B-MOVIE BULLSH*T - Part Eight "Welcome to The Monster Club"
The Monster Club
Horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes is accosted outside a bookstore by a desperate looking man, who claims to have not eaten for weeks. The kindly author attempts to give the poor soul a few dollars, but the man refuses the offer and instead sinks his large fangs into R’s neck. Luckily for R, Eramus is a rare ethical vampire, who only takes enough blood to quench his thirst, leaving his victim both alive and human. It turns out he’s a fan of R’s work and invites him to The Monster Club, the local spot where all of the area’s vamps, werewolves and ghouls like to hang out. R agrees and stays long enough to hear 3 tales of terror, listen to some fine 80s British rock music, enjoy the performance of a very unique stripper and, finally, become the club’s latest member—an honor made possible once Eramus explains to his fellow monsters that as a human, R belongs to a species responsible for more horror than all of theirs combined. Then they all dance.
While the popularity of the horror genre is one of cinema’s few constants, the various sub-genres that make up its existence come and go as quickly as the zeitgeists that inform them. Like all fashion, there comes a moment where what was hip and stylish yesterday, now looks oddly ridiculous today, only to become retro-cool sometime in the future. Pinpointing this moment, though, is frequently very difficult. Just as there were folks still wearing bell-bottoms when skin-tight jeans were the rage, there are always going to be movie producers who insist on repeating past successes, even when they no longer resemble the kinds of movies current audiences actually want to see.
Born in New York, Milton Subotsky was a writer/producer/fanboy who eventually moved to England and formed Amicus Productions with Max Rosenthal, a fellow genre enthusiast. Today Amicus remains best known for the 7 British Horror Anthology (BHA) films it produced between 1965 and 1974, starting with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and ending with From Beyond the Grave. Each film consisted of several short horror stories combined together via wraparound segments whose settings ranged from the clever (From Beyond the Grave’s curio shop) to the lazy (The House That Dripped Blood’s…uh…house).
The main benefit of these productions were that they allowed Amicus to fill their films with talented actors on very low budgets, since it cost far less to hire them for only a few days, than it would for the month or so required for a regular movie. The presence of talented, charismatic actors not only elevated the material, but also made up for the fact that the short segments essentially made significant character development impossible. By casting actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Jack Palance, Michael Ripper, Burgess Meredith, Tom Baker, Ian Oglivie, Joan Collins, Michael Gough, Donald Sutherland, Denholm Elliot, Joss Ackland, Ingrid Pitt, Terry-Thomas, Glynis Johns, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Charlotte Rampling, Lesley-Ann Down and David Warner, Amicus made it much easier for audiences to forgive flaws that might have doomed films with less-accomplished performers.
It also helped that the very nature of the films kept them from the potential narrative pitfalls that can affect more conventional films. If an audience member was bored by one particular segment (and each film seemed to feature at least one boring and/or unsuccessful segment) they at least knew it would end soon and be replaced by one they’d likely enjoy a lot more.
And chances were there would be at least one segment that would leave an indeliable mark on your psyche. A fun game to play with any true horror movie fan is to ask them to describe their favourite BHA moments. Personally I'd begin with a detailed description of Torture Garden's possessed piano sequence, which actually ends with the piano coming to life and attacking poor Barbara Ewing, and then go on to tell the tale of that same film's wonderful "twist" ending (turns out, Burgess Meredith is actually...well...I won't spoil it for you).
Amicus’ anthology formula proved so successful that it became easy for people to forget that they produced close to 20 more traditional films (including some hard sci-fi, several “lost world” fantasies and even a romantic comedy) and assume those were the only kind of films they made. But by 1974, when From Beyond the Grave was released, the formula began its inexorable slide into irrelevance. For all the reflected class of their talented thespians, there was always something slightly childish and goofy about the Amicus anthologies. They were cinematic versions of the kind of campfire ghost stories we told as children, and those stories no longer seemed as frightening in the wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Horror films were now either deadly serious (The Exorcist) or disconcertingly realistic (The Last House On the Left) and anything that mixed humor with the supernatural suddenly felt childish and old-fashioned.
