According to a recent Internet campaign to get a certain record to the No.1 spot in time for Christmas, everybody knows that the bird is the word. Well, I have news for The Bird and all his acolytes: namely, that a greater, more cultured, and ultimately more select group of us know that Monsters Rule OK.
Anyone not acquainted with this premise obviously didn’t watch much late night TV, or attend many midnight movie screenings, in that otherwise barren period known as the 1980s, for ‘twas then that the legend of The Monster Club, a cinematic failure upon release but a cult favourite ever since, was born. Intended by its producer, the one and only Milton Subotsky, as a horror film for all the family, it in truth came several years too late for such a concept, and was much derided by audiences whose sensibilities by the time of its release had been spoilt by the gorier, more explicit fare freely available to them in the preceding seven years. Films such as Last House On The Left (1973) The Exorcist (1973) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Halloween (1978) Dawn Of The Dead (1979) and most recently Friday The Thirteenth (1979) had not only changed the face of horror forever, upping the shock stakes and providing teens with something they felt they could relate to far more than the ‘stuffy’ old world of ghosts, ghouls and vampires, but they had also tipped the scales considerably away from Britain and towards America.
Some may say that UK genre productions never really made the same impact again, and some may be right: even our most successful forays in the latter half of the 70s, The Omen (1976) and Alien (1979) had had a fair whack of American funding thrown in, and were constructed along far more Transatlantic lines than many of their Brit counterparts. Hammer and Amicus had more or less both collapsed in recent years, the former going into television production and the latter into liquidation: Subotsky, however, ploughed on undeterred, convinced that he could make more portmanteau pictures just as easily without the millstone of his former company round his neck.
Unfortunately, times had changed, and if the Brit-Canadian co-production The Uncanny (1977) in which Peter Cushing attempted to convince us (and co-star Ray Milland) that domestic cats are scary and evil, couldn’t save the bacon of the newly-inaugurated Sword And Sorcery Productions, one wonders with hindsight how The Monster Club, (featuring even less gore and violence), was supposed to do so, hovering as it does somewhere uneasily between a kids’ film and a full-on scarefest without ever being sure which camp it’s brave enough to plant its cloven hooves in.
Many have also expressed disdain for its light-hearted, comedic tone, almost as if they take exception to the ‘golden era’ of British horror ending with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek: it’s even been suggested that by taking part, Price, Carradine and Pleasence- genre legends to a man- were “lowering themselves”, particularly Pleasence, who, by accepting the part of Dr Loomis in Halloween, had made the transition successfully from ‘old’ to ‘new’ terror. But on the other hand, hadn’t horror always satirised and self-referenced itself? A film like Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital (1973) plays with all the conventions one would usually expect, wrong-footing the audience at every turn, and leaving them none the wiser come the end of the picture, the final result being a far better piece of work than anyone might have hitherto expected. The Monster Club should be allowed exactly the same carte-blanche, and personally, I feel that had it been a commercial success, it would be respected for it: its relative failure, therefore, makes it (and its producer and director) a very easy scapegoat for the death-knell of British horror that was to follow, when in truth the several wrong turns we took at least seven years before (such as Michael Carreras’ blatant unwillingness to distribute his own groundbreaking new product like Captain Kronos, Demons Of The Mind and Straight On Till Morning), coupled with the Conservative government’s abolition of the Eady Levy, had already signed the warrant.
But let’s end the negativity right there: too many periodicals have dwelt on the failings of British horror at the start of the decade, without taking into account its many positive elements. The Monster Club has plenty of those, and Christmas is as good a time as any to remember them- after all, what could sum up the spirit of the season better than a picture which combines traditional Gothic chills, comedy, popular song, folklore and a touch of romance? The contents of a seasonal Radio Times (before the onslaught of reality TV, at least) would include elements of all of those, spread across several productions: here you get them all in one film.
Also, only the most delusional naysayer or flea-bitten cynic could baulk at the assembled cast: alongside legends Vincent Price, John Carradine, Donald Pleasence and Patrick Magee, we get character regulars Simon Ward, Barbara Kellerman, James Laurenson, Stuart Whitman, Geoffrey Bayldon, Anthony Steel, Britt Ekland, Richard Johnson, Anthony Valentine, Neil NcCarthy, Lesley Dunlop and Roger Sloman, all set to the musical talents of The Pretty Things, Stevie Lange, BA Roberston, and UB40 before they went shit. For an ensemble, that takes some beating, even if they don’t all appear together in the same scenes and some have very little screen time.
