October 7, 2018

REVIEW: THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)


The Monster Club is a 1981 horror anthology film directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring two of the biggest titans of terror in film history, Vincent Price and John Carradine. It is based on the works of horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, whose works also served as the basis for the horror anthology From Beyond the Grave from Amicus Productions. In fact, the spirit of Amicus rings throughout the entire film; it was the final film of producer Milton Subotsky, who produced several horror anthology films for Amicus, and the film was a reunion of sorts for Amicus alums as actors Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, and Geoffrey Bayldon all have supporting roles and were previously part of the cast of Amicus' horror anthology Asylum.

Vincent Price is well known to horror fans, an absolute legend whose career spanned fifty-eight years and over one hundred films. John Carradine, by comparison, had a similarly prolific career but is probably less well-known to many outside the horror genre, and is perhaps remembered best for his performances as Count Dracula in a few of Universal's later monster mash ups. Both are in fine form here and are easily the best part of the film, despite having little screen time.

The film opens with John Carradine, starring as a fictionalized version of author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, admiring several of his books in a storefront window. As he goes about his business, he is stopped by a weak-looking Vincent Price, who tells him that he hasn't eaten in weeks. Chetwynd-Hayes states that he'll do anything to help him, and the stranger thanks him, baring fangs and biting him in the neck.

Chetwynd-Hayes comes to and finds a much more satisfied Vincent Price looking over him fondly, having just realized that he'd supped from the great R. Chetwynd-Hayes, his favorite horror author. He assures Chetwynd-Hayes that he needn't worry; he didn't bite deep enough to make him become a creature of the night himself. Price introduces himself as Eramus, a vampire, a fact by which Chetwynd-Hayes seems barely bothered. Having provided sustenance for Eramus, Chetwynd-Hayes says that he must be on his way, but Eramus states that he wishes to repay him by helping Chetwynd-Hayes amass material for his next book. Thus, Eramus takes Chetwynd-Hayes to the Monster Club, a private disco for all the things that go bump in the night. While at the club, Eramus teaches Chetwynd-Hayes of monster genealogy, which segues into the first vignette of the anthology.

The Shadmock - A bit of a Beauty and the Beast tale with a horrific twist, the vignette opens with a catatonic man sitting in a padded room and wrapped in a straight jacket. Outside the room, two psychiatrists speculate about what kind of trauma could have led to his condition. A moment later, we are taken back in time to a conniving couple, played by Barbara Kellerman and Simon Ward (the man in the padded room in the earlier scene), are searching the newspaper classifieds for someone to swindle; Angela answers an ad for a secretary position at an antiquary owned by Raven (James Laurenson), who, unbeknownst to Angela, is a Shadmock, and leads a tortured, solitary existence.

Despite initially being afraid of Raven (who is definitely channeling a bit of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera), Angela takes the job. She's obviously conflicted in her decision to go ahead with the plan, as she seems to feel some sympathy for Raven, but despite her protestations, her skeevy boyfriend urges her to try to find out where Raven keeps his safe, reckoning that this is where he keeps all his cash and most valuable artifacts.

We first get a glimpse of the Shadmock's power when Raven is out on the lawn of his estate feeding the birds, which he has told Angela are his only friends. Unbeknownst to him, a stray cat is prowling the grounds and makes a quick meal of one of the birds when his back is turned. Devastated by the loss, Raven turns to the cat, purses his lips, and whistles. The sound is powerful enough to reach Angela, who is working inside, and she heads to the door to investigate. She is met by a distraught Raven, who is too traumatized by the event to speak. As he shuffles upstairs, she steps outside to find a smoldering, cat-shaped smudge on the ground.

Some time later, Raven, who has become quite taken with Angela, asks her to marry him. Again, she is conflicted, but she agrees at the behest of her boyfriend, who sees this as the perfect opportunity to clean Raven out of his riches. A grand party is held at the estate with all of Raven's family in attendance--masked, of course, as they are all apparently even uglier than him. During a ballroom dance, Angela slips away to Raven's safe. Just as she opens it, she turns to find Raven there, who tells her that she can take all of the money because the only thing he cares about is whether or not she loves him. "You...could love me," he pleads. Angela breaks down, screaming that she could never love him. Overcome with grief, the Shadmock once again purses his lips and whistles. In the ballroom, the entire party is brought to a halt by the noise.