But old habits die hard. In 1977, Subotsky produced the Canadian co-production, The Uncanny, an anthology featuring feline-inspired horror tales and—seven years after the last official Amicus anthology hit the screens—he tried again with The Monster Club.
By 1981, movie houses were dominated by a new kind of horror, best typified by the slasher film, in which sex and violence took precedence over everything else. Compared to that same year’s An American Werewolf in London, Friday the 13th Part 2, and The Evil Dead, The Monster Club seems as dated and quaint as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Ironically, this has as much to do with its blatant attempts at relevance than it does the antiquated sensibility of its horror tales.
As if fully aware of how old-fashioned the whole project was, the filmmakers (including Hammer warhouse Roy Ward Baker, who ended his long feature film career with this effort) decided to attempt to bring it screaming into the 80s by featuring the most popular affordable musical acts of the period and have them perform their appropriately themed songs on camera. And the club itself was clearly inspired by the cantina scene in 1977’s Star Wars, the key difference being that the monster mask budget for The Monster Club was less than what it cost to manufacture C-3PO’s codpiece.
The overall effect of this attempt to “modernize” the Brit-horror anthology is that The Monster Club actual feels twice as dated as any of its predecessors. Nothing dates a movie faster than the use of “current” pop music, and the ludicrous monster effects adds a lair of camp ridiculousness that the other Amicus anthologies mostly managed to avoid.
It doesn’t help that the 3 horror tales have to rank amongst the most anemic of all the Amicus films and prove far less memorable than the club sequences that surround them. The overall effect is closer to that of a children’s film than anything else, and I’d suggest it wouldn’t even be scary enough for that audience, if I didn’t know for a fact that this wasn’t the case.
I can’t place an exact year when it occurred, but it would have to have been around 1985-1987. It was around Halloween and we were visiting my Auntie Lynne (I really wish I could be cool and identify my mom’s late sister as “my Aunt Lynne” instead, but the sound of it is so unnatural I have no choice but to use the more juvenile alternative. If you had ever been lucky enough to meet her, you'd know why) and Uncle Joe. With us was the family of Uncle Joe’s brother, including his two sons, Darren and J.P., who not only closely matched me and my brother in age, but also in interests and overall personalities.
Darren and I were the older brothers and were both bookish geeks with precocious interests in popular culture, while J.P. and my brother, Chris, were much more athletic types who considered reading more of a punishment than a recreational activity. That night we found ourselves downstairs in the basement, where the TV was, while the adults did whatever adults do. Because of the approaching holiday one of the local stations was showing a week’s worth of horror movies and that night’s selection was today’s subject.
I adored movies, but my young fertile imagination had a tendency to become inflicted by brutal nightmares whenever exposed to horrific imagery, so when The Monster Club came up during our exploration of the programming landscape, I demanded that the channel be turned ever onward. Darren, who also shared my “big pussy” sensibilities, agreed with me, but we were stymied by the fact that our younger brothers sadistically enjoyed exploiting any opportunity to torture us.
In front of us the movie played out as either Chris or J.P. (I think it was J.P.) paused with their hand on the dial and allowed it to continue. This is what we saw:
25 years later and it seems amazing that we could be disturbed by something so benign, but Darren and I both protested loudly enough to finally compel the channel to be changed. I have no idea what we ended up watching, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of The Monster Club, so I know for a fact that in at least one instance it proved to be an effective horror vehicle.
Not surprisingly, Darren and I both went on to become professional writers. Eventually we found ourselves reunited years later when we both worked for the same publisher. Ironically, we found ourselves working in the genre we were once too sensitive to endure—specifically, tales of the supernatural. He would write Werewolves & Shapeshifters, I would write Gothic Ghost Stories and together we would collaborate on Native Ghost Stories (which, for various complicated reasons, I chose to have credited under the pseudonym of Amos Gideon).
Life, as they say, is fucking weird.
