Kenny Everett is a perhaps rather forgotten English institution. Starting off on pirate radio in the 1960s, he was a friend of the Beatles; his love of comedy and performing characters on the air made him a national celebrity, and he was given his own long-running TV show (sketches, musical numbers) along with his constant radio work. Some of his radio stuff was amazing – his shows on the worst records of all time are worth digging out, and it was the perfect medium for him. He was also very good friends with Freddy Mercury, and enjoyed the gay nightlife of London with him (while remaining in the closet for most of his life). Like Mercury, he died of AIDS-related illness, in 1995.
But this thumbnail sketch of his life says nothing about how amazingly funny he could be. I loved his TV show when I was a kid, and his fiercely independent streak resulted in him making a few videos of jokes too rude for TV (this is long before such videos became de rigeur for any self-respecting comedian) as well as an independently financed horror comedy starring all his old friends. That he did all this while being a particularly rotten Tory – comparing Arthur Scargill to Hitler, without a hint of irony, for one – is even more surprising. In the 20 years since his death, characters like him have largely disappeared from TV – everyone who gets anywhere near the mainstream has to be as tediously safe as houses (except, maybe Russell Brand, from the opposite end of the political spectrum?) and our entertainment is worse off because of it.
All this is, oddly, irrelevant to a discussion of this movie. While Everett no doubt had some input into the finished product, the lion’s share of the praise or blame must lie with writer/director Ray Cameron and writer / actor Barry Cryer. Cryer is another English treasure, performing standup for many decades, plus acting and appearing on radio comedy panel show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” since the early 1970s. To say his jokes are old is to be polite – I think cavemen would groan at a few of the hoary old gags he trots out on a regular basis; and this movie has plenty of those. That’s not to say they’re bad, as classics are classics for a reason, but there’s a few you’ll be able to see coming from a mile off. Cameron and Cryer wrote most of Everett’s TV stuff, so when a guy with money to burn offered Everett a movie, they were the natural choices to write and direct.
The reason I’ve not said much about the film is there’s really not a lot to say. It exists solely to trot out an almost uninterrupted stream of terrible old gags, and the thin thin string that runs through it relates to a haunted house. Well, sort of. In 1975, 16 people are killed at Headstone Manor, and in the present day (1984) several groups of paranormal investigators go there to try and get to the bottom of what went on. Most of the cast were present on one of Everett’s TV shows, so you get good old names like Cleo Rocos, Gareth Hunt, John Fortune, and Don Warrington, as well as Pamela Stephenson as Everett’s lisping assistant, and amazingly, Vincent Price as “The Sinister Man”. Price was apparently a darling on the set, sharing old stories with anyone who asked and giving great value for money. Having seen him much nearer death in the terrible “Dead Heat” a few years later, it’s nice to see a film using his legendary status well.
So, these people get killed off, there’s sort of a twist (which really feels like they ran out of time to shoot Price and had to think of some ending on the fly, although no, that’s how it was scripted), a very confusing bit of editing around Everett’s character near the end, and that’s your movie. Shot mostly on the producer’s farm estate, for very little money.
While a lot of the gags are brilliant (“Bats!”) it would be remiss of me not to mention a few things which sit very badly with the 2015 viewer. Everett was still in the closet at the time, and although there’s a gay couple in this movie, they’re mocked, more than given funny things to say or do. And then there’s a tattoo joke, where everyone in the village has the same creepy tattoo on the backs of their hands…until the camera happens upon the one black guy in the pub, who has the same tattoo, only in white. Probably laughed off at the time by everyone involved, but not in a million years would they do that gag now, and quite rightly.
It feels like a cross between “Airplane!” and British TV comedy “A Touch Of Cloth”, only not quite as good as either. Too many misses, sadly – Everett’s weird German accent is a subplot that does nothing and goes nowhere; and the slightly confusing ending spoils things too. Still, it’s like a set of cheesy old jokes preserved in amber for eternity, and there’s gore and nudity and smutty stuff for all the family to enjoy. And how many other mainstream comedians would have picked this as their first movie?
Rating: thumbs in the middle