The Haunted House of Horror

Original title: The Dark, US Title: Horror House

The Dark
Michael Armstrong
Michael Armstrong
Tony Tenser
Frankie Avalon
Jill Haworth
Dennis Price
Mark Wynter
Julian Barnes
Richard O'Sullivan
Gina Warwick
Robin Stewart
Carol Dilworth
Veronica Doran
Clifford Earl
(Police Sergeant)
Jan Holden
Robert Raglan
(Chief Inspector)
Freddie Lees
George Sewell
Running Time:
90 minutes
Available on DVD from Amazon.
Read on: History >> The Haunted House Of Horror

The Haunted House of Horror - History

The Haunted House Of Horror

The Haunted House Of Horror was made in 1968.

The original screenplay was entitled The Dark, which Armstrong wrote in the early part of 1960 shortly before his sixteenth birthday and the UK release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. "The whole Psycho experience proved so overwhelming," he recalls, "that I humbly put my script of The Dark in a drawer and tried to forget I'd ever written it."

The screenplay lay forgotten until 1967 when Armstrong had already embarked upon a film career with his short, The Image and found a small commercials company prepared to produce a feature provided he could secure the majority of the finance.

With nothing immediately to hand, he re-wrote The Dark and returned to one of his earlier backers of the non-realised feature, The Initiate. When the production house then insisted upon him securing a distribution guarantee as well as an advance agreement for certification from the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors), a frustrated Armstrong sought advice from its Secretary, John Trevelyan.

The Haunted House Of Horror

They had met a year earlier when the BBFC had warned there would be a refusal of certification on earlier screenplays, The Initiate and A Floral Tale, should a company choose to film them. Trevelyan had, nevertheless, been sufficiently impressed with Armstrong's writing to take a personal interest in his career from that point on and, now, hearing of his plight with The Dark, arranged for him to meet Tony Tenser of Tigon Films. Tenser had already found success through investing in one young talent, Michael Reeves and was primed to take on another. Armstrong fitted the bill perfectly.

"It really was a case of my being in the right place at the right time," Armstrong points out. "I met with Tony on Thursday and gave him the script to read. He called me on Saturday and asked me to meet him on Monday. When I went to his office, he told me he wanted to purchase the script and make the film. I told him I wanted to direct it. A contract was signed and I walked out of his office with a cheque for £300. It was as fast and as simple as that."

At that time, the idea of an unknown in his early twenties with no experience directing a feature film was unheard of.

The prime reason for this was that in 1967, in England, due to the closed shop operated by the Unions, it was virtually impossible to break into the film business in any capacity whatsoever - not even as a runner - let alone as a director. It operated the Catch-22 principle: You couldn't get a job unless you were a Union member and you couldn't become a Union member unless you had a job.

The few who managed to surmount that hurdle were then forced to remain working in that particular field until a job situation opened up in another field and when no other Union member was available to take the job on offer. In other words, if after maybe 2 or 3 years of being on the Union's waiting list, you managed to land a job as a Runner then, from that point on, you could only ever apply for other Runner jobs. If you wanted to move up the ladder and become, possibly, a 3rd Assistant Director - then you could only do so if no other 3rd Assistant Director in the Union happened to be available to take that job on offer. Predictably, opportunities to change job titles seldom occurred and when they did, it was usually after years of waiting for appropriate vacancies to arise.

With such a rigidly enforced system in place, it meant that the dream of becoming a film director only happened to a few veteran Union members after decades of considerable patience and slog through numerous delineated job areas. Besides, how often are director's jobs on offer to untried people? - especially when a Union insists that all registered directors must be approached and offered any available job first.

Michael Armstrong on the set of The Haunted House Of Horror

In such an environment, therefore, the idea of a young man in his early twenties being allowed anywhere near directing a feature film in the UK was a true phenomenon in the film industry.

Michael Reeves was one such. Coming from a moneyed background, he had solved the Union problem by seeking employment outside the UK (as Assistant Director on The Long Ships and as writer and 2nd Unit Director on Il Castello dei Morti Vivi). Then, in order to direct his first feature film, (Lago di Satana/Revenge Of The Blood Beast UK/She-Beast US) he wrote and produced it abroad. Having thus established himself, he was able to repeat the process in the UK for his second feature, The Sorcerers which Tigon distributed. He was directing his third and, tragically, final feature, Witchfinder General for Tigon and American International at the time Armstrong signed to direct The Dark.