And perhaps it’s the nostalgia of this memory that forces me to admit that for all of its flaws, I kinda loved The Monster Club when I finally revisited it a few days ago. In fact, if anything it’s those flaws that I find so endearing. It’s a film that ultimately understands it has no right to exist, yet continues to do so anyway, defying its own irrelevance if only for the pure joy of it.
It doesn’t hurt that—as dated as they sound—the songs provided by now-forgotten Brit pop acts like Night, B.A. Robertson and The Pretty Things are all pretty awesome, especially The Viewers’ “Monsters Rule O.K”, which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first heard it. (Ironically the only band in the movie you’ve likely heard of—UB-40 of ”Red, Red Wine” fame —are regulated to being the background house band and don’t get their own moment in the spotlight.)
We also can’t ignore the presence of Vincent Price, who somehow managed to avoid being in any of the other Amicus anthologies (despite having starred in their productions of Scream and Scream Again and Madhouse), but who adds his trademark touch of amused class to the proceedings. There’s a reason why he remains my favourite all-time actor. He was that rare performer who could be both sincere and glib at the exact same time—a trait that I like to think defines the existence of this particular blogging enterprise.
Of the film’s three narrative sequences, the first—from which the clip that once so frightened me is taken—is easily the most effective. Interestingly, it and the second story both invert the traditional formula and feature monsters as the sympathetic characters. The first story goes so far as to take its cue from the old E.C. comic books (which Subotsky clearly loved, having made not one but two movies based on them—Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, both of which feature early adaptations later remade for the popular HBO TV show) and features an ethically challenged protagonist, who eventually gets what’s coming to her, as its lead.
Angela (Barbara Kellerman) is engaged to George (Simon Ward), a con man looking for one last score they can use to move away and get married. In the want ads he finds the perfect mark in the form of an antiquities collector who requires an assistant to help him index his collection. Angela goes to get the job, but runs away when she sees the cold, dead face of Raven (John Laurenson), a pathetic recluse who has grown quite used to people reacting to him this way.
George convinces Angela to return and she manages to swallow her revulsion long enough to take the job, which delights the extremely lonely collector. It’s clear that Raven is a wounded, sensitive soul, who counts the pigeons he feeds as his only friends. What Angela does not know is that he is a Shadmock, a creature whose status as the lowest creature in the monster hierarchy doesn’t stop them from being the most feared and dangerous. For all his meekness, Raven can wreck untold damage merely by deciding to whistle at the object of his displeasure.
Raven, unused to being in the presence of a beautiful woman, quickly falls in love with Angela and proposes marriage. She agrees, but only as a pretense to carry out her and George’s scheme. During their engagement party (where all of his monstrous family members disguise themselves with masks) she breaks away from their dancing and is caught by Raven as she attempts to empty his safe. He tells her that she can have his money and everything else he owns, so long as she stays with him and loves him. Angela screams at the mere thought of this, which compels the wounded Raven to lash out at her the only way he can--he whistles.
For all the film’s camp, this segment’s final shot of the devastated monster sitting, weeping, on his ballroom floor while surrounded by his relatives does manage to pack an emotional punch. It’s less frightening than genuinely sad, thanks to Laurenson’s moving portrait of the misunderstood monster.
The film’s second segment is an example of one of the odder BHA traditions—the overtly comedic story. This goes all the way back to the pre-Amicus days and one of the best BHA’s, 1945’s Dead of Night, whose otherwise chilling effect (bolstered largely by the justly famous segment featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist haunted by his caustic dummy) is somewhat undone by the comic sequence in which a golfer’s game is hamstrung by the ghost of a romantic rival who committed suicide after losing the match that determined which one got to marry their mutually beloved. In the case of The Monster Club the comic sequence is especially egregious since it isn’t actually funny, which kinda goes against its only reason to exist.
Introduced as a film clip by a vampire film producer (which Price admits is somewhat redundant), the story focuses on a wimpy boy named Lintom Busotsky (William Saire) who wonders why his tuxedo-clad father sleeps all day and works only at night. His father insists he isn’t a waiter, and both of his parents warn him to never talk to strangers, especially those who carry violin cases.
