Tuesday, 30 October 2018

October Horrors # 14:
The Monster Club
(Roy Ward Baker, 1981)

Yet another British horror film that I’ve put off watching for a long, long time, ‘The Monster Club’ sounds on paper like a uniquely unappealing prospect.

The very last gasp of Milton Subotsky’s Amicus productions, it saw the company considerably toning down the more violent elements of their long-running horror anthology series, going instead for a family friendly, tongue-in-cheek approach, whilst simultaneously making a desperately misguided attempt to court a youth audience more interested in slasher and zombie flicks by adding a pop music / variety show aspect to proceedings.

Clearly smelling embarrassment a mile off, both Cushing and Lee declined to participate, and I wonder to what extent they regretted their decision in subsequent years, given that, against all the odds, ‘The Monster Club’ somehow turned out to be an absolute delight.

Vincent Price, always game for this sort of caper, conversely described it prior to shooting as “..the best script I’ve been offered in years”, and indeed he anchors the anthology’s extensive framing sequences with gusto, playing an urbane vampire who takes a midnight snifter from the neck of the miraculously-still-alive John Carradine, portraying these stories’ real life author, R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

I confess, I’m not familiar with the work of Mr Chetwynd-Hayes (despite having spent much of my life skulking around second hand bookshops, I don’t recall ever actually seeing one of his books), but, based on the version of stuff that made it to the screen here, I think Price had a point.

Although each of the three stories presented here (four if you count the framing narrative) sounds pretty twee on paper, they all manage to temper their Halloween party silliness with a reassuring edge of pitch-black nastiness that causes them to linger longer in the memory than they really should.

The “monster genealogical chart” – tracing the complicated results of inter-breeding between vampires, werewolves, ghouls and humans – which provides a jumping off point for the three segment is a strange and imaginative conceit that I’ve never really seen explored elsewhere, and most people’s pick for the best of the stories will probably be the tale of James Laurenson’s lovelorn ‘shadmock’ (a creature who makes up for his position as the lowest and most diluted form of monster with his uniquely destructive whistle).

Aside from the fact that everyone treats Laurenson as if he is hideously deformed when clearly he’s just a fairly normal looking fella with heavy make-up and a bad haircut, this tale is really beautifully done, mixing some doomed, fairy tale-style emotional yearning with some proper, EC Comics style poetic justice and a cat-incinerating gimmick reminiscent of Jerzy Skolimowski’s then recent ‘The Shout’ (1978).

Furthering the spirit of the in-jokery introduced by featuring Chetwynd-Hayes as a character, the stakes are upped when the movie’s second story is introduced by a much-loved movie producer named, uh, “Lintom Busotsky”(!), who introduces what is purportedly a preview of a film he has made based upon his own childhood.

You see, Lintom’s dad (Richard Johnson) was a vampire – an exiled Count who now has to “work nights”, commuting from the suburbs to the West End for his nocturnal fix, leaving the youngster in the care of his adoring mother (Britt Ekland!). Admittedly, this business skims pretty close to the realms of tweeness, but the stuff about the exiled aristocratic vamps having to slum it as down-at-heel refugees, bullied and feared by their neighbours, adds a nice bit of verisimilitude, and things get considerably more interesting once Donald Pleasence is introduced as the chief of “The Bleeney”, a sinister, black bowler-hatted police division charged with the investigation of “blood crimes”(!).

Splendidly enjoyable stuff, this segment ends up toying with our sympathies in an uncomfortably ambiguous fashion; where do we stand, between the cheerily blood-thirsty, family-man vampire, and the cold, pinched-lipped cops who want to make poor Britt a widow..?

Somewhat surprisingly, both of these first two stories boast pretty solid production values, with some impressive set design, striking compositions and beautiful photography. (The vampire story even achieves some Bava-esque moments, with saturated gel-lights blurring into deep shadow.) Having presumably put the ignominy of Scars of Dracula far behind him, the sixty-four year old Roy Ward Baker proves here that he was still capable of knocking out of the park when circumstances allowed.

