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August 2011

The Haunted House Of Horror

cast: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth, Dennis Price, Mark Wynter, and George Sewell

director: Michael Armstrong

90 minutes (15) 1969
Anchor Bay DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Horror House

Tigon DVD boxset
The Haunted House Of Horror

The movie begins with trapped sobs of breath from behind closed doors... Meanwhile, around mid-1960, a group called the Four Preps scored a novelty hit with Got A Girl, a song relating the teen-tale of his troubled romance with a girl more obsessed with pop stars than she is with him. He longs to hold her tight in the moonlight, but as she spoke her locket broke and he realised they were not alone, "inside was Fabian, Avalon, Ricky Nelson too, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Bobby Rydell and I know darned well, Presley's in there too." The lyric provided pop-artist Peter Blake with subject-matter for one of his most memorable collages, while it also presents a neat r�sum� list of the top teen idols of the day, including 'Avalon'.

But although Frankie Avalon was massive in America, his biggest hits were stolen by UK cover-versions, depriving him of a similar fan-base here. A Philadelphia-born trumpet-playing prodigy, he was just 17 when a slot in the movie of Dick Clark's Disc Jockey Jamboree (1957) kicked off his run of hit singles, and soon his dark Italianate good looks were everywhere in the fan pin-up mags. But wholesome Dickie Valentine took his US #1 Venus high into the British charts. Not the Shocking Blue/ Bananarama song, it was instead an impassioned plea to the goddess of love - which Frankie pronounces 'vee-nurse', to send him a "lovely girl with sunlight in her hair." Then Anthony Newley topped the charts with Frankie's next cute catchy American #1 Why.

Consequently, his career never quite took off here, although he graduated sideways into movies - as the token teen-attraction with John Wayne in Sam Houston's The Alamo (1960), until his clean-cut features made him ideal for a series of beach-party movies which saw him frequently co-starring with pneumatic Annette Funicello. Which makes it all the stranger that the proto-slasher frightener The Haunted House Of Horror (aka: Horror House), a supposed swinging London 1960s movie, should cast Avalon - who was by then nudging 30 anyway, as a hip teenager.

Just that within a cast of reliably familiar faces from UK soaps and sitcoms, they needed a name to sell the movie to America, and according to the impeccable box-office logic of hopefully cracking the US drive-in market with an obligatory Yank, Avalon happened to be available. Not that he's bad, because he isn't. In fact, none of them are really, really bad. The plot focuses around three sets of teen-couples.

The first consists of Chris (Avalon) in a seriously un-cool pale-yellow V-neck sweater, and nice-girl Shelia (Jill Haworth). The second is Gary (pop singer Mark Wynter) and dolly-bird Dorothy Pulman (Carol Dilworth). Then there's nerdy Peter (Richard O'Sullivan) and plainly overweight Madge (Veronica Doran), who provide comedy focus. A child actor from the start with Carry On Teacher, and Cliff Richard's The Young Ones, O'Sullivan was pretty much a sitcom regular from flat-share comedy Man About The House through Robin's Nest. Whereas she was the CB-radio date destined to marry 'Eddie Yates' on-screen in Coronation Street.

There's also posh-totty Sylvia (Gina Warwick) in white-leather lace-up boots with white micro-skirt targeted with triangular cut-outs; mod-haired loner Richard (Julian Barnes) in floral shirt; and Henry (Robin Stewart), who became Sid James' likeable slacker art-student son in comfy sitcom Bless This House, a role he virtually anticipates here.

To set the movie's tone, the d�cor includes a trendy Frank Zappa 'Mothers' poster on the bedroom wall, a brooding Marlon Brando shot from The Wild One, and a red 'Oz' poster. Later there are trend-establishing glimpses of 'The Fool'-style psychedelic mural above the 'Lord John' boutique, while the (un-credited) Pretty Things soundtrack Chris' party with trippy lyrics about flying "over the clouds and away." Then Carnaby Street shots further establish the film's grooviness, starting with the 'Mates' boutique where Gary works. He meets hotel receptionist girlfriend Dorothy to plot the party at Chris' flat. But then he gets sidetracked singing Responsibility in a pub stag-night sing-along, so arrives late and worse for wear.

Meanwhile Sylvia is being stalked by 'Uncle Bob' Kellett (George Sewell). Bob is the 'sugar daddy' she's dumped, but who refuses to stay dumped, "I'm not one of your long-haired kids," he protests menacingly, "I don't brush off that easy." To emphasise his point he adds "I'm not linen you know, you don't change me when you feel like it." Reliably sleazy, Sewell was another TV regular with credits all the way from down-at-heel Inspector Brogan in Z-Cars, through to genre roles in UFO, and Doctor Who (Remembrance Of The Daleks, 1988).