If Michael Reeves was exceptional in the industry at that time, then Michael Armstrong was even more so. He was a year younger and, unlike Reeves, from an ordinary working class background with no money of any kind behind him. He had only been able to go to RADA because of a local Council Grant. At the time of meeting Tony Tenser, he had barely been out of drama school for two years and had no experience or track record in the film industry whatsoever. When Tigon announced Armstrong had been employed to direct The Dark from his own screenplay as a British/ American co-production, it was not only ground-breaking it was a historical first which served as an inspiration and opened the gate for others.

"At the time, I was so unaware of just how extraordinary the situation was in which I'd landed," Armstrong recalls. "When you're that young, you tend to take everything for granted and think it's your right to get opportunities to do what you want. I don't mean I got particularly big-headed or anything like that - at least, I hope I didn't and I don't think I did - but I did believe I was now on my way to fulfilling some kind of destiny thing and that from now on it would be nothing but fame, fortune and world-wide recognition of my genius. Of course, once I started, all that crap soon got knocked out of me - which, in some ways, is a bit sad, really, because with the loss of that naivety went a certain kind of innocence."

The Haunted House Of Horror

The circumstance which had provided such opportunities to people like Armstrong and Reeves was the collapse of the studio system in Hollywood and the rise of small independent companies specialising in low-budget exploitation movies to feed the new teenage audience which had emerged in the ‘50s; insatiable for taboo-breaking sex, horror and rock‘n'roll.

By 1967, the addition, to the aforementioned, of drugs, freethinking and the hippy revolution had finally placed youth culture ahead of everything else in the marketplace. Being young and talented was "in" and as far as these new small independent movie companies were concerned, cheap. These companies only paid lip service to the Unions, broke every rule in the book and were responsible for launching the careers of many young untried film-makers.

American International led the way in America and Tigon Films in England. It was a brief co-production deal between these two companies, which provided Reeves with his third feature, Witchfinder General and provided Armstrong with his first.

As with Mark Of The Devil, much speculation and misinformation has evolved over the years regarding The Haunted House Of Horror and Armstrong's battles with front office interference. It is only in recent years that he has spoken publicly about those events, in particular during his director's commentary on the UK 2005 release of the film on DVD.

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The Haunted House of Horror - Screenplay

The Haunted House Of Horror

To allay further misinformation:

The title: Both the screenplay and the film were called The Dark until a few weeks before the film's UK release in 1969 when Tony Tenser suddenly changed it to The Haunted House Of Horror. In the US it was titled Horror House.

Screenplay facts: The original screenplay was written in 1960 when Armstrong was fifteen years old.

It was re-written in 1967, further developing its darker psycho-sexual themes and sharpening characters and dialogue to reflect the current cynical underbelly beneath the superficial Sixties culture. Additionally, the character of Richard was specifically re-written for David Bowie, including a cabaret scene in which he would have performed a couple of his own songs. It was this 2nd Draft of the screenplay which was bought by Tigon and subsequently read and approved by Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson of AIP (American International Pictures) for co-production.

The Haunted House Of Horror

Louis M ("Deke") Hayward was the AIP executive responsible for the company's British-based productions and it was he who instigated Armstrong into writing a 3rd Draft to add sex scenes and Americanise the characters of Chris and Sheila for American stars already under contract to AIP. Similarly, he demanded a role to be written for 3 days shooting of an infirm Boris Karloff. To this end, Armstrong merely extended a small police scene where Nigel's disappearance was being investigated and added Karloff into a couple of night club scenes questioning Chris and his friends about drug abuse. Hayward had also insisted that the name "Nigel" was too British and had to be changed to "Gary".

Twenty-four hours after receiving this 3rd Draft, Hayward returned it to Armstrong. The entire screenplay had been savaged beyond recognition. Hayward had cut out almost all the early expository scenes and hand-scribbled onto the backs of the excised pages, rambling scenes of a crazed Police Inspector, to be played by Karloff, in a wheelchair rampaging about the derelict house and other locations, apparently out for bloody vengeance and finally turning out to be a red herring.

It was this that precipitated the war between Armstrong and Hayward. In an attempt to placate all parties, Tony Tenser stated they would make two versions: one for AIP, the other for Tigon. However, as the budget was insufficient to shoot two completely different films, it meant Armstrong was forced to accept Hayward's cuts and to cobble together, as best he could, the remaining fragments of his screenplay into a 4th Draft. This resulted in the first two visits to the house being merged into one and inevitable alterations in character and relationships, including Dorothy already being a part of the group, and Nigel, now called Gary, involved in an opening sex sequence with Sylvia.

It was this 4th Draft that became the final shooting script.

