Laughing and Screaming:
Comedy horror and
The House in Nightmare Park
Should comedy and horror ever occupy the same space? David Evans-Powell believes so and presents his case with a look at 1973's The House in Nightmare Park...
Comedy and horror appear unlikely bedfellows. Noel Carroll remarked that “horror and humor seem like opposite mental states. Being horrified seems as though it should preclude amusement. And what causes us to laugh does not appear as though it should also be capable of making us scream”.
And yet, there is a long history of comedy-horror on film, stretching back to The Old Dark House (1932) and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and one that is still going strong with Zombieland (2009), Happy Death Day (2017), The Babysitter (2017), and their respective sequels (2019, 2019, 2020) among many others.
The relationship between comedy and horror is something I’ve been considering recently, following a Twitter exchange a couple of months ago. I had re-watched the excellent Hammer House of Horror episode ‘The House That Bled to Death’ (1980) and I tweeted an image from the infamous sequence where the blood pours from the ceiling pipe straight onto a children’s birthday party. I love this episode and this sequence in particular – and I find the sheer camp excess of it funny.
Not to say that I am laughing at the material, but more that I am laughing with it. And I feel that my reaction is one the makers intended; it is a deliberately Grand-Guignol moment designed to punctuate the tension building over the previous scenes, and provide the audience with the perverse thrill of watching such a wholesome activity as a children’s party be so thoroughly and comprehensively despoiled. However, someone responded to challenge my tweet, feeling that comedy and horror should provoke separate emotional reactions and that never the twain should meet.
Undeniably laughing and screaming are different reactions but, equally undeniably, they are closely related. Robert Bloch, the writer of Psycho, stated that “comedy and horror are opposite sides of the same coin … Both deal in the grotesque and the unexpected” while Alfred Hitchcock talked about how to “alternate between the two, build up the tension and then release it with a laugh”.
How far a comedy film requires horrific tone or content, or a horror film needs moments of comic relief, to be a comedy-horror is a matter for debate. Some films clearly privilege one over the other. While spoofing the conventions of the horror film, the Scary Movie franchise (2000 – 2013) is intending to make its audience laugh first (or, at least, attempt to) while attempts to genuinely frighten or unnerve viewers are far down the list of priorities. Jeffrey S Miller is clear that “horror-comedies are more than horror films with a few scenes of comic relief; they are works where each genre is fully represented”. This suggests to me that there is a difference between films that use horror conventions, styles and motifs for comic effect – the vast majority of horror parodies and spoofs fall into this category – and those films that, arguably, far more subtly attempt to weave comedy and horror together to create films that aspire to amuse and unnerve their audiences in equal measure.
This relationship between horror and comedy is something I want to explore further by looking at one of my favourite British comedy-horror films, and one that I feel finds a harmonious balance between comedy and horror: Peter Sykes’ 1973 film, and Frankie Howerd vehicle, The House in Nightmare Park. It is not a film that has received a significant degree of attention, something I feel is a tremendous shame given how effective it is at being both funny and genuinely unnerving, without either compromising the other.
Set in England, at some ill-defined period in either the late-19th or early-20th Centuries, Howerd plays the fabulously named Foster Twelvetrees, a self-aggrandising recitalist who is booked to perform for the eccentric Henderson family at their country house isolated within a large, wild-looking estate (the titular ‘nightmare park’). Initially bemused by the family’s bizarre antics, Twelvetrees grows more concerned as they begin dropping like flies and it becomes apparent that one of them is a crazed killer. It also transpires that his booking was not at all by chance but is instead part of a nefarious scheme by the family to find a trove of priceless diamonds hidden on their estate.
In Britain – as elsewhere – scares and laughs were closely intertwined in the sixties and seventies. That behemoth of British horror cinema, Hammer Studios, was also a successful producer of comedy films, many of which were developed from popular television series including On The Buses (1971, 1972, 1973), Nearest and Dearest (1972), and Man About the House (1974). Meanwhile, Amicus Productions’ portmanteau horror films often featured actors who had made their name as comics or in comic roles, including Terry-Thomas, Roy Castle and Jon Pertwee. Younger stars, like Robin Askwith, would cross between comedy and horror films as the sexual content in both genres steadily grew across the decade. As a vehicle for long-time comedian Frankie Howerd, a comedy-horror like The House in Nightmare Park makes perfect sense.
