Peter Sykes (director)
Network on Air (studio)
18 November 2020 (released)
23 November 2019
In this madcap spoof of the ‘creepy old mansion’ flicks of yonder, comic legend Frankie Howerd plays Foster Twelvetrees, a down-on-his-luck tragedian whose hammy performances border more on travesty than high drama. When he’s invited to give a private reading for some wealthy eccentrics his delight soon turns to horror upon discovering that his hosts are more interested in murder than Shakespeare!
It’s 1907 and struggling thespian Foster Twelvetrees - 'The Greatest Master of the Spoken Word' if the poster outside an old village Hall is anything to go by - is 'murdering' Charles Dickens' dramatic monologue 'Sikes and Nancy' in his own unique way to an indifferent audience of around ten or so locals, including some raspberry blowing kids. At the back of the venue we see a pair of hands strangling a white scarf (Foster's neck we assume). The ‘assailant’ is Stewart Henderson (Hollywood legend Ray Milland) who, together with his chiseled-faced sister Jessica (a dead-pan Rosalie Crutchley), has invited Foster to perform his dramatics at their large country estate… apparently. However, the very fact that Foster’s poster has been slashed hints at a more sinister motive. When Foster arrives he is delighted over the handsome sum of 5 guineas in exchange for a private recital but as our bumbling thespian is about to discover all’s not what it seems in the Henderson Family home. Eventually he is greeted both by Stewart and 'blacked up' Indian servant Patel (John Bennett). Well, this was 1973 – an era in which p/c mania was still unknown. Stewart then informs our not overly bright Foster that he and sister Jessica are worshippers of the Indian goddess Kali and to make matters worse there’s a deadly snake house in the cellar. That alone may have been enough to send someone else scampering. Soon other members of the eccentric family start to drop in: pompous brother Reggie (Hugh Burden) and his lovely daughter Verity (Elizabeth MacLennan); followed by another brother - the avaricious Ernest (the nervy Kenneth Griffith) who arrives with wife Agnes (the old stager Ruth Dunning). Oh, and then there is eldest brother Victor who is at death's door and is confined to his room by Stewart. Vic, it would appear, is the beneficiary of the estate, therefore this lot of hounds want to make sure they get their greedy hands on his money. If that isn't enough Vic has also left a clue as to a legacy concerning a hidden treasure: a million pounds worth of diamonds! So why are the greedy Hendersons searching through ‘s belongings? And why is this dreadful caterwauling ham in this horrid house in the first place? Surely not to render a recital? You really don't have to be a genius to work that one out.
Howerd always did his own thing and here he seems at ease acting alongside a stellar cast including Kenneth Griffith, Rosalie Crutchley, Hugh Burden and Elizabeth MacLennan. It was none other than Howerd himself who persuaded veteran actor Ray Milland to take up residence in the house in Nightmare Park and we can only speculate as to why: 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.
Maurice Carter's cluttered sets do this period piece justice and we even have a score by 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 man for the job: the bizarre ‘Dance of the Dolls’ sequence is weird enough on its own. Despite the best efforts the film is not exactly a classic of the genre but still has enough going for it in order to ‘re-discover’ this little gem all over and celebrate its newly re-stored Blu-ray release.