One day at school, Lintom is approached by a man dressed as a priest (Donald Pleasance), who attempts to befriend him. Lintom recalls his parents’ warnings and gets away, but the next day the same man—now dressed in regular clothes and carrying a violin case—accosts him and, along with two partners, breaks into his house while his mother is out shopping and his father is asleep in the basement. Turns out the men work for the government department devoted to keeping people safe from vampires and Lintom’s father has proven to be their most elusive target.
With a great sense of accomplishment the head vampire hunter drives a stake into Lintom’s father’s heart while he and his mother watch with horror. But before he can celebrate, Lintom’s dad awakes and manages to sink his fangs into the hunter’s neck before he dies. Lintom’s mother points out to the man’s partners that the bite was deep enough to ensure that their leader is about to become a vampire himself. He protests, but his long fangs prove she’s right and his partner’s have no choice but to stake him right then and there.
Fortunately for the Busotsky’s, Lintom’s father was only pretending to be dead. Fearful of such an unwanted intrusion ever happening, he took the precaution of wearing a stake-proof vest (along with a ketchup packet over his heart to achieve the proper bloody effect). And at that point everyone watching can be heard to groan, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I suspect I’m being a bit too hard on this sequence. It’s a light, innocent piece of fluff, but there’s simply no "there" there to justify its inclusion. We know right from the beginning that Lintom’s father is a vampire, because the vampire producer who introduces it tells us that its based on his childhood, so the only twist is that there is no twist, apart from the hunter being the true villain of the piece. That said, if you rearrange the letters of Lintom Busotsky, you get Milton Subotsky, which I suspect explains everything about why this particular story made it into the final script.
This now brings us to what is probably the film’s most famous sequence, which occurs between the second and third stories. While Night performs their big hit (I’m guessing, I’d never actually heard it before) “The Stripper”, the camera focuses on an attractive, blond exotic dancer (Suzanna Willis) who goes that extra mile during her performance:
It’s a fun moment, achieved by some great animation, but it does seem to feel somewhat at odds with the childish tone of the rest of the film, which suggests that the retro-innocence of the film is more the result of the filmmakers’ outdated view of what constituted proper cinematic horror than a deliberate attempt to appeal to young viewers.
For fans of BHA, the film’s third sequence is easily the most typical of the genre. It starts out VERY promisingly with a shot of a buxom gothic beauty walking down a flight of stairs with a candelabra in her hand, as the light from the above doorway allows us to catch glimpses of what is occurring beneath her diaphanous gown. But before we can get too excited, it turns out we are on a film set. Sam (Stuart Whitman), is the film’s director and he is insistent that his latest production requires the realism of a proper out-of-the-way English village for the affect he’s wants to achieve.
To that end he decides to drive to just such a village and determine if it has the look he’s aiming for. He doesn’t seem to notice the thick cloud of strange fog that separates the village from the outside world, but soon realizes he should have when he finds out that it’s populated by flesh-eating ghouls, who—he soon learns—are supported by powerful outside authorities.
While not quite as disappointing as the second story, the third lacks both a sympathetic protagonist and a compelling villain, meaning we ultimately feel nothing when the director’s escape turns out to be futile, as we don’t care who wins this battle either way.
Thankfully, the film still manages to end on a high note when Eramus asks the club’s secretary (a werewolf) to admit his author guest as a permanent member. The secretary informs him that they couldn’t possibly allow a human to become a member of The Monster Club, but Eramus eloquently convinces him otherwise in a moving speech that argues that humans are really the worse monsters of all.
It’s a great moment, made even greater by its being followed by Price and Carradine dancing together while The Pretty Things play “(Welcome to) The Monster Club”, which is really as sublime a moment as any BHA fan can ever hope to expect.
So, yeah, on an objective level The Monster Club is definitely a dated failure—a film whose tone and relevance would have been questionable even a decade before it was made—but on a purely subjective level, it’s a delight and proof that what once could so easily terrify me as a child is pretty much my main reason for living today.