The third story, it must be said, looks considerably more poverty-stricken, but its tale of a ghoul-haunted village lurking just off the M4 nonetheless delivers the film’s most sustained dose of fetid, horror-ish atmosphere. As several commentators have noted, the fog-shrouded village with a graveyard at its centre seems like a deliberate call back to Amicus’s very first horror film, 1960’s ‘City of the Dead’, and the self-aware vibe continues as we’re introduced to a film director - a brash, Porsche-driving American played by the perpetually hungover-looking Stuart Whitman. (Named “Sam”, and notable for his cantankerous attitude and insistence upon realism, I briefly wondered whether this character was intended as a kind of vague skit on Sam Peckinpah.)

After he finds himself imprisoned in the village inn whilst in the process of scouting locations for his latest horror movie, Sam befriends a sympathetic young “humegoo” (human / ghoul hybrid), and also enjoys a few run-ins with the one and only Patrick Magee. It must be said, Magee doesn’t really seem to be putting a lot of effort into his role as the inn-keeper here (perhaps he was miffed at the absurd make-up he had to wear?), but it’s nice to have him around nonetheless.

Sadly this segment is regrettably over-lit (nixing the fancy lighting seems to have been a common Baker move when pressed for time), which serves to draw attention to the iffy sets and abysmal ghoul make-up (green faces all round), but things are once again saved by the strength of the writing, including some grisly details of the ghouls’ corpse-chomping lifestyle, and some interesting reflections on the torn loyalties of the unfortunate Humegoo.

A strong as these stories are however, I think it’s fair to say that ‘The Monster Club’ will always be chiefly remembered for what goes on in-between them, as Price introduces Carradine to the pleasures offered by the titular club, including performances from a selection of the very finest rock n’ roll acts that a bunch of elderly men working for a small film company on the verge of bankruptcy could persuade to record vaguely monster-themed songs for them during the uncertain, transitional year of 1980.

First, we get a sort of tough, new wave-aspirant pub rock band called The Viewers, whose members are probably still lurking in various North London pubs bitterly complaining about the fact that the only thing anyone remembers them for is this stupid bloody film. Though blighted by a truly dreadful set of lyrics, their song ‘Monsters Rule OK’ has a good, Stiff Records style power-pop chug on the verse and an affirmative, sing-along chorus that you’ll find impossible to shake after hearing the track twice during the movie.

Next up, the bitter ending to the Shadmock story is swiftly forgotten as we head straight into a performance by some character named B.A. Robertson. I confess, I’d never heard of this guy before, but according to Wikipedia he recorded for the Asylum label through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a certain amount of success, before becoming a bit of a minor celeb on UK TV.

‘Sucker For Your Love’, Robertson's contribution to ‘The Monster Club’, is actually a bit of a banger - in fact it’s easily my favourite song in the film, and I’d definitely commend it to any contemporary garage / punk band in search of a good, off-beat song to cover.

Filmed entirely in sweaty close-up (we never get to see his band members – maybe they didn’t make it to the shoot?), Robertson works through some fairly bizarre shtick here, alternatively rolling his eyes and staring at the ground whilst delivering extraordinary lines about “making love to a colander” and such like. Wild stuff indeed.

Probably the most awkward segment in a film that often seems entirely predicated on awkwardness comes from a band named Night, who deliver the next musical performance. The musicians here resemble a Rorschach test of guys who all got kicked out of different bands for being too sleazy and/or thuggish, whilst out-front a Bonnie Tyler styled female vocalist belts out a tune entitled ‘I’m a Stripper’, which I refuse to describe further, simply on the basis that I don’t even want to think about it anymore.

After this traumatic experience, our septuagenarian protagonists enjoy The Monster Club’s own strip routine. Filmed in silhouette, this is actually a quite inventive bit of animation in which – surprise, surprise - the performer strips right down to her skeleton! (“What a glorious set of bones,” exclaims Price).