Later, the boyfriend hears Angela enter the apartment and asks her how it went. Angela turns slowly toward him, revealing that her face has been completely melted off. As she advances slowly, repeating Raven's words, "you could love me," the boyfriend backs away in horror, his sanity shredded by the terrifying sight.

The Vampires - This segment of the film, though fittingly demented, is mostly played for laughs. As Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes are taking in the club scene, a werewolf (the club's secretary) introduces their honored guest for the evening, Lintom Busotsky (an anagram of Milton Subotsky, the film's producer), a vampire film producer who is on hand to show a clip of his next movie, a semi-autobiographical story depicting his life as a bullied child and his relationship with his vampire father (played by Richard Johnson) and human mother (played by Britt Ekland).

In this vignette, we learn that Lintom's father is a "night worker" who dresses in black evening attire and whose job "has somezink to do vith ze food trade," because he's a vampire, get it? Johnson's characterization of Lintom's father is every bit the absurd Bela Lugosi stereotype, complete with an awful Eastern European accent that occasionally and inexplicably lapses into an awful French accent, with a bit of gee-golly-gosh, Ward Cleaver charm thrown in for good measure (or whatever passes for that in England). Before heading out, he warns Lintom to always beware of men carrying violin cases, the B-Squad.

Later, Lintom is being bullied by his peers at school and is rescued by Pickering (played by Donald Pleasence), who questions Lintom about his father. Pickering learns that Lintom's father is a nobleman who sleeps during the day, and suggests to Lintom that he should go down to where his father sleeps while his mother is away to see if he will wake up early to play with him. As he says this, a group of men carrying violin cases is seen some distance away, watching. Pickering nods knowingly to them.

Lintom's mother heads out to the market for some groceries, leaving him alone in the house. Pickering and his men spy on her, and seeing that she is gone, head to Lintom's home. Meanwhile, thinking of Pickering's suggestion, Lintom heads down to the cellar and learns the awful truth about his father, seeing him lying in a coffin.

Afraid, Lintom rushes out of the house...and into the clutches of Pickering and the B-Squad. Pickering explains that Lintom's father has been his most difficult case, and intends to have Lintom witness his father's destruction. They enter the cellar and find Lintom's father, and it is here we learn the significance of the B-Squad's violin cases, as they open one and retrieve a sharp wooden stake and a mallet. With these, Pickering stakes Lintom's father just as his mother descends into the cellar and screams upon seeing the event.

Pickering smiles triumphantly, but his victory is soured at the last moment as Lintom's father, seemingly with his dying breath, reaches up and grabs Pickering by the head, savagely biting his neck. With that, Lintom's father closes his eyes while the B-Squad look on in shock. Lintom's mother gives off a haughty laugh, telling Pickering that her husband had bitten him deeply, making him a vampire, and now the B-Squad must kill him as well. At that moment, Pickering sprouts fangs. Fearing for his life, he attempts to flee but is caught by the B-Squad, who stake him. They then haul him out on a stretcher and leave.

Lintom and his mother head back down to the cellar to look at his father for one last time, and are surprised when Lintom's father abruptly sits up and yanks the stake from his chest. Cackling, he tells them, "eet's a good ting I alvays vear thees stake-proof vest feeled vith tomato ketchup!" Then they embrace, a happy, whole family once again.

The Ghouls - Sam (played by Stuart Whitman) is a film director looking for a remote village in which to film his next horror movie. This segment features him happening upon a decrepit, rural village named Loughville out in the English countryside, seemingly deserted and isolated from civilization by a dense fog bank as he crosses a bridge to enter the town proper.

After some searching around, he enters an empty inn where he happens upon a strange, old man and asks him who runs the place and how to contact them. The man responds that the Elders run the village, and that they'll soon arrive. Not wanting to wait around, Sam says that he'll just have his production office sort things out and tries to leave.

As he turns to do so, he is aghast to find that the whole room is filled with pale, emaciated people, silently staring at him. He pushes past them and gets into his car, which mysteriously won't start. He gets out to check the engine and finds that several wires have clearly been cut. The townsfolk blame the incident on vermin and force Sam back into the inn, up the stairs, and into a room.