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The Haunted House of Horror - Casting

The Haunted House Of Horror

Chris: Armstrong wanted Ian Ogilvy. Hayward insisted the role be re-written as American and gave Armstrong the choice between two AIP contract players - Frankie Avalon or Fabian. Armstrong opted for Avalon.

Sheila: Armstrong wanted Jane Merrow. Hayward insisted the role be re-written as American for the AIP contract player Carol Linley. As Linley was unavailable, Hayward cast British born Jill Haworth.

Richard: Although Armstrong in 1960 had originally conceived the part for a young Peter McEnery, by the time the script was with Tigon, he had already re-written it for David Bowie. Hayward refused to allow the use of Bowie as he claimed his being a singer would clash with Frankie Avalon - not that Avalon was going to sing in the film, anyway. The loss of Bowie as Richard also meant Armstrong lost him as the film's composer. Armstrong's next choice was Noel Janus with whom he would later work in The Hunt. Janus was agreed upon but objections by Equity regarding his joining the Union only days before filming, resulted in Julian Barnes (who had originally been cast as Henry) being cast in the role by the casting director while Armstrong was in Southport overseeing the set construction.

The Haunted House Of Horror

Gary: Now too old for the part of Richard, Peter McEnery became Armstrong's choice for the re-written Gary. When he proved to be unavailable, Armstrong entered into discussions with the singer/composer Scott Walker for the role but when Walker finally decided to turn it down, Mark Wynter was cast.

Henry: Originally to have been played by Julian Barnes. When Barnes was re-cast as Richard, Armstrong opted for his second choice for Henry, Robin Stewart.

Madge: Veronica Doran was Armstrong's first and only choice, a close friend for whom he had re-written the role.

Richard: Richard O'Sullivan. Armstrong already knew O'Sullivan's work and was his first and only choice to partner Doran.

Dorothy: Carol Dilworth was cast at Tony Tenser's instigation. He was convinced that her celebrity status from TV's game show, The Golden Shot would more than make up for her lack of acting experience when it came to box-office and marketing.

The Haunted House Of Horror

Sylvia: Tenser's personal insistence was Gina Warwick for the role. Again, he believed her lack of acting experience was secondary to the fact that she was beautiful, sexy, the wife of the British head of top agency, William Morris, and was prepared to do nude sex scenes.

Chief Inspector: the role created for Boris Karloff by Hayward. When Karloff eventually proved too ill to play the part, the casting director quickly replaced him with Dennis Price. It was Price, therefore, who ended up filming the briefest of appearances in Armstrong's version and the wheelchair-crazed lunatic who dominated Hayward's version. He, later, featured in all Gerry Levy's additional police footage.

Remaining characters: were all created for the additional scenes shot by Gerry Levy during the post-production battles and did not exist in any of Armstrong's screenplay drafts or his unseen final edited version of the film.

Boris Karloff as Narrator: a final desperate attempt by Hayward to use up Karloff's remaining contract with AIP was to have him propped up in an armchair making an introductory speech before the film began. Armstrong dutifully wrote one, but Karloff's health deteriorated so much that it was never filmed.

The Haunted House Of Horror

The Hayward version: Armstrong refused to have anything to do with it. Tony Tenser, therefore, stood in for him on set as director while the absurd scenes were shot by a cast and crew barely able to deliver the risible dialogue without laughing. None of the resultant footage was ever used.

Additional and Replacement Scenes: When Tigon was forced to pay for an additional two weeks filming by AIP to make up for their having given Armstrong four weeks instead of a six week shooting schedule, he wrote material to partially replace character and story elements lost as a result of Hayward's original pre-shoot mutilation of the screenplay. It also gave Armstrong an opportunity for certain close-ups, pick-ups and other footage he had been unable to film due to the shortness of time he had been given. These new written scenes were never seen by anyone except the film's editor and the newly appointed "producer" of the film, Gerry Levy. At a crucial meeting between Tigon and AIP from which Hayward insisted Armstrong be excluded, Levy replaced Armstrong's scenes with scenes of his own - which Hayward willingly agreed he should direct. It is Levy's scenes (under the name of Peter Marcus), which depict Sylvia's affair with the George Sewell character, the numerous police station episodes, the embarrassing singalong in the pub, and the ‘Swinging London' depiction of Carnaby Street. Moments of Levy dialogue also pepper certain scenes of Armstrong's segments in an effort to remove Armstrong's more cynical approach to his characters. Similarly darker sexual and homosexual inferences were altered or removed by Levy as were the psychological reasons governing Richard's psychosis - his end dialogue regarding his sexual confusions being replaced by talk of a lost brother called John.

