleaver, and a truly bizarre dance sequence where the family relive their time as "Henderson's Human Marionettes."

Vincent Price - in a tour-de-force performance - and
Robert Morley in Harbour's THEATRE OF BLOOD.

Douglas Hickox's THEATRE OF BLOOD tells of Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) who - with the aid of daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and a community of down-and-outs  - murders members of a self-absorbed 'Critics Circle' for failing to give him the recognition he feels he deserves. Apparently committing suicide, Lionheart returns to mastermind a series of Bard-inspired demises, including nods to Julius Caesar (stabbing), Cymbeline (beheading), The Merchant of Venice (an improvised pound of flesh) and in the most memorable scene Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) is fed his own "children" in a pie (here, poodles) referencing Shakespeare's bloodiest play Titus Andronicus

The most literate of all horrors, THEATRE OF BLOOD is also filled with sly visual Shakespearean motifs, down to the name of an outside broadcast unit ([Stratford-Upon-]Avon Television). Price was particularly enthused by the quality of cast around him - Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Diana Dors, Madeline Smith - and brings pathos to a role that gave him a an opportunity to exorcise his own critical demons.