Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Man about the haunted house of horror

Who could possibly resist a 1968 film that contains all (yes, all) of the following:-

swinging London (Carnaby Street)
music by the Pretty Things/Electric Banana
mini-skirts and cut-through dresses
an American teen idol
lots of blood
a seance
actors who were also in ‘Bless This House’ and ‘Get Carter’
Chesney Hawkes’ mum
a gothic mansion
and the star of ‘Man About The House’?

…I couldn’t!

From the moment the excellent, melancholy John Barry-esque theme tune (called ‘The Dark’ by Reg Tilsley) starts up you know you’re in for a bit of a period piece horror treat (and a bit of a laugh, too). ‘The Haunted House of Horror’ (or simply ‘Horror House’ as it was known in the US) is as corny as hell, and to contemporary eyes and ears the acting and dialogue are more hammy than a ham sandwich with extra ham.  It was one of the first slasher movies and after its rather long and fairly slow start when you really wonder if you’re watching the same film whose tagline at the time was 'behind its forbidden doors an evil secret lies', it suddenly gathers pace and gets all Evil Dead on you (or at least a bit Evil Not-Looking-Too-Healthy.)  Deadly weapons are wielded, blood is splattered and screams echo around the dark walls of a deserted Addams Family type mansion.

It does seem like it was trying be all things at once, which should make it fail really but somehow you want to forgive it for trying too hard and let it off for its over-zealousness.   Firstly there are plenty of period references amongst the youthful group of trendy friends in their groovy clothes, the subtext and dialogue hinting gently at various themes of the time like drugs, drink and sexual amorality. The obligatory party scene is lifted from being a rather dull affair by the soundtrack of the Pretty Things in their guise as The Electric Banana.  Great music.

Then there is an element of an Agatha Christie whodunit about it as you find yourself automatically trying to solve the riddle of who the killer might be, looking for clues, motives and wondering about double bluffs.

Whilst very tame there’s a slight undercurrent of sexual tension: one character tries to ditch her stalky (and frankly very creepy) older, married lover, and wants to get it on with one of the group (who is also willing) behind the back of the latter’s rather timid and unadventurous girlfriend.  Another character seems to want to keep her options open, even after the murders have begun, and even with a possible suspect.

Thrown in for good measure too is a scene in a restaurant where an inhouse band are playing something rather groovy, the group is in fact the Jasmin Tea who were an obscure pop band of the time.

And then there’s Carnaby Street, moonlit nights, a ghost story, jealousy, guilt, violence, suspense and… Frankie Avalon!  Yeah, it is perhaps the cast of this film that makes it endearing too.  Frankie looks out-of-place with his clean-cut looks and neatly brushed helmet hair, but his presence probably attracted some extra viewers.  You can also see Richard O’Sullivan before his days as Robin in ‘Man About The House’.  Older members of the cast include Dennis Price (from dozens of  films but, going through the list, I’ll make special mention of ‘Theatre Of Blood’, another great horror flick) and George Sewell, also of course well-known for many films of which one of the best must be ‘Get Carter’.  Going on to play the role of the son in the TV series ‘Bless This House’ a short while later, is Robin Stewart.  Plus Carol Dilworth, who married Len 'Chip' Hawkes from the Tremeloes, was a gameshow hostess on ‘The Golden Shot’ and later gave birth to the one and only Chesney Hawkes.

I also want to make special mention of the beautiful Jill Haworth, who was very striking in this for her acting, which seemed so much more natural, unaffected and believable (however dodgy the script got) than that of her colleagues.  Her character in this stands out too; she is cool and sassy with a nice line in sarcasm.  And great eye make-up.  Jill had a number of acting roles throughout her life, including parts in Burke’s Law, Rawhide and even a stint as Sally Bowles in the stage version of Cabaret which she saw as the peak in her career, but it seems she is mostly remembered for being a ‘scream-queen’ in low budget horror films.  Jill died on 3rd January this year, aged 65.

Finally, a piece of cultural trivia is that the original script was intended to be more psychedelic and that David Bowie was lined up to play a major role, which I think might have worked; it’s not hard to imagine him as the film’s most earnest and enigmatic character, Richard. But apparently there were concerns about Frankie Avalon’s presence in the same film – whilst David would have been the prettiest star, it was thought he might clash with the young American.

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