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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Haunted House of Horror (1969)

Director: Michael Armstrong
Stars: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth and Dennis Price
The Haunted House of Horror, released as Horror House in the States, was a Tigon film, a short lived English production company making films at the height of the horror boom in the UK. It's the debut feature of Michael Armstrong, both as a writer and director, a man with an interesting career, though more interesting for what isn't it than what is. His first film was The Image, a 1967 short with David Bowie, but it would be his next that put him on the map: the 1970 European horror film Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier. He'd only direct one more film, 1983's Screamtime, and that under a pseudonym, but he also wrote a number of sexploitation films in the seventies, including The Sex Thief.

We're in swinging London where everyone works at fashionable clothes shops on Carnaby Street during the day and goes to parties at night, parties organised by ex pat Americans like Frankie Avalon. He's Chris and is top billed because he'd spent most of the sixties as a household name and the rest of the cast had either not arrived yet or were living on past glories to keep the drinks cabinet full. Chris's parties are apparently fun most of the time but this one's an utter drag so the hip bunch head off to a haunted house instead, because Richard says it'll be fun and Chris's girl Sheila has a gruesome sense of humour. Apparently Chris doesn't mind leaving his apartment full of the partygoers who are presumably not hip enough to join them either.

Richard is Julian Barnes, who is utterly matter of fact when talking about gruesome murders. He used to come to this remote mansion a lot, even though it looks like he's about fourteen years old, making his next role as an uncredited schoolboy in the 1969 remake of Goodbye Mr Chips far more appropriate. He knows all about the killings, He explains that the place is haunted by a manaic who hacked up the rest of his family twenty years earlier. Naturally, after these hipsters brek up the usual usual seance to wander around on their own with candles, one of them is brutally murdered, slashed to death with plenty of crimson paint sloshed around for good measure.

He's Gary Scott, played by another singer, Mark Wynter, who had a big hit with a cover of Venus in Blue Jeans, tried his luck at the Eurovision Song Contest and drifted into stage work and the odd film role. He's a popular man here: he's supposed to be with delightful Dorothy but sexy Sylvia is after him. Then again this is the swinging sixties so surely nobody's going to be too upset about a man who sings songs in the pub about being a happy bachelor having a different girl each day of the week. Of course he ends up dead instead and we're set up from moment one to believe that Bob Kellett did it.

Kellett is the married man who Sylvia has been messing around with and is so upset when she dumps him that he promptly becomes what would, a couple of decades later, be called a stalker, even following her to Chris's party and then to the haunted house of horror. It helps that he's played by George Sewell, who's always reminded me of the English version of Laurence Tierney, however respectable he may try to be by playing no end of cops. Here he's hardly respectable, refusing to leave Sylvia alone, even though he's 45 and she's maybe half that and wants nothing to do with him any more, but it's so utterly obvious that he's the psycho killer that of course he can't be. But if he can't, who can?

There's some interesting stuff here, well beyond the astoundingly atrocious sixties colour schemes which are always a solid warning not to follow fashion for its own sake. Most obviously, It's early for a slasher film, two years before A Bay of Blood and a full decade before Hollywod really got in on the act. There's some solid suspense, some great editing and some wonderful scenes of hysteria, all of which would suggest an under-appreciated film if only there was the slightest bit of consistency. Some of the suspense is painfully slow obvious, some of the acting wooden in the extreme. There are also scenes where precisely nothing happens and we can't help but wonder why they're there.

Most surprisingly the cast is wasted. Even though Dennis Price is third billed, he doesn't turn up for half the film and gets so little screen time that it's pretty obvious that he was hired to shoot his few lines on a single set in a single day. His part was originally intended for Boris Karloff, who was too ill to take part. Price can't be on camera for more than a minute throughout the entire film. Top billed Frankie Avalon is more visible but he still doesn't get much to do except highlight how powerful stereotyping is: it's hard to see him in a haunted house rather than on a beach. In between them on the credits is Jill Haworth, who is one of the better actors in the film but who had left her career with Otto Preminger behind and ended up in films like this and Tower of Evil. She wanders around in a joyously revealing dress. Maybe those sixties fashions had something going for them after all...

I enjoyed watching some of the other names more. George Sewell savours his unsavoury part and it's interesting to see Richard O'Sullivan before he'd become a TV star of long standing through series like Doctor at Large and Man About the House. Julian Barnes has his moments though he's annoying for much of the film. Apparently he took the part initially intended for David Bowie, but by the time it was made Bowie was already in a whole new league. Even Veronica Doran is interesting to watch as chubby Madge, even though she looks like the sugar plum fairy or Mavis from Will o' the Wisp.

I watched the film on TCM Underground rather than through the DVD so I didn't get the option of listening to the director's commentary. While Michael Armstrong wrote and directed the film, it didn't turn out to be very close to what he intended, being manipulated by American International, who released it Stateside and had a solid stake in the production. After experiencing similar mangling on Mark of the Devil, he quit directing, making us wonder what he would have made had he ever got actual control over a production. All we have is Eskimo Nell, which he wrote and which is apparently something of a savage commentary on his experiences making Haunted House of Horror.

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