Portmanteau films, with the possible exception of Asylum (also Roy Ward Baker, 1972) and From Beyond The Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974) both of which work their linking story into their episodes, often tend more towards a collection of stories than a complete whole, their framework often little more than a loose thread from which to hang several unconnected elements. The Monster Club has a premise looser than most, with vampire Eramus (Price) taking a light bite (that is to say, not biting deep, to ensure his victim doesn’t become one of his own kind) from passing real-life author R-Chetwynd Hayes (Carradine) and then, by way of thanks, taking him to a club, somewhere in deepest London, where monsters, ghouls, vamps, ghosts, werewolves, demons and fiends of all kinds hang out, dance to New Wave and AOR, and drink glasses of chilled Type O (“very pleasant, but it doesn’t sustain us. In order to survive one must take directly from the source”) while telling stories. A lot of fun, in other words, but also complete nonsense, and so tenuous it makes the “broken lift” of Vault Of Horror or the “trapped in a cemetery” setting of Tales From The Crypt seem like social realism by comparison.
Yet within this nonsense there is still much to enthral, fascinate and enrapture- take the opening story, featuring Laurenson as Raven, the tender-hearted, tragic ‘Shadmock’ (lowest in the hierarchy of fiends, but nevertheless blessed with a capacity to melt living creatures alive by whistling). Not only is it atmospheric, but genuinely moving: Raven may be a monster (well, if we’re honest, he looks more like a businessman with a bad Dave Vanian fetish), but it’s definitely him we’re supposed to sympathise with, as opposed to scheming con-artist Barbara Kellerman, who’s been sent by her small-time crim boyfriend (Ward) to apply for a cleaning job, pretend to fall in love with her ghoulish employer, case the joint, and then have it away with the piles of cash, silver and gold he keeps locked in the study.
OK, it is partially the lonely creature’s own fault, as he quite blatantly shows said booty to her, giving her ample time to remember the combination to the safe- and you get the impression that his masked monster family, who are introduced to his errant bride to be at a sumptuous ball thrown in her honour, are only too aware of his track record with the opposite sex, even to the point where one can even imagine them, upon hearing his anguished whistle from the library, thinking “Oh God, not again”- but it’s moments of all-too-human fallibility like this that elevate the story from the realms of the ludicrous into the credible. There’s also at least one shot which, at the right impressionable age, will terrify the TROUSERS off you: faceless, hooded, slowly advancing figures are always scary, regardless of how many films or programmes one may have seen, and they don’t come much scarier than this.
The second story, parodying/ reimagining the childhood of the film’s own creator as “Lintom Busotsky, vampire film producer” has oft been cited as one of the worst ever segments in any anthology, and true, it does suffer here, pitted as it is against two tales of far greater import, but I still feel I should stick up for it, as it has been unjustly lambasted when far worse films are made by big-budget Hollywood on a daily basis. Fair enough, it does plunge the film further into the realms of comedy, but every portmanteau from Dead Of Night onwards had one deliberately humorous segment, so, again, why should this one be different? And while the story contained within is no match for Charters & Caldicott’s golf strokes, Roy Castle & Kenny Lynch dabbling with the world of voodoo jazz (maaan) or Terry-Thomas meeting his just desserts at the end of his distressed wife’s hammer, it still raises a chuckle or three if you’re in the right mood.
It just depends what one’s looking for. Richard Johnson’s comedy “wampire” accent has received some harsh criticism over the years, but I don’t think he was actually intending it to be taken seriously, any more than Pleasence, superbly cast as Pickering, head of the “Bleaney” (basically the department of the police concerned with ‘blood crimes’) who clearly relished the opportunity for some of the oiliest hamming of his career. After all, no-one could have possibly, even in 1980, uttered lines like “I’ll see you home from school. It’s alright, I’m not a stranger, I’m a clergyman” with a straight face- especially with assistants Anthony Valentine and Neil McCarthy playing Keystone Kops of the highest order alongside them.
And if that weren’t value for money enough, we’re also bequeathed japemungous shenanigans involving incidental music and a garden gate, several comedy pratfalls and a little head-bumping: shameless panto it may be, but again, what’s the problem? If one thing does let the segment down, it’s Britt Ekland as the infant Lintom’s mother: whereas everybody else seems to have gone for the comedic jugular, so to speak, she chooses for some reason to play it straight, showing her obvious limitations as an actress and disinterest in the script. Or maybe she just didn’t find it funny- come to think of it, my Scandinavian ex didn’t laugh either when I showed this to her, so maybe it does take a certain insular Englishness to find the phrase “a stake-proof west filt with tomayto ketchup” chucklesome.
