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Monday, January 15, 2018

The Monster Club (1981) review


Vincent Price (Eramus), John Carradine (R. Chetwynd Hayes), Donald Pleasence (Pickering), Stuart Whitman (Sam), Richard Johnson (Busotsky's father), Britt Ekland (Busotsky's mother), Barbara Kellerman (Angela), Simon Ward (George), Anthony Valentine (Mooney), Patrick Magee (Innkeeper), Anthony Steel (Lintom Busotsky), James Laurenson (Raven), Geoffrey Bayldon (Psychiatrist)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker

The Short Version: The last of the Amicus productions (well, in spirit, anyway) is a three piece orchestra of horror built around a punk rock disco of the film's title patronized by the monster underground crowd. Actually, it looks more like a club full of people wearing department store masks. Groovy at times, but with sparks of unrealized creativity, the songs are much better than you'd expect even if the movie isn't. Barely resembling the book it's based on (one story isn't from the book at all), Baker and company manage to wrangle a meager amount of humor, but virtually none of the author's dark wit. Carradine and Price seem to be having a grand time hosting this club; although for viewers, it's a mixed drink lacking the proper amount of ingredients.

A hungry vampire receives a light, late-night snack from his favorite horror author, and repays him for the drink by offering a lifetime supply of horror stories. This neverending series of volumes are found within the Monster Club, an arcane establishment where the drinks run red and the clientele are anything but human.

Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Chetwynd-Hayes, Baker's primarily kid-friendly movie captures very little of the whimsy and black humor present in the book; failing to sink its teeth into the author's witty style. Hayes creates a perfect balance between blood-curdling horror and macabre humor while the movie version drives a wooden stake through it. Curiously, one of the segments isn't even from Hayes's book but from a previous collection of the authors' vampire stories.

Released in March of 1976, 'The Monster Club' contained five tales interwoven between a prologue, an epilogue, and four Monster Club interludes. It's written in a format perfect for a filmic adaptation. Not surprisingly, this is yet another case where the book is better than the movie. Baker's work has some qualities of its own, but Hayes's source material is far more expansive. Possibly had it been made during the height of the omnibus craze, THE MONSTER CLUB would've fared better. Unfortunately, a horror anthology for kids seemed terribly out of place in 1981 surrounded by slashers vying to out-splatter one another.

The wraparound segment--suitably the most lively of the bunch--takes place within the title discotheque. In the book, the main human character is named Donald McCloud. For his celluloid counterpart, John Carradine plays the author himself, R. Chetwynd-Hayes. The author (who died in 2001) was reportedly not very pleased with the treatment of his material, nor the choice of Carradine playing him because of his age. At the time, Carradine was 74 and Hayes was 61. As a gag, Hayes had put producer Milton Subotsky in his book, but in the form of an anagram as Lintom Busotsky; So Milton returned the favor by turning Donald McCloud into the author.

On a side note, there's another Amicus reference from Hayes in 'Monster Club Interlude 3' to director Kevin Connor. Referred to as an "up and coming director", his name is turned into an anagram as Vinke Rocnner; a Ghoul asks, "Has anyone seen his From Behind the Tombstone?" Incidentally, Kevin Connor had directed FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, a 1974 Amicus portmanteau based on stories from R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

When Milton Subotsky split from his Amicus partner Max J. Rosenberg in 1975, he set up Sword and Sorcery Productions. The intention was to shoot an ambitious project based on Lin Carter's Thongor character. While that gestated for the next few years, Subotsky tried to get a number of other projects made but most never got off the ground. Unfortunately, Thongor and the Valley of Demons was among the vanquished productions (Click HERE for an article on that aborted production). Further, the failure of THE MONSTER CLUB was the end of S&S Productions.

Going back to THE MONSTER CLUB, the initial scenes in the disco are surprisingly fun; even if the monster masks are painfully obvious. They're supposed to be genuine monsters, but the effect is ruined by the dance floor bits by giving the impression we're witnessing little more than a masquerade. The songs are much better than you'd expect; and arguably the film's greatest strength. A highlight is a stripper literally taking it all off, turning into a skeleton in silhouette after removing her skin behind a screen. These attempts at capturing the book's black humor offsets the fakery of the club's monstrous patrons... to a degree. Vincent Price carries these scenes, keeping the undead revelry alive with his jovial delivery.

While THE MONSTER CLUB is lax in the monster department, it succeeds in others like the set decoration and locations. It makes it look more expensive than it really is. This is especially apparent in the stories themselves; with emphasis on the first and last tales. If you've read the novel, the movie is a clogged artery in comparison. Rich in its descriptions of each creature's lineage, the movie never quite comes close to matching the gore grandiose of Hayes's writing. The mythologies are remarkably detailed so it's a shame the film version doesn't follow suit. The stories (the two from the book that are served up) share but a sliver of their sources, which is doubly disappointing. The theme of isolation is shared by all three and exclusive to the movie version. With more money pumped into it, THE MONSTER CLUB could've been a classic of the omnibus form.

