Friday, 1 May 2020

Horror Express:
The Haunted House of Horror
(Michael Armstrong / Gerry Levy, 1969)

If you’ve read around the history of British horror a bit, chances are you’ll already be familiar with the convoluted background of this singularly ill-starred production, but nonetheless, it’s impossible to really put the contents of the film in their proper context without reference to behind-the-scenes shenanigans, so I’ll recount the tale for you in brief below.

So, basically – in 1967, ambitious young writer/director Michael Armstrong made a short film entitled ‘The Image’, starring an equally young and ambitious David Bowie. To follow up on the relative success of this venture, Armstrong put together a proposal for his debut feature – a violent psychological horror/thriller with a shocking-at-the-time homosexual twist, provisionally entitled ‘The Dark’, also starring Bowie. Tigon’s Tony Tenser was sold on the idea, and approached the British office of American International Pictures to sort out a co-production deal… which, by common consent, is where the trouble began.

To retrospective gasps from the world as it existed just a few short years later, AIP’s UK head honcho Louis M. ‘Deke’ Heywood nixed the casting of Bowie, insisting that fading ‘Beach Party’ heartthrob Frankie Avalon would prove a better box office draw, whilst also excising some of the more controversial elements from Armstrong’s script. The director, apparently grokking that compromise is the name of the game in commercial cinema, acquiesced, and set about shooting whatever was left of his masterpiece amid what seems to have been an atmosphere of persistent back office interference.

As Armstrong tells it, after principal photography was completed, he was told that Heyward didn’t think the footage was up to scratch, and had requested two weeks of re-shoots. Hastily throwing together ideas for a bunch of new and revised material he could use to beef things up, Armstrong anxiously prepared for the big production meeting – only to discover that it had taken place without him. He could collect his full fee, and would retain his director’s credit, but Heyward’s assigned director (Gerry Levy, who’d recently helmed the disastrous ‘The Body Stealers’ for Tigon/AIP) would handle the re-shoots, so, thanks for your hard work old chap, but best just go home and put your feet up, and we’ll sort everything out, alright?

Nine months later, something called ‘The Haunted House of Horror’ (we can blame Tenser for the title – not one of his best) made it to the screen, and is, to put it charitably, a complete dog’s breakfast.

It may be a cheap shot to observe that this back story is more interesting than anything that actually happens on-screen, but it’s unavoidable really. The fact is, most of the enjoyment which can be gleaned from this misbegotten cultural artefact comes from trying to keep track of whose footage we’re watching at any given moment, as fragments of Armstrong’s attempt to expose the venomous cynicism and psycho-sexual dysfunction of his swinging London contemporaries are interspersed – sometimes within the same scene, or exchange of dialogue – with redubbed material or new insert shots highlighting Heywood & Levy’s perverse determination to transform the project into some kind of outdated “teens in the haunted house” type drive-in caper.

As such, we’re never quite sure whether the mod-ish youngsters who initially assemble at a Central London house party are meant to be wolfish, psychedelic degenerates or gormless, Scooby-Doo-esque innocents. When they subsequently decamp to a derelict rural mansion for a phony séance (just for KICKS, y’know), the sudden lurches between teeth-grindingly witless dialogue of the “gosh, let’s get outta here before we see a ghost” variety and outbursts of shrieking, mean-spirited hysteria are jarring in the extreme… although the sad truth is that neither mode is really terribly engaging.

As presented here, the central conceit that, upon discovering that one of their friends has been brutally murdered, the party-goers decide to respond not by calling the police and/or leaving the dark old house to seek help, but instead by disposing of the body and instigating an extended private game of “one of us is the murderer, but who?”, just seems flat out ridiculous.

Perhaps if (as I suspect may originally have been the case), the script had established these guys as a bunch of sinister, ulterior motive-harbouring ne’erdowells with legitimate reasons to fear the fuzz, it might have worked. As is though, it feels as if Shaggy just got knifed, and Velma and Freddie are like, “shit man, we need to ditch the stiff”. We just can’t buy it, in order words – especially when it’s square-as-a-slide rule Frankie Avalon who’s trying to sell the others on this deeply questionable course of action.

Elsewhere, Heywood/Levy-mandated sub-plots involving veteran tough guy actor George Sewell as a spurned older lover of one of the girls, and a doddering Dennis Price as a police detective, prove almost unbelievably tedious, serving little purpose beyond padding out the run time – examples of the kind of cinematic ‘dead air’ which will sadly be all too familiar to devotees of Jess Franco and/or Harry Alan Towers. Even during the central ‘spooky house’ segments though, the pacing is often pretty slack and the action repetitious.

On the plus side, the pungent swinging ‘60s atmos of the film’s opening scenes will (as with just about anything filmed in this magic time and place) be worth the entry price alone to some viewers. The fuzzed up grooves which play during the house party scenes are pretty cool (it’s The Pretty Things, working once again under their ubiquitous ‘Electric Banana’ pseudonym, I believe), and the production design and set dressing - by future Norman J. Warren collaborator Hayden Pierce - is excellent too, during the Armstrong footage at least.

Some of the ‘tiptoeing around the dark house’ stuff is convincingly atmospheric, and, most memorably, the film’s two murder set pieces (both featuring male victims) are exceptionally gory for the period, edited together as sequences of ‘Psycho’-like shock cuts which I presume must remain largely true to the director’s original intent.

In places, we can also see that Armstrong had a pretty good knack for drawing strong performances from the film’s young cast (perhaps the fact he was around the same age himself helped in this regard), although the chopped and mangled nature of the footage prevents any of them from really establishing a consistent identity for themselves, whilst Avalon – whose be-cardiganed and be-quiffed character is ludicrously introduced as “..the epitome of Swinging London” – proves as wooden and out-of-place as you’d fear.

