“The Monster Club” was producer Milton Subotsky’s final stab at the traditional horror anthology picture -- the same kind he and former partner Max J. Rosenberg had launched as part of British independent cinema’s only really serious challenge to the dominance of Hammer Productions back in the mid-sixties. The two Americans formed their film-making partnership under the name Amicus Pictures in order to oversee a run of British-made items that came out of their base at Shepperton Studios, starting in 1964 with “Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors” and coming to a close with 1973’s “From Beyond the Grave”, which was one of their best offerings. In between Subotsky and Rosenberg branched out into sci-fi and adventure films aimed at a juvenile market, with varying results, but also resulting in the occasional hit such as “The Land that Time Forgot”. By 1975, though, both their working relationship and the company they’d originally founded together deteriorated as the market for horror was transformed beyond all recognition, leaving both the Amicus and Hammer brands flailing and looking decidedly pallid and behind-the-times in comparison to competing fare such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist”. Both men continued to work in production independently of each other in the years following the dissolution of Amicus, but by the time Subotsky attempted in 1981 this filmed revival of the same house-style portmanteau formula which had served the company so well during its golden years, the horror genre had been further galvanised by the modern equivalent of grand guignol in the guise of the spectacle of the slasher movie boom, which reached its apex with the release of “Friday the 13th” some months before “The Monster Club” appeared in 1981 -- whereupon any prospect of this tastefully nostalgic, low-budget throwback to the comparative innocence of the Amicus glory days igniting the box office once more, became a hopelessly optimistic dream.
Produced by Subotsky’s Sword and Sorcery productions, Ltd (originally conceived as a vehicle for producing a Conan the Barbarian adaptation which never in the end came to pass), “The Monster Club” picks up pretty much where the last of the Amicus anthology horror flicks had previously left off: Kevin Conner’s “From Beyond the Grave” had taken the stories of Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes as their source (a prolific British writer of mainly short stories in the light-hearted vein of horror romps and ghostly tales), and “The Monster Club” is yet another anthology collection of the same author’s work which takes its title from Chetwynd-Hayes’ most successful 1975 collection. Barely remembered today, R. Chetwynd-Hayes was once a widely read writer of the macabre whose work was also adapted for TV in Rod Sterling's 70s anthology series “Night Gallery” and in the early eighties on the ITV children’s series “Spooky”. He also novelised the 1980 film “The Awakening” -- a modern take on Bram Stoker’s ‘The Jewell of the Seven Stars”.
Like the book on which it was based, “The Monster Club” links its three separate episodes to a wraparound story centred on the idea of there being in existence a subterranean club run especially for monsters; not just werewolves, vampires and ghouls, but a whole family tree of monster sub-breeds and hybrids invented by Chetwynd-Hayes, which thrives by night beneath the pavements of the Capital. Only two of the collection’s five stories ended up being adapted by screenwriters Edward and Valerie Abraham for the movie, while a third comedic story came from another entirely different R. Chetwynd-Hayes collection. In his treatment of this material Subotsky makes little attempt to update the old Amicus house style for a new generation, beyond a few ill-judged cosmetic touches such as the addition of a painfully poor pop/rock soundtrack. In most other respects it’s as though time has stood still since 1965: the director’s seat is filled once again by reliable Hammer and Amicus stalwart Roy Ward Baker, who was slotting this one in between the TV work that mainly now accounted for his daily bread during this period, on shows such as “Return of the Saint”, “Danger UXB” or the mini-series “The Flame Trees of Thika”; make-up effects were being handled by Hammer’s aging Roy Ashton, who’d similarly also plied his trade for Amicus in the 70s; as did many British character actors such as Donald Pleasence (“From Beyond the Grave”), Patrick Magee (“Tales From The Crypt”, “Asylum”), and Geoffrey Bayldon (“The House That Dripped Blood”, “Tales From The Crypt”, “Asylum”) who return once more to fill out the supporting cast and appear alongside the film’s seventy-year-old star Vincent Price (who’d also been in the Amicus/AIP co-production “Madhouse”), as he in turn is joined by veteran 1940s Universal horror star John Carradine, one of his co-stars on Pete Walker’s recently completed “House of Long Shadows” (where the two had been joined by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), adding but one more comforting element to the pleasurable sense of nostalgia that this film was obviously intended to project.