As for the stories....

THE SHADMOCK: Angela, a financially emaciated woman, is pressured by her boyfriend to take a job working for a wealthy recluse named Raven; who happens to be a strange hybrid creature called a Shadmock. Initially terrified of him, Angela develops a friendship with the eccentric millionaire. The lonely Raven eventually proposes to Angela. Her boyfriend convinces her to accept so she can lay claim to his riches.

As scripted, 'The Shadmock' is akin to the sort of "just desserts" you'd find in an EC horror comic. Unfortunately, it greatly deviates from the source material. The above synopsis is virtually unrecognizable to what Hayes had written. This is a shame, too, because the original story is morbidly mounted with only the most jet-black of humor riding shotgun. The actual story deals with a bickering couple of repute, Sheridan and Caroline Croxley, who are spending a weekend retreat at one of the family estates. What the Croxley's don't know is that the help are a literal family of monsters; and what awaits this unhappy couple is anything but rest and relaxation.

Before we continue, we should take a momentary step back; the 2nd tale in 'The Monster Club' is titled 'The Mock'. That story correlates with this one in relation to the creatures. In that story, the Mock (a polite word for Mongrel) is a bullied youngster who, along with his mother, wish to raise their monstrous patriarch from the grave. Well, actually from the bathtub from which he drained (you'll have to read the book to get the full backstory). From there, the young monster is to undergo a change much like an adolescent enters into puberty.

The types of monsters in 'The Mock' populate this one, but the emphasis is on the Shadmock--which is mentioned in the earlier tale in the novel. The name of the monster in the book is Marvin, but in the movie he's called Raven. To bring the Shadmock to celluloid life, the filmmakers have sort of combined a few features from some of these lower level hybrid monsters. In the book, Marvin the Shadmock is a handsome man, sort of the male version of Marilyn Munster; only Marvin possesses a deadly method of dispatch when he whistles. 

His filmic counterpart is the exact opposite. The onscreen Shadmock is just a pale, lovelorn guy with minimal makeup. Much is made over how "terrifying" he is, but this is an exaggeration; the character looks more like a guy who doesn't get out in the sun too often and there's nothing overly monstrous about that. Still, as much as this deviates from Hayes's story, the exposition of Raven is well-handled. One holdover from the novel is the Shadmock's love of gardening; but what he does in the garden is missing from Baker's version.

THE VAMPIRES: Bullied at school, a lonely boy has little interaction with his eccentric father who, when he asks why he doesn't play with him during the day says, "I vurk during ze night". It's not hard to discern what his profession is. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard's B Squad (the Blood Squad), vampire hunters investigating assorted blood crimes, are tracking a particularly clever bloodsucker. Upon finally locating his whereabouts B Squad's Chief Pickering (he's staked over 2,000 vamps!) learns the joke's on him. "Bevare of men carrying violin cases!"

Easily the weakest of this cryptic trifecta, this second segment wasn't even among the five MC stories, but based on 'My Mother Married A Vampire'--taken from Hayes's 1978 horror short collection, 'The Cradle Demon'. The 1st story in Hayes's book, 'The Werewolf and the Vampire' would've been far more suitable. The theme of love--grim as it is--is in there so it would've shared that with the film version of 'The Shadmock'; as is the isolation of the boy. The title is self-descriptive about a man bitten by a werewolf becoming one himself prior to meeting a young lady with the whitest of pallor and parents to match. Throw in a determined priest with a young boy learned in exterminating creatures of the night and you have yet another missed opportunity for the film version; budgetary reasons being the likely culprit.

Having never read the original story outside of a plot description that seems to stick to the authors intentions, what makes it onscreen has very little blood in the veins. Not even Donald Pleasence or Richard Johnson can rejuvenate this anemic segment. The humor is juvenile, the angle of the lonely son is abandoned after it's introduced, and there's no horror to speak of; it's just horrible.

THE GHOULS: A horror film director, frustrated over a lack of suitable locations to shoot his exteriors, decides to go it solo and find the perfect place to make his horror movie. He gets more than he bargained for when he goes off-highway to a remote, fog-enshrouded village by the name of Loughville (an anagram for Ghoulville).

In the novel, this story is titled 'The Humgoo', the progeny of a Ghoul with a human; so this tale has the most sinister air about it. The film changes the title to lay emphasis on the Ghouls; yet the novel prefers focus on Luna, another creature of isolation and loneliness. Other alterations include changing the name of the book's main human character to Sam (a movie director); while he's Gerald Mansfield (a mere traveler) in the novel. These Ghouls are the closest to Hayes's source, but there are differences and, understandably, whole morsels tossed aside. Some of these discarded bits are anything but gristle, though.

