Director Georg Fenady’s CV consists mostly of episodes of time-wasting TV fluff like Knight Rider and Baywatch. However, in 1973, he teamed with his producer brother Andrew J. Fenady – who has interesting film (Chisum) and TV movie (Black Noon) credits – to make a pair of folksy old-timey, setbound horror films studded with guest stars of yesteryear and heavy on dry ice fog. Terror in the Wax Museum, which is slightly easier to see, is a whodunit with a Jack the Ripper/House of Wax theme, but Arnold is a stab at black comedy of the Kind Hearts and Coronets (or, in the early ‘70s, Dr Phibes) variety with the heirs of a crotchety millionaire murdered in outrageous, appropriate manners. Despite the sterling cast, it’s a little disappointing – the running jokes stumble and fall, and no matter how much Elsa Lanchester (in particular) refuses to let go of a scene too many routines stubbornly fail to work. However, it does have a strange charm – perhaps it’s the sense that all these folk, swathed in heavy clothes and pretending to be suffering the chill of somewhere in Wales, are actually trapped inside a stifling, probably tiny studio in sunny California.
The opening sequence offers a good, macabre hook as millionaire Arnold Llewellyn (Norman Stuart) seems to be enjoying his own open-casket funeral, which – thanks to bizarre legal shenanigans – is combined with his marriage to long-time mistress Karen (Stella Stevens). It seems that Lady Jocelyn (Shani Wallis) refused to divorce her husband, but he has decreed that the ‘till death us do part’ clause in the ceremony dissolves the marriage and that a precedent involving marriages to absentee bridegrooms who might or might not be dead on battlefields allows the ceremony (conducted by a drolly perturbed Victor Buono) to proceed against the objections of the widow. The will further ticks off the heirs either with insulting bequests or conditions that force them to remain in the house – and then they all start dying in strange manners. A worthless younger brother (Roddy McDowall), who is also Karen’s lover, puts on a suit of Arnold’s clothes – and the fabric shrinks, crushing him inexplicitly. Also due for death are Jocelyn, her lawyer lover (Farley Granger) and Karen (the lead, but nothing like a heroine): it turns out that Arnold’s dotty sister Hester (Lanchester) and the gardener (Ben Wright) are executing the dead man’s plans to wipe out his family, and there’s an automated trap to entomb Hester when she’s killed her confederate and exceeded orders by trying to get hold of her brother’s hidden fortune.
Given the fog and the costumes, the film seems like a period piece – but the plot depends on what looks like an eight-track tape-deck in the side of Arnold’s coffin, so we must assume a contemporary setting. Though Lanchester, as in Terror in the Wax Museum, is the biggest ham, she gets some competition from Bernard Fox as a supernaturally thick local policeman whose bosomy barmaid fiancée (Wanda Bailey) runs off with his lecherous Dad (John McGiver). Also popping up are Jamie Farr as a one-eyed, silent servant (Steven Marlo, the mute geek in Terror, has a bit as a darts player in the pub) and reliable Patric Knowles. Almost nobody has managed to deliver the mix of venom and valentines Robert Hamer managed in Kind Hearts, and this flounders as it tries to be simultaneously ultra-cynical and jolly. It might have worked better if Stevens’ character had been a true innocent surrounded by sharks, but making her as conniving as everyone else robs the film of anything like a centre. Stevens, who came to this off the big success of The Poseidon Adventure, was one of the most naturally gifted and appealing (not to mention sexiest) leading lady comediennes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but seemed to be forever given sub-standard material (the film that best shows off her range is Sam Peckinpah’s underrated The Ballad of Cable Hogue, where she delightfully takes a standard tart-with-a-heart role and runs with it).
As it is, the players who come off best are the ones with least to do – Buono, an eye-rolling ham of the first water, is terrific in his one big scene, appalled and befuddled as he presides over the funeral-nuptial ceremony, and Stuart (who ironically had a long career as a dialogue coach) pre-empts Weekend at Bernie’s as the smiling, scheming corpse (he is also heard on his mocking tape messages). Written by Jameson Brewer (who also co-scripted Terror in the Wax Museum) and John Fenton Murray (The Atomic Kid). Along with cinematographer William B. Jurgensen and art director Monty Elliott, Fenady doesn’t pull off that stagebound foggy gothic feel as well as Roger Corman did in his similarly-cheapskate AIP productions (cf: The Premature Burial, A Comedy of Terrors) and a flat, TV movie-ish feel further blunts the wit.
Here’s Shani singing the catchy theme song …