Jonathan Rigby describes the film as “one of the UK’s last really plushly upholstered horror pictures”. It certainly represents one of the last gasps of one form of horror-comedy and its replacement by an entirely new form, which is represented by another, almost contemporaneous, British horror film: Antony Balch’s Horror Hospital (1972). Horror Hospital is far more of its time: a peculiarly off-beat, sweaty and sleazy mix of youthful permissiveness, gory horror and surreal, black humour. The casting of its two stars – Robin Askwith and Michael Gough – sees the film hedging its bets with one foot firmly in the sexed-up and seedy seventies horror film and the other lingering still in the more stately, cobwebbed melodrama of the preceding decades. Given this new trajectory for British horror, The House in Nightmare Park seems as fusty as the Henderson’s country house.
Instead, The House in Nightmare Park is part of an older tradition, that of the ‘old dark house’ film. While films of this type have been played straight, it is notable how often it is used in comedy-horror, from the 1926 lost film The Bat to last year’s Ready or Not. Named in honour of one of the first, and most acclaimed, of this type of film, ‘old dark house’ stories are set in the remote, crumbling estates of the upper classes. Family members and faithful retainers are summoned, usually for a reunion, a funeral or the reading of a Will. Normally isolated by bad weather or inhospitable landscape, and riven by enmity and spite, the characters are soon beset by insanity and murder as they are bumped off one by one. The House in Nightmare Park is, along with the not-quite-Carry On film What a Carve Up! (1961) and the sumptuous-looking Radley Metzger adaptation of The Cat and The Canary (1978), a good example of the British ‘old dark house’ comedy-horror.
We might ask ourselves why this type of film lends itself so well to comedy-horror. Murder and madness are usually the stuff of melodramatic thrillers like Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946), and psychological horror films that Hammer developed a side-line in such as Nightmare (1964), The Nanny (1965) and Demons of the Mind (1972). None of these has any intention to make us laugh.
To answer this question, we should return to Robert Bloch’s suggestion that horror and comedy “both deal in the grotesque and unexpected”. The grotesque relates to that which is monstrous through distortion and that evokes confused emotions of both pity and either revulsion or discomfort (more classically monstrous examples include The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein’s Monster).
The grotesqueness of the families in ‘old dark house’ comedy-horror films presents us with people who are recognisable enough to be sympathetic to the viewer but distorted enough to unnerve; a skewed mirror-image of a family. The trappings of the large, isolated country pile, too, present us with that notion of the uncanny; familiar enough as a family home but unfamiliar in its size, sumptuary and isolation. The exaggerated qualities of these characters and their world give us license to feel safe amongst their madness and depravities and to find humour in them.
The Hendersons of Nightmare Park are certainly a gallery of grotesques. At first glance, they appear fairly harmless, albeit somewhat eccentric, and rather more middle than upper class. While they bicker and snipe at each other, initially there doesn’t seem to be much threatening about them. Ray Milland as elder brother Stuart is, for much of the film, the viewer’s identification point. His attempts to maintain at least a veneer of geniality in the face of the unintentionally uncouth behaviour of the bluff, conceited Twelvetrees (when offered refreshments upon arrival, Foster says ‘as a matter of fact, I had a packet of crisps on the train. Perhaps a little something to rinse the bits out of my teeth’), and yet his inability to entirely hide how aghast he is, is both highly relatable and very funny. To a lesser extent his brothers, cantankerous major Reggie and highly-strung vet Ernest – played by Hugh Burden and Kenneth Griffith respectively – are also brought to life through their misgivings about Howerd’s recitalist.
Meanwhile, their glacial sister Jessica, played by Rosalie Crutchley, cannot bring herself to speak to him at all, and Ernest’s imperious wife Agnes – played by Ruth Dunning – treats him as the staff (‘The feathered cow’ hisses Twelvetrees as she asks him to take her bags up to her room). That the family are as alienated by Twelvetrees’ vulgarity as he is by their eccentricity arguably helps to naturalise the characters and performances in contrast to other ‘old dark house’ films, where the ‘outsider’ (such as Kenneth Connor and Sid James in What a Carve Up!) is incontrovertibly the viewer’s surrogate and the family is near uniformly unrelatable. This far more nuanced characterisation in The House in Nightmare Park allows for the viewer to invest in both the family and in Twelvetrees and allows us to enjoy the comedy of manners that plays out between them.
Critical to the balance of comedy and horror in the film is that none of the cast gives what you could describe as a comic turn, choosing instead to play the characters in as rounded way as possible. Even Howerd plays the role of the vain Twelvetrees with a sensitivity that perhaps he has never really been given credit for. His trademark wheezing and facial expressions are present and correct but only when they compliment the material; for the most part, he treads a subtle tightrope between both underplaying the role while still playing up to the material.