In what seems to be a bit of an R. Chetwynd-Hayes trademark, all of this jolly business suddently takes a darker turn than expected, as Price instigates a debate with the “club secretary” (who resembles a member of The Goodies dressed as a werewolf) over whether or not the author’s fictional analogue should be allowed to become the first human to attain membership of The Monster Club.

“Can we truly call this a monster club if we do not boast amongst our membership a single member of the human race?” Price asks, before running through a quick list of humanity’s more monstrous achievements before an audience of startled-looking extras in Halloween masks. The death camps, the trenches of WWI, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the witch trials and the horrors of the inquisition all get a look-in – oh, such laffs.

A celebratory closing number was clearly needed after that jarring bit of heavy-handed moralising, and who better to provide it than pioneering ‘60s/’70s psyche-rock wildmen The Pretty Things? As a fan of the band, I was very much looking forward to seeing them close the show, but - oh boy.

I know it has often been said that most survivors of the ‘60s found themselves in a pretty dark place at the dawn of the ‘80s, and, on the evidence of this footage, it seems as if the Prettys were feeling the pain more than most. I’ll spare you the sartorial details (although vocalist Phil May’s short-sleeved shirt must be singled out for its sheer awfulness), but, far more onerously, the band seem to have been taking some tips at this point from the cod-reggae sound of UB40 (who also contributed something or other to ‘The Monster Club’s soundtrack, although mercifully they declined to appear on-screen) and the results are… not good, to put it mildly.

The Pretty Things’ Wikipedia page notes that “the new wave sound did not improve their sales figures,” and that they split up shortly after filming their appearance for the film, but their gently skanking, prog-funk direction nonetheless apparently held enough appeal to get Price and Carradine out on the dance floor, where they proceed to boogie away unsteadily for a few minutes, Vincent dancing hand in hand with a young lady in an alien mask and a fat suit. It is not a sight easily forgotten.

Despite the evident silliness of these Monster Club segments, it’s still a shame I think that Cushing and Lee turned this one down. In spite of everything, the evident good feeling and ‘anything goes’ attitude that characterised the making of this film could have make it a delightfully irreverent farewell for the old gang.

I know that the wizards at Cannon deigned to bring us ‘House of Long Shadows’ a few years later, but, aside from the wonderful performances from all the horror stars, I’ve always found that film to be a rather dour, poorly conceived mess, in which director Pete Walker’s darker sensibility mitigated against the gentler, more whimsical take on gothic tropes that his stars (and their fans) might have preferred for their final curtain call.

If they’d all decided to call it a day with ‘The Monster Club’ though, well, just imagine – Vince, and John, and Peter all arthritically jiving to the last, spluttering gasps of The Pretty Things’ career, as Sir Chris sits glowering at a table in the corner, spluttering at the indignity of it all. Never fear though, I’m sure Vincent could have had a quick word in his ear, promising to insert some high-falutin’ reference to The Seal of Solomon into the script or something, at which point he’d have perked up a bit, and perhaps even smiled and snapped his fingers. Ah, it would have been lovely.

But -- he have what we have, and happily ‘The Monster Club’ is still far better than it really has any right to be. More than anything, it feels akin to watching a top quality Amicus anthology movie interspersed with a particularly barrel-scraping instalment of Top Of The Pops 2 - and what better entertainment could we in the British public possibly ask for than that? Why this hasn’t become a much-loved Christmas TV fixture, I can’t possibly imagine. I almost felt like swapping my usual hard liquor for a box of Quality Street and a milky cup of tea whilst watching it. Perfect comfort viewing for all the monster-lovin’ family.

1 comment:

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Oddly, I just watched this last week as one of the last holdouts of portmanteaus is not yet seen.

Totally agree on the enjoyability of the film, but I have to say I enjoyed the final story. Drives through the swirling mist, a low synth drone strikes up and Whitman finds himself in a real backwood nightmare village. And then The Magee cones shuffling out from behind the counter?! That was quite enough to win me over!

Also noticed that this one comes from Chips Productions, who I believe were resonsbile for the Hammer House of Horror telly series around the same time. It looked like the Shadmocks home is the same location that the opening credits were filmed at.