Some have also chuckled at the stilted pidgin-English (sample dialogue: “I not like others, I can go in church. Dada make rabbit stew. My mother from outside. When I born, she put into box, then dug up for great eating”) spoken by Lesley Dunlop as Luna, the “Humegoo” (half-human, half ghoul) in the third story, and fair enough, it is a touch daft, even for a kids’ film made in the late 1970s: conversely, more requests concerning this story have turned up in the “name that film” sections of horror websites than for any other production with the possible exception of Hammer’s Black Carrion (1984), so it must have resonated with a generation in a way the rest of the movie didn’t, and it is, at times, genuinely chilling. The way the inhabitants of “Loughville” (work it out) suddenly appear en masse behind stranded film director Stuart Whitman is a masterstroke on the part of Baker, cinematographer Peter Jessop and assistant Peter Tanner, the blue filter adds an otherworldliness that no other story in any portmanteau has, the animated/narrated sequence is excellent, Alan Hawkshaw’s widdling prog synth score not only effectively captures the juxtaposition between the real world and the supernatural but the tail-end of the 70s and the start of the new decade that was to follow, and Patrick Magee, although underused, is as sinister as ever.
Sadly, it’s kept from being a masterpiece by some unfortunate (and this time, I believe, unintentional) comedy teeth, here sported by the ever-dependable Prentis Hancock, and a fairly obvious ending- but it should still be commended for coming the closest (apart from the one brief shot alluded to early on) to the genuine shit-yourself terror of the kind we once excelled at. Or did we? Notable exceptions aside (Dead Of Night, The Haunting, Night Of The Eagle, The Innocents, Three Cases Of Murder) when were British horror films ACTUALLY that terrifying?
The truth is, they weren’t- their best qualities instead being a combination of fine dialogue, diction, photography and atmosphere often hampered by budgetary constraints, poor SFX, hurried plotlines and predictability the way only we Brits know how, which, shot through the correct filter, imbues the viewer with either a curious ennui (in the case of lesser known, more explicit titles) or a fuzzy fireside warmth (in the case of most Hammer, Tigon or Amicus productions regularly screened on TV from around 1975 onwards) For anyone of a certain age brought up on this stuff, these qualities are essential in drawing us to said films: the reason why The Monster Club gets it in the neck (pun fully intended) so often is that it represents, for many people, the end of that era, and thus invites resentment. And it shouldn’t, when viewed on its own terms- even if the serialised comic book version that preceded it, taken directly from Hayes’ original stories, did look better.
A truly dreadful film, after all, would be one so mediocre that it fails to engage on any level with its audience, and is therefore impossible to sit through: I can think of several that fall into that category, British, Italian, and American, both horror and non-horror, and The Monster Club certainly isn’t one of them. Even its most vociferous attackers seem to have managed to see it all, and will admit they like at least one segment. The music seems to be for some a bone of contention- but again, if you choose not to, or simply can’t see, the fun factor inherent in BA Robertson swathed in blue and white makeup yelping “I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love”, can’t appreciate the lung-power of Stevie Lange as she and her band Night shriek the sordid tale of “The Stripper” (complete with imaginative animation featuring stripping of quite a different kind, although which of the two options is more suited to family viewing is open to discussion) or find yourself unmoved by those harmonies and scything guitars- albeit with cod-reggae backing- on Britsploitation legends the Pretty Things’ title track, then you’re probably of such a sour, cynical and unreachable predisposition that I wonder what you’re doing watching a film like this to begin with.
Come on, you knew what you were letting yourself in for. And we haven’t even mentioned the ludicrous pay-off (which actually contains several pointed comments on the state of the human race even more relevant now than then), Price and Carradine’s attempts at dancing, nor the former’s unequalled foray into mock-reggae toasting (“a shaddy and a maddy will produce a raddy, a raddy and a maddy will produce a caddy”), or however it goes, yet. But if your mind’s already made up, what’s the point?
If, on the other hand, like me, you think that all London clubs should look like this (when not resembling something out of Rock Follies), especially near to Christmas, and are still seriously considering setting one up- masks available at the door, although in the end, hopefully, the real monsters will get wind of it- then I don’t have to explain it to you, as you already understand. As the late Mr Hayes used to say in his Fontana Ghost Book prefaces: “happy shuddering”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.