The Grand Guignol repartee in the Loughville Inn when Gerald first arrives is evaporated for Baker's movie; instead getting quickly down to business once Sam reaches the spooky hamlet. Dispensing with this building sense of dread does hurt the segment, but the atmosphere makes up for this shortcoming. Upon discovering the inhabitants are Ghouls, the Humgoo of the story--a young girl named Luna--explains "the great eating", a festival of sorts where the cannibalistic creatures feast on corpses brought to them by The Elders, a mysterious bunch mentioned only once in the movie version. Luna imparts to Sam that these flesh-gobblers bury their victims alive till they die, then dig them up for their succulent preparation.

In the book and movie Gerald is captured; but one of the story's most intense sequences is shaved away. Stripped naked and buried alive, Gerald manages to escape certain death thanks to the easily tired ghouls not burying him deep enough. Another section where a hungry young cannibal discovers their fresh meal has gotten away sends shivers down the spine. 

However, much of the dialog in Hayes's story is faithfully recreated in Baker's movie. One of these is a sequence where our hero discovers the skeletal remains of the town's priest, the last survivor before the ghouls descended and devoured the residents. Sam reads the last page of his diary which divulges what happened there. Instead of the traditional flashback, we get the priest's voice backing a series of ghoulish drawings--the work of British artist, John Bolton. Bolton's work also graced a 30 page comic book adaptation; the cover of which is seen behind the end credits (as well as gracing the cover of the Valancourt Books edition from 2013).

The story's ending is basically the same as the movie, but is different in that there are no police Ghouls escorting Sam back to his doom. It's the Elders, a wealthy bunch that keeps the creatures satiated with fresh food.

Last call in THE MONSTER CLUB consists of Vincent Price elucidating a speech about how horrible Humes are (humans) compared to monsters. This oration is in Hayes's book, but where it's different is in the closing moments. Both Price and Carradine get down and boogie with the club creeps before the credits roll. Without giving anything away, Hayes closed his novel on a much darker tone; a tone that the movie largely avoids.

The producers thought they had a surefire hit on their hands, going so far as to commission a movie tie-in novel based on the screenplay and an aforementioned 30 page comic book illustrated by British artist John Bolton. None of this helped the movie make any money. Still, despite is failure, the picture has garnered a small cult following over the years. Looking at it today, it's painfully underwhelming but sparks of ingenuity are there, intermittently spread about the films near 100 minutes. One of these areas of brilliance is in the soundtrack.

Arguably the movie's strong suit, the music is overwhelmingly impressive. Not content with a single composer, the ambitiousness is notable in three separate musical stylists; and then there's the rockin' musical numbers like the club anthem, 'Monsters Rule, Okay!'. Douglas Gamley's romantically tragic compositions for 'The Shadmock' are played by American motion picture composer John Williams. John Georgiadis delivers a beautiful, violin-driven score for the 2nd segment; basing it on Transylvanian folk melodies, it's the sole point of interest in this tired blood tale. Alan Hawkshaw's Humgoo haunter is an electronic number that suits the third and most satisfying story of the movie.

If you're a fan, Scorpion Releasing's bluray is a must-own. Even if you're not too keen on the flick, this is one of the most gorgeous presentations of a niche title ever put to disc. Looking like it was made yesterday, the movie may be lackluster, but the producers of this blu obviously put a great deal of care into it. With that said, the film actually benefits from the amount of clarity; giving it a more polished pallor than it likely had during its theatrical release. Mostly mediocre with spatterings of innovation, some viewers will pass on obtaining membership to this CLUB while others will gladly patronize this monstrous establishment. Overall, Monsters Rule, but this movie is just Okay.

Specs and Extras: New 1.78:1 16x9 anamorphic HD transfer; Watch in Nightmare Theater Mode; 62 minute interview with Vincent Price from 1987; 40 minute audio interview between David Del Valle and Price; On-camera interview with David Del Valle; Original trailer; Isolated ME track; liner notes; running time: 01:37:39


Steven Millan said...

An interesting fact about this film: Klaus Kinski was originally approached for a role in this film,but Kinski asked for too much money(although it was never known just which role[in the film]it was). And yes,this fact is very truer(since I read about it in a 1980 film magazine[a magazine whose name currently eludes me]).

Joseph Reid said...

I am frustrated with IMDB who usually give a full consise cast list to outline many uncredited actors in each movie review..yet for this movie the list is very thin on the ground. There are a good few actors during the final segment 'HUMGOO' that do not get a mention in the list at all. The woman coming down the stairs in a sexy seethrough negligee holding the candle and the man who shows Sam the map of locations for his shooting are not in the list. The man may not be hard to locate in other ventures as i have seen him before but the female has me stumped. I did at first think she could be be a young'Amanda Donohoe'? Please help.

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