They don’t make movie stars like Vincent Price anymore – and even when they did, they didn’t make many of them. As well as his prodigious output as an actor, Price was also a well-travelled, learned man with a particular penchant for art and art history and gourmet cookery. A consummate renaissance man, he’s one of those names who transcends the grubby popularity of movie stardom and expands beyond the vapid modern-day concepts of ‘personal brand’. Whether delivering the most chillingly urbane performances in genuine horror or providing some stylish sardonic comic relief, he was always wonderful to watch and whether in person or present through his distinctive, elegantly sinister voice, Vincent Price always brought a touch of class and a taste of the playfully macabre to everything he did.
And so it is with “Bloodbath At The House Of Death” which sees Price bring some arch gravitas and erudite exasperation to this wonderfully silly spoof which all but sank without a cultural trace at the time of release. But now’s as good a time as any to dig up this movie’s withered corpse and shove a hundred thousand volts through it because it deserves to be “Alive!” not just for Price’s contribution but for the zany antics of its star Kenny Everett.
It begins with a prologue showing the guests and staff at Headstone Manor – hosting a management conference – succumbing to a ritualistic orgy of murder and mayhem as red-robed cult members leave a pile of dismembered corpses in their wake. With the police baffled, the mansion remains abandoned until years later when a group of paranormal investigators led by Dr Lukas Mandeville (Kenny Everett) come to investigate. With sinister locals watching their every move and plagued by ghosts, ghouls, poltergeists and a senior disciple of Satan himself, the chances of Dr Mandeville’s team making it through the night are looking grim.
Unusually for a British comedy of its time, its pop culture references veer away from the parochial to the more universal and if there’s a classic horror movie of the seventies you can think of, it gets referenced here. Everett surrounds himself with a veritable who’s who of who’s-that-again? in terms of British talent with Pamela Stephenson (more well known for “Superman III” to international audiences) as Dr Mandeville’s colleague Dr Barbara Coyle, Gareth Hunt (“The New Avengers” and, let’s be honest, Nescafé hand gestures) and Don Warrington (“Rising Damp”, “C.A.T.S. Eyes”) as a pair of gay paranormal paramours on the lookout for queer happenings plus John Fortune, Sheila Steafel and, of course, longtime Everett collaborator Cleo Rocos. Even veteran comedy writer Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the movie with director Ray Cameron) pops up for a cameo.
The star of the show, though, is the man of the blogathon hour. Vincent Price – although he doesn’t really get to interact with much of the main cast that much – is just delicious as the long-suffering servant of Satan trying to wrangle the oafs and idiots of the village into getting the ritual right. He’s got such a dry wit and his elegant exasperation with his incompetent infernal underlings is a constant delight. Amidst a film rife with zany puns, hammy overacting and knowing silliness, Price is an almost incongruously indulgent and sophisticated garnish to the dish – like freshly prepared Béarnaise sauce on a McDonald’s cheeseburger. And although his presence is fleeting – more a glorified cameo, you’ll savour every last morsel and the film is undeniably poorer for it when he makes his grand exit en flambé.
The film owes its overall structure to “The Haunting” and into this it folds references to everything from “Alien” to “The Entity” to “The Amityville Horror” and basically anything else that was making a grisly splash in the horror genre at the time and its an obvious source of inspiration for the likes of “Scary Movie 2” which followed many years later as well as home-grown TV treats like “Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible” and “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”. The effects are surprisingly good given the obvious limitations of the production’s budget with some gory gags which wouldn’t shame Tom Savini and some practical poltergeist effects which speak to the creativity and ingenuity of the behind the camera team.
Of course, the whole movie is very of its time, steeped in the sniggering innuendo of the age so there’s plenty of casual racism, sexism titillating nudity and mild homophobia but it’s all done in Everett’s trademark naughtiness, rendering it inert to all but the most keen to take offence at the comedian’s ‘best possible taste’. Overall, it’s moderately successful at both genres it’s trying to straddle with the gags coming thick and fast enough to overcome the occasional misfire and the blood coming thicker and faster so that it ends up being a half-way decent horror too.