By the early 1960s, director Terence Fisher was so associated with horror it was assumed he could bring a gothic touch to anything – though the Lippert company, who signed him up for some quickies while Fisher was temporarily out of favour at Hammer Films, overlooked the fact that he’d never shown any proficiency with comedy when they assigned him this ‘old dark house’ spoof. A year earlier, What a Carve-Up!, a comedy remake of The Ghoul, had covered much the same territory; and, at exactly the same time, Hammer and William Castle were producing their comedy remake of The Old Dark House, which is close in many details to The Horror of It All. Since Ray Russell, the American screenwriter of The Horror of It All, had worked with Castle on Mr Sardonicus, it strikes me as likely that this is in fact a rejected draft of the Old Dark House script rushed into production as a spoiler for a movie that, as it turned out, was already spoiled enough.
On Halloween, Jack Robinson (Pat Boone), a bland young American, turns up at the out-of-the-way Marley mansion because he is smitten with Cynthia (Erica Rogers), the token normal member of a family which otherwise consists of bedridden patriarch Grandpapa (Erik Chitty, in a role reminiscent of John/Elspeth Dudgeon in the original Old Dark House), sombre-voiced Reginald (Valentine Dyall, BBC Radio’s favourite horror host), vampirish Natalia (Andree Melly, spoofing her turn in Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula), ham actor Cornwallis (Dennis Price, arching eyebrows and drawling his way through the proceedings with thinly-veiled contempt), dotty inventor Percival (Jack Bligh, scoring an ‘and introducing’ credit at the age of 73) and demented bearded lunatic Muldoon (Archie Duncan, Inspector Lestrade from the 1950s TV Sherlock Holmes series). When Robinson arrives, one of the family is already dead, and Cornwallis soon goes the same route thanks to poisoned sugar – but no one seems worked up about the killings (as it turns out, there’s only one actual murder in the film and that happens offscreen) and Robinson spends most of the film doing double-takes at obvious jokes like Natalia’s insistence she only drinks bloody marys or Percival’s laboured attempts to invent scientific miracles (an electric light, a horseless carriage, moving pictures, recorded sound) decades too late. At one point, Boone even breaks out into a title song, full of hokey ghoulish rhymes and ridiculous expressions.
Russell, a clever plot man, delivers a false ending (which Castle uses as the real ending of The Old Dark House) before producing the expected rabbit out of the hat and reviving Price to play scheming villain of the piece. Melly is sexy and funny in a Morticia sort of way (Fenella Fielding takes the role in The Old Dark House), but really could do with better material. A typical sign of desperation in comedy is the music score (by Douglas Gamley) which makes funny noises and jolly sounds in a vain attempt to produce laughs where there aren’t any.