Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Carnaby Street Chills : Haunted House Of Horror

Haunted House Of Horror is the rather lurid, box ticking and frankly meaningless title (it was originally called the much better The Dark) of a rather hokey but enjoyable Tigon British/AIP horror from 1969 starring America's singer cum teen matinee idol Frankie Avalon, Dennis Price, Jill Haworth, Richard O'Sullivan, Veronica Doran, George Sewell, Mark Wynter, Robin Stewart, Gina Warwick, Carol Dilworth and Julian Barnes. It was directed by Michael Armstrong and produced by Tony Tenser.

The plot is a simple enough generic one; a group of swinging London twenty-somethings bored at a party decide to spend the night ghost hunting and having a rather half arsed seance in a supposedly haunted and deserted house. Whilst there, and each of our revellers are exploring the house alone, one of their number, Gary (Mark Wynter) who works at 'Mates' boutique in Carnaby Street no less, is brutally stabbed to death.

The actual 'Haunted House Of Horror'...

...and the horror that occurs within

Ringleader Chris (Frankie Avalon) persuades the group to leave the house and not report the murder to the police; Some of them have criminal records (a vague referral to a drugs charge a year earlier) and one of them, he deduces, is clearly the murderer.

With the police investigating the missing Gary, our heroes are wracked with guilt and fear. They decide to return to the house to re-enact the events of that grisly night and hope the culprit confesses. But more violence awaits one of them, whilst another narrowly avoids death when the moon goes behind a cloud revealing the killer's long held fear of the dark...

Haunted House Of Horror is a real curio caught between the decades. It is clearly trying very hard to be a definitive up to date swinging sixties article (with its location shooting on Carnaby Street, hip design and references to drugs charges and orgies) yet seems to pre-empt storywise the slasher boom which began in the 1980s. 

1969 Carnaby Street in the film's opening sequences. 
Mark Wynter's character works in 'Mates', meanwhile unrequited lover George Sewell stalks Gina Warwick's Sylvia who works in the boutique opposite

But to muddy the wannabe zeitgeist further the film chose to cast in the lead role of Chris, Frankie Avalon, star of 1950s favourites like Beach Party ; a totally out of date teenybopper from the previous decade who looks like he's simply been plucked from that era and planted in 1969, looking totally lost and unfashionable as a result. Yet we're meant to believe he's - as Jill Haworth's character Sheila announces in his debut scene - "The epitome of swinging London" ?!

It's a complete own goal and one wonders just what the reasoning was, especially as the original casting was to include no less than Scott Walker (in the role of the ill fated Gary) and David Bowie (mooted as Richard) but producers feared they would jar with Avalon and chose him over them!

Beach Party's Frankie Avalon,
 the epitome of Swinging London...apparently!

Mark Wynter as sweet faced Richard, 
a role originally offered to David Bowie

Mark Wynter as Gary,
 a role originally offered to Scott Walker and Peter McEnery
(Note the Oz poster)

The rest of the cast though are very capable and more or less manage to invest some fun and character into what are essentially cyphers. Jill Haworth as Sheila and Gina Warwick as the romantically complicated Sylvia (she's being stalked by older man George Sewell and has the hots for Mark Wynter who is about to marry Carol Dilworth's Dorothy) provide the genuinely striking and fashionable Dollybird quota

Jill Haworth by candlelight,
Candles feature a lot in this film

Gina Warwick in a fab dress,
trying to lure Julian Barnes

But perhaps the best roles and actors in terms of sheer fun go to Richard O'Sullivan as Peter and Veronica Doran as Madge. These effectively provide comic relief, though the future Man Of The House star is prone to hot headedness and grim seriousness when the knives are, literally, out and Madge descends to frantic tears. They're a very endearing couple though; Doran being the clearly more sexually interested of the two (not that O' Sullivan isn't of a one track mind, but it's for the drink in his case) and her physique is played for laughs throughout. Most notably, a scene that I laugh at far more than I should, when she struggles to fit through a hole in the wall of the house! *Fnar, fnar*

Above all, for small supporting characters, they feel the most real and are certainly the most likeable.

Madge and Peter;
They love each other really

Richard O'Sullivan as Peter

Madge trying to attract Peter's attention on the dancefloor

Veronica Doran as Madge,
 with Gill Haworth as Sheila

Also of note in the cast is the safe pair of hands, Dennis Price, who took the role of the police Inspector after original choice, horror legend, Boris Karloff fell ill. It's not much of a role, but Price is always watchable and never seemed to take his tongue out of his cheek in such roles.

Less successful is Julian Barnes who despite looking a little like a fair haired George Harrison is woefully inept as an actor. Unless of course he was determined to make Richard as fey and wooden as possible, in which case he succeeded.

You do wish the production would have had the courage of their convictions and placed Bowie in this role.

For their hip credentials as members of the swinging scene (the drugs charges and the harmless sounding suggestion of "Let's have an orgy" upon their arrival at the 'haunted house') the gang come off more like Scooby Doo's mates as they go about the house clutching candles, cracking jokes and admitting they're frightened

It's actually a rather twee and enjoyable a depiction now but you imagine it must have been frustrating and lame for real life counter culture immersed teens at the time. But then, would they really be bothered in watching a small horror film at the local ABC or Roxy anyway?

Where the film isn't lame is in it's shocking yet short, sharp depiction of violence in the previously mentioned demise of Gary and later, with two other characters (the identities of whom I'll not reveal-much-here) 

Ouch! Right in the beach balls!

Overall, it's a rather no holds barred downbeat ending really that proves that that the tone of the piece was somewhat schizophrenic, definitely a foot in a few camps really.

Equally muddled is the plot motivations and several things are never fully or satisfactorily tied up in the end. 

The film's location shooting is rather good, the aforementioned Carnaby Street for example (though already in '69 perhaps losing it's hip credentials, as someone once said, 'when Sammy Davis Jnr started shopping there you knew the scene was over) and Bank Hall in Bretherton, Lancs and Birkdale Palace Hotel, in my nearby Southport providing exterior and interiors for 'the house'. There's also the famous 'The Case Is Altered' 17th Century Public House of Middlesex (which has appeared in many things, including Campion, and is still thankfully a working pub to this day;

Also the interiors of the character's homes are rather fab and well designed to suggest the swinging era as these photos show

The film occasionally appears in the wee small hours on BBC2 and, if you tune in after chucking out time, a few beers in you and maybe a few more at hand, it's a pleasing distraction for ninety minutes. It's also available on DVD as part of Odeon's 'The Best Of British Collection'


  1. It's certainly schizophrenic - does your disc have the director's commentary track? He explains exactly where, how and why his original film - which sounds like it was as terrific as the film we have constantly promises to be - was re-edited, re-shot and otherwise spoiled, removing a couple of subplots, totally changing the characters, and generally ruining things... It's one of the most interesting and revealing director's commentaries I've heard - a really eye-opening account of what it was like to make a film in the exploitation sector.

    I have to say though that even in its present form I can't help loving this one!

    1. Wowsers! Thanks Matthew, no I wasn't aware of that,having just got this taped off air from BBC2 a few yrs back. But my oh my, what interesting and intriguing news