The various plot elements assemble at the party where they drink 'arsenic and old lace' and just might be smoking joints, while there's some bickering and furtive assignations. Dorothy is annoyed at Gary's condition, so Sylvia grabs the opportunity of coming on to him. But the party's a drag, so, at Richard's suggestion, the swinging pals decide to split and spend a night in a creepy old house instead. Strictly for kicks, natch, as you do.

With doomy organ music the suitably gloomy exterior shots of Bank Hall, in Bretherton, Lancashire, are first glimpsed in black outline. Then cobwebbed interiors use the Birkdale Palace Hotel at Southport, lit by old candles. "Let's have an orgy!" ... "No, let's have a s�ance!" Settling for the lesser of the two options the s�ance consists of all the usual false-shock shadows and banging doors. After all, this spookiness is happening in 'the House of the Dead' where a madman once hacked six family-members to death, then killed himself. He is the haunting presence.

Of course, this rickety plot-line is hardly new - even then, and has been re-used since. And it's not long before these groovy young types are being sliced and diced by a machete-wielding psychopath. Is Sylvia to be the first? She's bored, and sets off strolling down the twilight tree-lined lane, stalked by a sulking skulking Bob (seething after seeing her snog Gary). But no, at the main road she hitches a lift in a passing blue mini and vanishes. Meanwhile, as the s�ance tape-spool ends and flips, it's Gary who gets bloodily slashed to death. They start accusing each other. But Chris assumes control, suggests disposing of the body and tells them "nobody's going yet. No-one's going to go running off or running to the police. We've got to figure this out for ourselves." The reason, it turns out, is that they fashionably have drug busts on record.

Later of course, the police 'missing persons' investigators do get involved. They question Chris at an up-market club. They quiz Dorothy. They question Sylvia who provides their lead back to the 'haunted house of horror'. She has decidedly off-message Mario Lanza and Tchaikovsky albums sprawled on her bed - she's posh-totty, remember?, but gets the balance right with an overflowing ashtray, the letters LUV spaced across the wall, and Mick Jagger and Che posters. Meanwhile she's still being pestered by sleazy Bob. Isn't he too obviously the bad guy? Actually, no...

To retrieve her lost lighter he speeds his Ford Zodiac back to the creepy house - and gets himself slashed! But if it's not him, then who's the villain? In the art gallery, Sheila is haunted by images of dead Gary. Everyone suspects everyone else. Chris convenes a meeting at his flat to talk things through, "to straighten this thing out between ourselves." When Richard confides he can't get the murder out of his mind, nerdy Peter suggests they go back and recreate the events of the party. So they race two cars through a night of the full Moon, "everything as before." More psycho slasher-games ensue. Nerdy Peter and hysterical Madge head out.

Finally, Chris confronts Richard, after all, wasn't it his idea to come to this creepy horror-house in the first place? It was. Richard tells of his mind-bending ordeal of being locked here in a secret dark cellar for three days, as a six-year-old kid, lonely and isolated, and terrified in the dark. It was his trapped sobs from behind closed doors as the movie began. Although neatly supplying this slasher-motivation for the viewer's benefit, Chris doesn't survive to tell the tale. Richard skewers him, and then pursues Shelia. At the last moment clouds cross the Moon. He's terror-stricken of the sudden dark. As the cops arrive at the last minute he flees sobbing off into the night... neatly concluding this watchable period-movie instalment on the reliable theme of group jeopardy.

Although he was never included in the Four Preps neat r�sum� of the top teen idols of the day like Frankie Avalon, Mark Wynter was another insipid pretty-boy pop singer, one whose slight fame was restricted to the UK charts, largely with covers of American hits. Oddly, his biggest title was a version of Jimmy Clanton's Venus In Blue Jeans. And it's not that these teen stars are actually bad in their parts, because they're not. In fact, none of them are really, really bad. It's just that neither are convincingly representative of the trendy 'swinging 1960s' new breed, either. It'd have been interesting to see the film re-cast with some of the hipper faces around, those who nursed wide-screen ambitions, say - Paul Jones of the Manfreds, or the Animals' Eric Burdon. As it is, The Haunted House Of Horror provides 90 minutes of effortless blood-flecked distraction.

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