“The Monster Club” came at a time when the legendary status being enjoyed, as elder statesmen of the horror genre, by stars such as Lee, Cushing and Price, was being regularly commandeered as a last-ditch means of fanning the dying embers of the British film industry, yet both Christopher Lee and Cushing declined a role in Subotsky’s attempt to reassert a fading era -- as did Klaus Kinski. Perhaps in the knowledge that the approach and tone being revived here was by this time entirely anachronistic, the movie is clearly pitched at a much younger audience than were the Amicus and Hammer films of yore, in an attempt to bypass its lack of any real scares, although one of Ashton’s effects at the end of the first story is far too gruesome for a children’s film (it had to be trimmed in order for the film to receive its PG theatrical rating, but is fully restored in this 15 certificate Blu-ray release) and a sequence involving a stripper act (who strips right down to her bones!) seems inappropriate for the mooted juvenile age-group even if it does combine with animation before the pay-off. In any case, Subotsky’s efforts failed to secure the film distribution in the US ... although, now divorced from its era, it plays slightly better than upon its original release since the three stories, if by no means of top notch quality, do manage to successfully evoke early-seventies Amicus, while the glitter & hairspray New Romantic fashions and make-up glimpsed in the club sequences are now adorned with their own patina of nostalgia for the decade that followed, long since passed into history but regularly revived in modern retro obsessed pop culture.
Vincent Price plays a famished vampire, caught short while on one of his nightly prowls and, feeling a little peckish, taking a bite from the neck of passing pedestrian Carradine, realising only afterwards that his prey is in fact the admired horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes himself. In return for supplying him with his evening meal, Price, whose kindly vampire character is named Eramus, invites the author back to his club -- which turns out to be an underground cavern club full of outlandish creatures who bop amid flashing disco lights to some dreadful pub rock, the dregs of some third tier New Wave being perpetrated on stage by the likes of B. A. Robertson, The Viewers and The Pretty Things (a UB40 instrumental provides ambient music as Price and Carradine converse at their table). Between a plethora of poor puns and bad jokes (‘Type B is off, sir,’ claims the waiter when Price asks for ‘his usual’), Eramus confides in Chetwynd-Hayes how difficult it is for him these days because the general public is ‘so well educated about vampires’ and know all about stakes through the heart, garlic and running water, etc. This kind of wry, comedic tone sets up the following trio of stories, introduced by an illustrated wall chart that displays the genealogy of all monsters and its bizarre hierarchy of Fly-by-Nights, Shaddies, Maddies, Humgoos and Mocks.
After laying out the basic rules of Monsterdom (‘vampires sup, werewolves hunt, ghouls tear!’), Eramus tells a story about one of the lesser known creatures in the monsters family tree, in an attempt to explain the peculiar powers of the Shadmock. This story is the most traditional Amicus flavoured tale amongst the three, as it harks right back to the EC Comics style of “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror” in which the wrongdoing and criminality of the story’s main characters eventually leads to a gruesome dose of poetic justice being visited upon them in the final moments. George (Simon Ward) and his girlfriend & partner Angelia (Barbara Kellerman) are ruthless career criminals who scour the personal ads looking for rich, lonely antiquarians to take to the cleaners. They find the perfect subject in reclusive Mr Raven (James Laurenson), who lives in a vast manor house in the English countryside (provided by the well-known Tudor Gothic splendour of Knebworth House and its surrounding grounds), a lonely bachelor who wishes to employ a secretary to live on-site and catalogue his library while helping him write his next book. Raven soon takes a shine to Angela and makes a proposal of marriage, which her greedy boyfriend forces her to accept after he hears about Raven’s vast wealth and the valuables he keeps locked up in a safe in his study. However, Angelia is less than keen on the plot because of Raven’s odd appearance; but eventually she agrees and is persuaded to attempt to rob the vault during a masque-ball in which Raven plans to introduce his new bride to her peculiar new in-lawsand other assorted relatives.
There’s nothing original or in any way unpredictable about this tale, which plays as a riff on the Rupert Julian 1925 version of “The Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney, in which James Laurenson’s Mr Raven looks like a pale cross between Chaney’s Phantom and Boris Karloff in the 1935 Universal film version of “The Raven”. He is, in fact, meant to be the story’s Shadmock – a hybrid of a ghoul and a vampire, driven into seclusion and loneliness but cursed with a romantic nature that inclines him to adore beautiful things yet to be kept apart from them. When angered he is liable to unleash an unearthly whistle that results in terrible destruction being unleashed upon its victim's body. Douglas Gamley’s score hypes up the romantic angle with a lush melody played on classical guitar by John Williams, and Pete Walker’s regular cinematographer Peter Jessop provides effective visual atmosphere in the mahogany-lined interiors of the manor, but the tale’s only really effective moment comes in the final pay-off, which delivers an unexpected jolt of near-Fulci level grue as we’re shown the results of Raven’s vengeful powers in all their suppurating glory.