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The Haunted House of Horror - Shooting

The Haunted House Of Horror

Shooting: The film was shot in Southport in the autumn of 1968 at the Palace Hotel, about a year before its demolition. The hotel was turned into a live-in studio. Cast and crew took bedrooms and suites on the upper floors; production offices were on the ground floor.

Interiors of The House: main room, hall, staircase, upper rooms, music room and corridors were one single mammoth construction in what had been the hotel's ballroom. Exteriors were shot at a large house just outside Southport.

Due to a refusal by the British Museum to shoot the Richard/Sheila chase sequence as originally written, a local art gallery was used and the scene considerably simplified.

Shooting, although tightly scheduled, went smoothly and with enthusiasm and commitment from both cast and crew.

On set at The Palace Hotel

The only jarring note was again created by "Deke" Hayward whose hatred of Armstrong had intensified to such a degree that he had insisted Tenser replace him with another director one week before shooting was due to begin. When Tenser refused, Hayward demanded Armstrong be replaced if the first few week's footage did not meet with his approval.

With this sword of Damacles hanging over his head, Armstrong started shooting; well aware that Hayward would have him off the film by the end of the first week. Fortunately, Hayward was called away on the Cy Enfield movie, De Sade which had run into serious problems - again caused by Hayward's meddlings. This meant that the first week's rushes were not seen by Hayward but by AIP heads, Arkoff and Nicholson. Their excitement at what they saw not only ensured Armstrong was retained as director of the movie but they entered into competition with Tenser over which company would sign him up on an exclusive multi-picture contract once the film was completed.

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The Haunted House of Horror -
Post Production

The Haunted House Of Horror

Post Production: Armstrong was completing his rough cut of the film, as yet unseen by anyone, when Arkoff and Nicholson arrived in town and asked for it to be included in their sales screening of future product for an audience of international buyers.

As there was no edited Hayward version to show them, a panicked Tenser ripped Armstrong's unseen cut apart overnight and added the risible Hayward footage of Dennis Price in a wheelchair. To try and cover certain resultant gaps in this new version, he instructed the editor to put in cutaways of anything to hand: the moon, owls, London streets, famous landmarks.

At the buyer's screening, Armstrong was horrified by the resultant mess on screen. "Even I couldn't follow the storyline," he says, "There were hardly any shots which even cut together - and as for the wheelchair stuff! - even before the end I had run out of the screening room. It was one of the most upsetting and embarrassing moments of my life. Jimmy Nicholson found me in tears in the toilets afterwards. He asked me what had gone wrong and I told him the cut had nothing to do with me."

An emergency inquest the following morning found Arkoff and Nicholson wanting to know what the absurd wheel-chaired Inspector footage was doing in the film and where were the cabaret scenes and others which were missing. Armstrong explained they had been cut from the script before shooting had begun. Upon their demanding to know who had authorised this, Armstrong's reply was quickly shouted down by a defensive Hayward claiming Armstrong was lying to cover up the fact that he had been unable to shoot them because Tenser had only given him a 4 week schedule when AIP had funded a 6 week schedule.

The Haunted House Of Horror

"The whole room went silent," Armstrong recalls, "Sam [Arkoff] turned to me and politely asked if I would leave them. I went back to Tigon's offices and waited for Tony [Tenser]. When he came back several hours later, he was in a terrible state. Both Arkoff and Nicholson were ex-lawyers and not the kind of people you messed with when it came to contracts."

While Tigon was desperately trying to appease AIP and Hayward was trying to cover his tracks, Armstrong returned to the cutting rooms and set about re-assembling his original cut, still unseen by either of the two co-producing companies.

One week later, as he was nearing completion, he was informed that Gerry Levy, director of The Body Stealers was now overseeing the film's production, that two weeks extra shooting were to be done and that under no circumstances was he to contact Arkoff or Nicholson.

The Haunted House Of Horror

Naively, Armstrong wrote new scenes for the additional shooting, in an attempt to put back some of the information which had been lost in the original script cuts. This wasn't easy as neither Avalon nor Haworth were going to be available for the new shoot. Still under the belief that he would be directing the new material, Armstrong was surprised to learn that Levy was having a private meeting with Hayward and Tenser to discuss the shoot. Levy promised to show the scenes Armstrong had written and explain what Armstrong intended.

"Later that night, I called Gerry to find out what had happened and to get a reaction to my scenes," Armstrong says, "He assured me Hayward and Tenser liked the scenes, everything was fine, I wasn't to worry and to have a good night's sleep."

