Michael Armstrong, 1969
Starring: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth, Dennis Price A group of friends in swinging London decide that they’re bored with their usual routine of partying, drinking, and wearing outrageous clothing, so when one of them suggests that they visit a supposedly haunted manor in the country, they jump at the idea. Unfortunately, they’re followed by the persistent older boyfriend of one of the girls and after they hold a seance, everything begins to go wrong and it seems there’s a murderer among them. Their American ringleader, Chris, convinces them that — because obviously one of them has to be the killer — they should solve the mystery on their own. They proceed to corroborate their stories, destroy the evidence, and hide the first body from the police, which does nothing to slow the steadily rising body count… It’s not that terrible of a film, but I almost can’t even bring myself to review The Haunted House of Horror — something that hasn’t really happened since my fateful streak of essays on Italian Jaws ripoffs during my animals attack series in January of 2013, when I nearly lost the will to live — and that’s basically because of the film’s offensively absurd premise and the casting of American teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon. It’s controversial to say — because I currently live in Philadelphia, his hometown — but I fucking hate Frankie Avalon. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I would probably rather be waterboarded than sit through a marathon of “beach party” movies. Director Michael Armstrong — best known for Mark of the Devil (1970) — helmed The Haunted House of Horror, something I’m sure he regrets, as the production was sort of yanked out from under him and tampered with by US distributor, American International Pictures, who had a financial stake despite the fact that this is a Tigon British Film Productions effort. As with Tigon’s The Curse of the Crimson Altar, AIP insisted on a role for Boris Karloff, though he was too ill to participate in this film, which is why there’s a more sizable role for the Scotland Yard detective. Though the script was a project Armstrong had worked on since he was a teenager, he was forced to jettison some of the more serious social commentary and, to add insult to injury, he was forced to cast Frankie goddamn Avalon; he was expected to play a teenager despite being 30 years old during filming. Avalon is implausibly described as “the epitome of swinging London” by one of the other characters and his cockamamie idea is basically responsible for the entire plot. They arrive at the haunted house, like you do when you leave a boring party, and one character exclaims, “To hell with the drinks, let’s have an orgy.” But of course they settle on a seance. Zzzzz. The seance basically serves as a reason for them to split up and wander the house alone, where, of course, someone gets murdered. Then Avalon’s character Chris, the group’s de facto leader, declares — for some reason that makes no real sense — that he intends to solve the murder on his own, going so far as to hide the body so the police don’t discover it and interrupt his investigation. Yes, you read that right. Avalon does, however, have some spectacular dialogue. His argument for solving the murder on his own is that the murderer must be from their group of friends (what?) and he says, “How can any one of you prove that you didn’t kill Gary?” The answer, from his girlfriend Sheila replies, “We’re not insane.” Later, Avalon counters that the killer could be male or female: “Any psychopath, male or female, can have superhuman strength when aroused.” He is not wrong. Sheila is played by Jill Haworth, who I think is one of the more unsung genre actresses. She got her start with small roles in The 39 Steps (edit: the remake, not Hitchcock's original, as I mistakenly thought originally, for which she was not even born) and Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula, and went on to appear in cult films like It! and Horror on Snape’s Island. She’s really the best thing about The Haunted House of Horror. And the single best thing about the film’s IMDB page is the (as far as I can tell unfounded) trivia line, “Jill Haworth was on drugs during filming,” which fails to take into account the fact that David Bowie, who had been in an earlier short film directed by Armstrong, was supposed to appear in the film. Armstrong’s original script would undoubtedly have made a much better film and this is yet another case of producers interfering when they should not be. There is a surprising level of violence and gore, though it might seem so elevated because it provides a contrast for the inane scenes of teenagers wandering in the dark. It has an interesting visual style and is unusually colorful, a bit like a poor man’s version of a Bava-era giallo film (and there are even bright red mannequins in the opening scene). I wonder if this has anything to do with why the sweet hell everyone is wearing yellow. The only real value to The Haunted House of Horror is to see how it functions as a proto-slasher. It’s a clear link in the evolution of themes found in “old dark house” films like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932) to other midway points like Bay of Blood (1971) and The Centrefold Girls (1974) to ‘80s slashers like Friday the 13th (1980). It’s not that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, but it’s so frustratingly uneven and so obvious that the studio interfered with the original plan for the film. If, for some reason, you are really determined to see this one, it’s available in the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection alongside a slew of the studio’s superior films like Witchfinder General, The Body Stealers (another baffling one), The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Beast in the Cellar, and Virgin Witch. I don’t think it will come as any surprise when I say I can’t recommend this one and if you do decide to watch it — as I’m sure some Frankie Avalon fans will want to — then best of luck to you.