Likewise, we can just about see how the final reel revelation of the killer’s identity and motivation might potentially have provided a powerful and disturbing denouement, if the preceding seventy-five minutes had provided us with an appropriate frame of reference for it all, and if the pivotal scene had been performed by two actors who actually seem to have been in the same room with each other and understood the significance of the dialogue they were delivering – neither of which, sad to say, is the case here.

Whilst most of the blame for the sorry state in which ‘Haunted House of Horror’ reaches us must inevitably lie with Heywood & Levy though, it’s fair to say that there is likewise little left here to suggest that Armstrong’s original cut would have been a singular work of genius. Perhaps, as Heywood & co would no doubt have argued had posterity granted them the opportunity, he was simply too young and inexperienced to deliver a releasable, commercial feature? Perhaps, in tacking 30 or 40 minutes of hastily-shot filler onto the footage he delivered, they were simply trying to protect their investment and get the thing into cinemas?

Perhaps. But probably not. The cack-handedness of the producer’s insidious attempts to alter the tone and emphasis of the material, together with the remnants of a more coherent aesthetic vision which can be glimpsed in Armstrong’s footage, certainly lend credence to the director’s hard-luck story. Even if the film he delivered may have been a bit rough around the edges, Armstrong’s original cut would almost certainly have comprised a darker, more tonally consistent and more noteworthy contribution to the canon of British horror than the dispiriting hodge-podge of inconsequential guff AIP left us with.

It may not have established its director as a worthy successor to Polanski or Michael Reeves, but it would at least have given us a juicy chunk of sordid, late ‘60s gristle to chew on, prefiguring the grimy, proto-slasher tradition of Pete Walker’s ‘The Flesh & Blood Show’ and Richard Gordon’s ‘Tower of Evil’ by several years, or else mirroring the congealing counter-cultural ennui of Alan Gibson’s ‘Goodbye Gemini’ or Reeves’ ‘The Sorcerers’.

And, if we’d gotten his original wish and managed to cast Bowie, well… the sky’s the limit. Safe to say, we’d all have had umpteen releases of ‘The Dark’ sitting on our shelves by this point, and ‘Sight & Sound’ would have knocked out a cheery 50th anniversary piece a few months ago. Perhaps Armstrong might even have gone onto a longer and more rewarding directorial career, rather than packing the whole thing in after being shafted even more comprehensively by Adrian Hoven whilst trying to direct ‘Mark of the Devil’ in Germany a year or two later. Who knows. It’s a funny old game, this film industry lark.

We must, I suppose, at least admire Armstrong’s self-control in not attempting to recreate his film’s groin-stabbing finale in real life after seeing ‘Haunted House of Horror’ for the first time. He did get to enjoy at least some small quantity of revenge a few years later however, using ‘Deke’ Heywood as the basis for the pointedly named character of ‘Big Dick’ in what remains perhaps his most endearing contribution to British cinema, the semi-autobiographical sex film satire ‘Eskimo Nell’ (1975).


One of many things which is arguably more rewarding than watching ‘Haunted House of Horror’ is looking at some of the wonderful artwork which distributors around the world came up with to try to sell it. In particular, note the Italian poster, which tries to pass it off as a Poe adaptation!


Ian Smith said...

Thanks for that review. I remember first seeing 'The Haunted House of Horror' on ITV late one Friday night when I was about 12 or 13. By that time I'd already seen 'Blood on Satan's Claw' and 'The Creeping Flesh', so I assumed that anything with the words 'A Tigon Production' at the beginning of it would be really good. Thus, this was a massive disappointment. I was the most un-hip kid imaginable, but as soon as Richard O'Sullivan appeared on screen, even I realised that these characters were NOT mad, bad and dangerous-to-know reprobates from Swinging London. That said, when the first kid got murdered... I jumped six inches out of my seat. It was the goriest thing I'd seen up till that point.

Incidentally, I'd always wondered about the actor Julian Barnes, who played the mad killer in 'The Haunted House of Horror'. For years I wanted to believe he was the same Julian Barnes who became the acclaimed author of such highbrow literary novels as 'Flaubert's Parrot', 'A History of the World in Ten-and-a-Half Chapters' and 'Arthur & George'. (This would be like finding out that Martin Amis had once worked with Pete Walker or Salman Rushdie had once appeared in a Norman J. Warren movie. Come to think of it, Fay Weldon really was involved in Alan Birkinshaw's 'Killer Moon.') But alas, it wasn't the same Julian Barnes. Checking out his IMDb page now, I see that he's a different person who's still acting today and has appeared in such Hollywood fare as 'The Astronaut's Wife' and 'Pacific Rim'.

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Biggest revelation of this film for me was when they tidied up the copy used for telly hsowings and I could actually see who the killer was! For years, the print had been so dark and murk that the big revelation took place in total darkness, so I had no idea what was going on other than by speech.

As for the film, its a bit of a missed opportunity and didnt make a lot of sense even when a fresh yoof watching it. e.g. "....and probably stoned." "Drunk!? Me?"

Top Carnaby Streeting at the beginning though. The "Forget the seance, lets have an orgy!" lines a winner as well

Ben said...

Thanks for your comments Ian and Maurice! Appreciated as always.

Yes, seeing 'Julian Barnes' on the cast list raised my eyebrows too. More literary fiction / Brit exploitation cross-overs are definitely to be wished for. Perhaps I should try to start a rumur that Ian McEwan got murdered in one of the 'Xtro' movies or something? (As mentioned in my review of it, I tend to suspect Fay Weldon was probably responsible for much of the laugh-out-loud dialogue in 'Killer's Moon'.)