The following morning, Armstrong was informed by a highly apologetic Tenser that Hayward had okayed the new scenes Levy had shown him and informed Arkoff and Nicholson that he was personally salvaging the film following Armstrong not having shot the script as originally approved, due to his "inexperience" and that Tigon were now honouring their contract by paying for another two weeks shooting. Armstrong further learnt that his new scenes had not even been read as Levy had sold them ideas of his own which Hayward was going to allow him to direct.

The Haunted House Of Horror

"Tony so obviously hated the whole situation but there was nothing he could do. Hayward was running the show and covering his tracks as fast as he could in order to keep his job. If Arkoff or Nicholson had ever found out the truth, that would have been the end of him," Armstrong says. "Tony was so apologetic, promised to make it up to me on my next film and warned me not to say anything about what had happened. To sweeten the pill, I was paid to keep quiet."

So, the additional two weeks shooting resulted from Tigon being forced to fulfil its contract for a six-week shoot when AIP learnt that its co-producing partner had "saved" money by only paying out for four weeks.

Michael Armstrong on the set of The Haunted House Of Horror

Levy's ideas for new scenes were used to justify Hayward's unauthorised cuts and mutilation of the original Armstrong script approved by AIP bosses, Arkoff and Nicholson. These "new" scenes were subsequently shot by Levy and spliced into Armstrong's existing cut at certain points as additional scenes (Carnaby Street, Gary/Dorothy, the pub singalong, the George Sewell and police storylines). Additionally, replacement footage was added to several existing scenes (the party and Gary/Sylvia love scenes and her exit from the house) together with occasional close-ups to add or replace dialogue for the "new" storylines (the hand and torch of George Sewell hanging out of the cupboard as Sheila walks by, Richard's "brother John" speech, Dennis Price's CU in the club etc).

At no point, from the end of shooting in Southport, did anyone from the two producing companies see or even express interest in seeing Armstrong's original cut of the film. All decisions made were entirely to justify Hayward's earlier interference and the "saving" of money in the budget. Under veiled threats, Armstrong was paid a "retainer" to stay away and keep quiet while these "minor problems" on his debut feature film were "resolved to everyone's satisfaction".

The Haunted House Of Horror

The film was the last co-production between the two companies.

Upon completion of post production, Tenser laid on a private screening for Armstrong who had just returned from another movie battlefield called Mark Of The Devil.

"For the opening fifteen minutes I was in despair at the embarrassing garish crap I was witnessing," Armstrong recalls. "I was, however, relieved to see that once the kids had left the party most of my original cut remained untouched until the middle section which is just a mess, with bits of my stuff splattered around all the new police scenes. Once we're back in the house, it's really back to my cut with a few minor excisions. Of course I knew the gay scene on the fire-escape wouldn't have survived. Gerry had also altered the scene between Sylvia and Gary when she wants to leave the house, in order to fit in with his George Sewell plot and, for some unknown reason, substituted Henry for Richard in the scene. Then, dotted about, there are a few re-shot close ups for other plot and dialogue changes - I actually let out a cry in the preview theatre when the character of Richard suddenly started talking about his brother John! - What was all that about? - but, at least, the replacement close-ups were more or less where the original close-ups had been. Generally, while the film's in The Haunted House Of Horror/Clegg Marketing Designthe house, though, it's my cut. Having said that, at the very end, all the clichéd police cutaways and police cars racing to the rescue were added by Levy as was that interminable scene with Sylvia and the Sergeant! - which has to go on record as the slowest played scene in movie history. I was also upset by the loss of the final scene with the sobbing Richard staggering through the busy streets - it was so sad to see that the opening love scene - all in enormous close-ups and...even to this day - I'm not saying it would ever have been a Citizen Kane or even anything particular, maybe - but it was my first feature, I cared about it desperately and any kind of credibility it might have had was sabotaged for no justifiable reason - other than to salvage one incompetent executive's tottering career, another's desperate effort to gain credibility after a directorial fiasco and a company making a "financial saving" at their co-producer's expense - well, I guess it was one way to learn about the realities of the movie business."

Certification: To the company's surprise and delight, John Trevelyan at the BBFC passed the film with an "X" Certificate and without cuts. At the time the killings were the bloodiest and most graphic to have appeared in a certificated horror film in the UK.

Distribution: Because of its post-production "problems", the film's distribution was delayed until 1969. Only weeks before its release, Armstrong's debut feature film The Dark was finally buried officially when Tenser retitled the film The Haunted House Of Horror.

The film initially went on general release in the UK supported by a British crime thriller, Clegg, directed by Lindsay Shonteff and starring Gilbert Wynne. It proved as popular in the UK as with audiences worldwide and continued doing excellent business on subsequent re-issues.

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