Title: What a Carve Up!
Year of Release: 1961
Director: Pat Jackson
Length: 87 mins
Starring: Sid James, Kenneth Connor, Shirley Eaton, Dennis Price, Donald Pleasence, Michael Gough
Okay, this isn’t strictly a horror film. It’s more of a comedy in the Carry On Screaming vein. By coincidence, it even features some of the ‘Carry On’ lot. Though leaning more toward comedy, it was effectively marketed as a comedy horror, and is therefore worthy of a place in this series, the purpose of which is not only to celebrate the classics, but also the derided, forgotten and overlooked. If anything, I lean more toward the derided, forgotten and overlooked in an effort to make them slightly less so. What A Carve Up! is intentionally crammed full of old-school horror tropes and cliches from misty moors and an old haunted mansion, to secret passages and clandestine murders, and is all done with that distinctively quaint English charm. The film was loosely based on the novel The Ghoul by Frank King, which had been adapted for the screen in 1933.
When affable yet unremarkable Ernie Broughton (Connor), who spends far too much time with his head buried in horror novels, recieves word that a distant uncle of his has died, he travels to a secluded country mansion for a reading of the will with flatmate Syd Butler (James). There, the duo meet an eccentric selection of distant relatives, a butler (Michael Gough in the same kind of role that later defined him in the Batman films), and a mad piano player. Soon after they arrive, one of their number is found murdered, forcing the others to spend the night in the company of the killer, who doesn’t stop at one. The night quickly descends into a riotously funny battle for survival, and a hunt to unmask the crazed killer. One of the funniest moments comes when someone calls the police and an Inspector accuses Ernie of not being as much of a fool as he makes out. “But I am!” he protests. All this leads to a predictably preposterous ending and final unveiling, but by then you won’t even care who the killer is because arriving at that point is such good fun.
The title itself works as a pun on carving up (dividing) the deceased family estate, and ‘carve up’ as in cutting meat, a reference to knife murder, one of the ways one of the victims are dispatched. In America, the title was changed to, “No place like a homicide!” which is obviously a play on the phrase “No place like home” which also works as its set in an ancestral family home. The phrase had been buried in the American psyche since popularized by the character Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939). I do love a good pun. Perhaps surprisingly, the movie didn’t fare so well in America, and wasn’t helped by a spate of indifferent reviews, like the one to be found in the New York Times on 13th September 1962, which stated, “The fact that a film of this degree of vulgarity and ineptitude should have managed a week’s booking at neighbourhood theatres throughout Manhattan demonstrates just how acute the motion picture product shortage really is.”
Even so, over the years What a Carve Up! has deservedly won cult status in the genre labelled ‘dark house’ by some. In truth, it’s a parody, and a very effective one, which is hardly surprising given that it was co-written by the king of the double entendre, Ray Cooney. Incidentally, the director Pat Jackson went on to lend his skills to The Prisoner and the Professionals, among other things, and it was a huge influence on the 1994 novel of the same name by Jonathan Coe which won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, one of the oldest literary awards in the UK. Its current overall score on Rotten Tomatoes stands at a respectable 66% while it has been ‘liked’ by 91% of Google users. It’s also notable for a late, uncredited cameo from teen idol Adam Faith. You can watch What a Carve Up on YouTube.
The butler Fisk is pictured reading a copy of DH Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” In 1961, this was a subtle, yet timely gag as its publishers Penguin Books had been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act in a widely-publicized trial at the Old Bailey the previous year.