However, when there are moments of comedy, Howerd seizes them with both hands. There are many stand-out scenes of pure hilarity, including a gleefully grumpy attempt by Foster to secure himself a breakfast (‘Game set, an egg to me I believe!’), a rudely interrupted recital of Little Nell (‘I was just giving ‘er me Little Nell’ ‘You filthy swine!’), and an attempt by Ernest and his wife to fatally relieve Foster of the toothache (‘my old dentist said he’s never seen such roots. He says he’d like to have my head in a bottle’). These sequences though do not interrupt the generally unnerving atmosphere, nor jar with the sense of unease that builds throughout the film as the body count starts to rise.
A useful comparison can be made with a near contemporary of The House in Nightmare Park, and one of the most popular British comedy-horror films: Carry On Screaming (1966). Crucially though, while Carry On Screaming has often described as a comedy-horror, it isn’t really. Instead, it is a film that finds comedy in a parody of the motifs and conventions of Hammer’s gothic horror oeuvre. There is nothing within the film intended to actually frighten or unnerve; instead, the direction and the performances are entirely geared to humour. This is understandable – it is a Carry On film after all – but it is useful to illustrate how The House in Nightmare Park, while being funny, also manages to be unnerving in equal measure; how it manages both comedy and horror with sincerity.
As discussed, the performances are a key factor. Unlike in Carry On Screaming, there are no broad comic turns or overly arch performances. Instead, the cast underplays their exaggerated characters to allow for the audience to have some empathy with them. Another key factor is Peter Sykes’ direction.
Sykes doesn’t direct the film as a comedy at all really; instead, the camera work is far more in keeping with that of a Hitchcockian thriller or psychological horror film. Occasions that could have been the focus for surrealist humour, such as Twelvetrees discovery of a lady’s grey wig on the floor or his peeking into the room that houses the sickly and quarantined Victor Henderson only to jump when Stuart accosts him, instead become moments of tension, mystery or jump-shock. When Twelvetrees finds himself in a turret bedroom with the Henderson’s elderly and sequestered mother, Sykes artfully has her invisible within the darkness of the corner of the room before emerging, swathed in a funereal black gown and veil, from the depths of the shadows.
The following sequence is a skilful build in suspense until the apparently sweet old lady lunges psychopathically at Twelvetrees with a cleaver. The climax of the film – in which Twelvetrees is pursued through the corridors of the house by an axe-wielding maniac – is stylishly directed with skewed angles and spiralling camera motions that both effectively captures the poor recitalist’s panic, as well as suggesting that the house itself is a hostile force. Members of the Henderson family are dispatched without any sense of humour or sentimentality, particularly a death by sickle that, while it happens off-camera, still manages to be grisly.
Indeed, there are some sequences that are straight-up horrific. Jessica feeds live rabbits to the pythons and cobras kept in a snake pit in the basement of the house, flicking her tongue serpent-like in rapt and eager anticipation as Twelvetrees can only look on aghast. Perhaps the stand-out sequence though is a musical piece performed by the Henderson siblings that recalls their youth as travelling family troupe: Henderson’s Human Marionettes. Shot by Sykes in flickering half-light, the brothers are dressed as Pierrot dolls and dance stiffly with vacant expressions while Jessica – replete in stylised rouge and child’s smock – sings The Dance of the Dolls in a high girlish voice. It’s a sickly, macabre set-piece that is as grotesque as they come.
Sykes’ direction is greatly complimented by Maurice Carter’s sets, which conjure the feel of a home and family once grand but now faded and failing, and Harry Robinson’s cimbalom-heavy music that lends an exotic and unsettling edge to the film. This exoticism is entirely in keeping with the story, given that the Hendersons are an Anglo-Indian family who worship Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Curiously, it is one of a number of British horror films of the time to feature Anglo-Indian families, others being Hammer’s The Reptile (1965), and Tyburn’s The Ghoul (1975), which perhaps suggests much about the post-colonial anxieties bubbling away in the minds of British film-makers at the time.
While your enjoyment of The House in Nightmare Park may stand or fall depending upon how funny you find Frankie Howerd, if you haven’t seen it before I hope you give this masterly British comedy-horror a watch.
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Carroll, Noel, Horror and Humor, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol 7 No 2, Aesthetics and Popular Culture (Spring 1999), pp 145-160.
Miller, Jeffrey S, The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello: A Critical Assessment of the Comedy Team’s Monster Films, McFarland & Co, 2004.
Rigby, Jonathan, English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015, Signum Books, 2015.