A young woman named Luna (played by Leslie Dunlop) enters the room with some food for Sam. During their conversation, Sam learns that she is a "humegoo," and that her mother was like him, lost in the fog from the "outside." She tells Sam that her mother died giving birth to her, and on the Great Gathering Night, the villagers' custom of exhuming the graves in the nearby graveyard for clothing and food meant that her mother's corpse was eaten. This distresses Sam greatly and he demands to know what the villagers intend to do with him; she replies that the ghouls must have their food.

Sam pleads for Luna to help him. Being sensitive to his plight, she instructs him to hide in the abandoned church, where ghouls cannot enter. Since she is half-human, she is able to enter, and says she will come when she can to further assist him. Sam leaves the inn and is immediately beset by ghouls, but true to Luna's word, the stop short of the church grounds and cannot follow him in.

Inside the church, Sam happens upon the corpse of the church Parson, long-rotted and sitting at a desk with a book of parchment beneath its skeletal hand. Sam reads the parchment, the last testimony of the Parson, and learns the truth of what happened--many years ago, the townsfolk who once inhabited the village discovered a ghoul in the graveyard and sought to drive it out, but the Parson intervened and bathed it and clothed it in an attempt to be kind to the creature. Then, one night, the ghoul was discovered in the graveyard, having dug up a corpse and feasting on its flesh. This time, the townspeople drove it out, but more and more came, eventually overrunning the town and killing all except the Parson, who found safety in the church.

As Sam finishes reading the horrifying account, he hears Luna outside and sees through the window that she is being attacked by the ghouls for trying to join him. Sam rushes to her aid with a cross from the church. As the ghouls shrink back at the sight of the cross, Luna dashes into the church. Inside, Luna confesses that her father beat her for helping Sam, and laments that if Sam leaves, she will be left there alone. Sam promises her that he will take her with him when he escapes.

The ghouls hurl stones at the church, breaking the windows. Sam uses the cross to buy them some time, propping it in the window and causing the ghouls to shrink back in fear once again. Luna tells Sam that the Elders are due to arrive that night for the Great Eating. They are not like other ghouls, but are very smart, and there will be no escape for them if they do not leave before nightfall. Taking up the cross, Sam tells Luna to run with him.

They rush from the church with the ghouls in hot pursuit. They make it to the mist wall, which Luna says was made by the elders and acts as a barrier to prevent the ghouls from leaving. They cross through, but Luna is struck by a rock hurled through the mist and is killed. Sam makes it to the highway and is able to flag down a police car, and asks the officers to take him to the police station. He gets in the car and they set off, but to his dismay, they drive him right back into the village.

A car appears behind them, and the officers state that they always give the Elders a police escort when they return to Loughville. As they pull to a stop in the village, the ghouls crowd around the car, and the two officers turn around, grinning at Sam with rows of fangs in their mouths. Sam screams.

After the vignette has ended, we rejoin Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes in the Monster Club, where Eramus states that he has taken a liking to Chetwynd-Hayes and wants to make him a member. At first, the other monsters balk at the idea since Chetwynd-Hayes is only a "hume," but Eramus cites the countless ways in which humans have proven themselves to be the best monsters of all, killing each other throughout the whole of history in brutal and ingenuitive ways. This wins over the monsters, who have never realized that humans were capable of such horror, and the film ends with Chetwynd-Hayes becoming an honorary member of the Monster Club and dancing the night away with Eramus and the monsters.

Overall, this is a fun little flick that signals the end of an era and heralds the beginning of a new one, serving as a sort of transition from the heyday of  horror production houses like Hammer and Amicus to the horror films of the eighties. Production value notwithstanding (all of the monsters in the Monster Club are barely more than people wearing extremely cheap, goofy-looking Halloween masks, and the musical interludes between the stories are very much a product of their time), it features some memorable tales and relies more on that ol' tried and true Amicus method of building a palpable sense of horror and dread (for the first and third vignettes, anyway) rather than falling back on cheap gross-out horror the way so many modern films tend to do. As it is not that well-remembered today, I highly suggest seeking out a copy and giving it a watch. Thankfully, it is available on Blu-ray for a decent price, depending where you look, and it is also available for home streaming through Amazon Prime. Be sure to drop us a line and let us know what you think of The Monster Club!