The second story is the one most obviously intended specifically to appeal to children, although it’s also the one whose juvenile comedy probably made it the least interesting to budding horror fans at the time. It’s introduced, during a screening at the club, as the latest film by horror producer Lintom Busotsky (Anthony Steel) – an in-joke anagram of Milton Subostsky that was also included in Chetwynd-Hayes’ original story. Set in what is clearly the present day, even though it’s introduced as a biographical tale of Busotsky’s childhood remembrances, the story sees the young Lintom (Warren Saire) enduring bullying and exclusion at his comprehensive for being an immigrant of mysterious mid-Europeans descent. His home life seems fairly normal on the surface and is presided over by a doting housewife mother (Britt Ekland), while his father (Richard Johnson) is rarely seen due to mysterious ‘night work’ that obliges him to sleep throughout the day … in the family house’s downstairs cellar, which is also forbidden to Lintom.
Lintom’s father’s appearance – pale skin and dark hair with widow’s peak -- makes plain his ‘occupation’ and the source of his parents’ descent, as well as the true reason why young Lintom is being instructed by his mother never to talk to strangers about the family or its aristocratic heritage. However, trouble comes a-calling for the youngster when he is tricked by a friendly-seeing clergyman who saves him from a beating on his way home from school while proffering sweeties to gain his trust, and who cajoles him into revealing the sleeping place of his rarely seen dad. For the vicar turns out to be a disguise for sly vampire hunter Mr Pickering (Donald Pleasence) – Chief of the B squad (or the ‘Bleeney’) and a departmental legend famous for slaying over two-hundred ‘vamps’, whose unit is dedicated to uncovering Blood Crimes with the aid of its dedicated bowler-hatted team of slayers carrying their ready-sharpened stakes inside innocent-looking black violin cases! The jokey comic-strip tone allows Pleasence and the Shakespearean Johnson to camp it up in their respective roles and any real horror content is minimised in favour of a wry inversion of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale myth -- with a deliberately silly joke happy ending, involving a stake-proof vampire vest, tacked on at the conclusion.
The last of the film’s strange tales is prompted by another unheard-of creature on the family tree of Monsterdom, and is by far the most effective of the bunch despite its relative predictability. American actor Stuart Whitman plays a middle-aged American film director who hits the road in search of a ‘strange, lonely, half-deserted village’ to appear as the setting for his latest British-made Gothic Horror flick. Unfortunately, after journeying deep into the wilds of Hertfordshire via the famous bridge spanning Tyke's Water Lake, just outside Elstree studios (seen in countless Brit films and TV series of the 60s and 70s) he ends up in the ghostly, mist-shrouded town of Loughville – the perfect site for a horror film (it resembles the eerie New England location of “City of the Dead”, Subotsky’s first ever horror outing) but also full of bizarre misbegotten secrets of its own. At first, the dilapidated town looks deserted and barren; only a dishevelled innkeeper (Patrick Magee) with lolling tongue appears still to be in residence. But soon, the town’s strange zombie-like occupants make themselves known, appearing en masse as though from nowhere and pursuing Sam upstairs. Eventually it comes to light that the entire town is made up of ghouls who dress themselves in the clothes of the corpses they’ve exhumed for food in the abandoned village churchyard! Sam’s only ally turns out to be the innkeeper’s teenage daughter Luna (Leslie Dunlop, who also starred in 1980s “The Elephant Man” for David Lynch) – she being the ‘Humgoo’ offspring of a mating between her ghoul father and a human mother.
The scenario is a strange and evocative one and plays with themes of monstrous miscegenation like a variant of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s finest tales, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. An ambient electronic score greatly adds to the atmosphere as Sam and Luna take refuge in the besieged and now-abandoned village church in a Hammer-esque take on the familiar “The Night of the Living Dead” scenario, warding off their flesh-eating aggressors with not fire but rusting, cobweb-mantled crucifixes disinterred from the empty church crypts . This effective little chiller, greatly enhanced by illustrations rendered in the style of inked etchings for a flashback sequence which explains the macabre history of the village and its descent into ghouldom, brings the film to its downbeat conclusion, although Price and Carradine are back for a brief coda in which we get to see the two horror veterans disco dancing amid a crowd of rubber-masked ‘monsters’.
“The Monster Club” was a poor response to the then current trends in horror of the time of its release; and attempts to market it as a children’s movie are not entirely convincing despite some (but not all) of the content being aimed at that market. It’s possible to enjoy it much more now as a second division example of the classic anthology fright flick, and the cast all give it their all -- especially the aged but sprightly Vincent Price, who relishes the playful dialogue and tongue-twisting lists of unwholesome monster breeds he’s required to deliver in his customary mellifluous tones. The new Blu-ray release from Network Distributing, another title in the company’s British Film Collection, plays host to a superb, richly colourful and textured HD transfer and also allows those purchasers with more eclectic musical tastes to sample the soundtrack via an isolated audio track. There is also a spoiler heavy trailer and a stills gallery included.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!