Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)

(UK - 1981)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker.  Written by Edward and Valerie Abraham.  Cast: Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence, John Carradine, Stuart Whitman, Richard Johnson, Barbara Kellermann, Britt Ekland, Simon Ward, Anthony Valentine, Patrick Magee, Anthony Steel, James Laurenson, Geoffrey Bayldon, Warren Saire, Lesley Dunlop, Fran Fullenwider, The Viewers, B.A. Robertson, Night, The Pretty Things. (Unrated, 98 mins)

Anthology, or portmanteau horror films weren't a new concept when they became hugely popular in the 1960s.  1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, anchored by the classic ventriloquist dummy segment with Michael Redgrave, established the template, Roger Corman's Poe anthology TALES OF TERROR (1962) was a big hit, and TV series such as ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE got fans accustomed to compact, 30-minute stories.  But when the British company Amicus, led by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, produced 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, the style really took off, generating many similar, frequently star-studded anthology outings with titles like TORTURE GARDEN (1967), THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970), ASYLUM (1972), TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) and THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973).  By the mid-1970s, the subgenre's popularity began to fade, with lesser titles like TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) and FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) paling in comparison to the anthology's heyday.  With shocking horror films like THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE OMEN (1976) rendering classic horror passé with 1970s moviegoers, the omnibus film of the Amicus sort quietly faded away, much like Amicus itself as Subotsky (1921-1991) and Rosenberg (1914-2004) parted ways in the mid-1970s.  Similar to the in-name-only resurrection of the legendary British horror house Hammer, the Amicus name would be revived in the 2000s, but we haven't heard much from it other than Stuart Gordon's STUCK (2008) and the atrocious 2009 remake of Larry Cohen's 1974 cult classic IT'S ALIVE.  As far as the British anthologies go, a few stragglers wandered in, like 1977's Canadian/British feline-centric collection THE UNCANNY, but by this time, audiences moved on.

Made during a period when theaters were filled with gory, post-HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher films and the groundbreaking special effects of ALIEN, THE HOWLING, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and featuring a cast of geriatric and/or past-their-prime actors, it's little wonder that the tardy anthology THE MONSTER CLUB failed to attract a US distributor, going straight to syndicated TV and appearing on VHS a few years later.  An Amicus production in every way except by name, THE MONSTER CLUB, recently released in a beautiful transfer on Blu-ray and DVD by Scorpion, was an adaptation of three stories in British horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes' 1975 collection of the same name.  Directed by Amicus and Hammer vet Roy Ward Baker, the film stars John Carradine as Chetwynd-Hayes, who's bitten by an affable vampire named Eramus (Vincent Price) and taken to the secret Monster Club, a hangout for ghouls, monsters, and new-wave bands, where Eramus tells him three horrific stories to inspire his writing.  In the first, Simon Ward is a scheming shitbag who badgers his girlfriend (Barbara Kellermann) into answering a newspaper ad seeking someone to help catalog a library, figuring there's expensive goodies to steal and fence.  The homeowner (James Laurenson), a sensitive, lonely shut-in, turns out to be a "shadmock," a supernatural creature who emits a lethal whistling sound when angered.  In the more comedic second tale, Richard Johnson is a vampire quietly going about his nocturnal routine as his loving wife (Britt Ekland) keeps his secret even from their bullied son (Warren Saire).  The son has been befriended by a concerned priest (Donald Pleasence), who's really the leader of a squad of vampire hunters from the government's "Blood Crimes" unit.  The final story has a frustrated movie director (Stuart Whitman) location-scouting for a gothic horror film and stumbling on a creepy village populated by grave-desecrating, cannibalistic ghouls led by Patrick Magee (in one of his last roles) and figuring out too late that he's their next intended feast.

Occasionally eerie but never taking itself very seriously, THE MONSTER CLUB certainly won't go down as an essential British anthology horror flick, but even with some cheesy humor and some dated songs, time has been surprisingly kind to it.  While there might not have been a place for it in American movie theaters in 1981, TV audiences were much more welcoming with it, likely because young horror fans were already watching movies with Price and Carradine (and Karloff, Lugosi, Lee, Cushing, etc) on Saturday afternoon and late-night "Creature Features."  There's nothing in the way of gore other than one rather icky result of a shadmocking, and even some near-nudity gets obscured and turned into an animated joke.  In those respects, it's quaintly old-fashioned, but also nothing that 1981 audiences wanted to see on the big screen.  The biggest concession THE MONSTER CLUB makes to "the kids" is the inclusion of some extended musical interludes featuring songs by UB40 and onscreen appearances by the short-lived Night, and The Pretty Things, who had just reunited and contributed the title track as Price and Carradine can be seen busting moves on the Monster Club's dance floor (with Price almost grinding on a large actress named Fran Fullenwider).  Carradine seems a bit miscast and more than a little bewildered (Peter Cushing would've been perfect; Christopher Lee was approached for the role and reportedly declined when he heard the title), but Price is clearly having fun with his sole big-screen appearance as a vampire.

While some of THE MONSTER CLUB's humor is corny by design (especially in the second story, though the predicament Pleasence ultimately finds himself in is a rather ingenious development that's legitimately laugh-out-loud funny), some of it is surprisingly witty, with Price's vampire complaining that his kind find it hard to do their thing because of so many horror movies ruining things for them ("Everybody knows about garlic and stakes through the heart!"), and when Anthony Steel appears as a producer of vampire films named "Lintom Busotsky," Carradine exclaims "A vampire film producer?" to which Price quips "Aren't they all?"  There's also some unexpectedly sharp and cynical social commentary near the end when Price's Eramus nominates Chetwynd-Hayes to become the Monster Club's newest member, explaining that humans, with their guns, their wars, their anger, and their endless bloodlust and propensity for murder, are perhaps the biggest monsters of all.  None of this is to say that THE MONSTER CLUB is filled with deep insight, but it is better than its reputation as the last gasp of a dying subgenre.  Anthology films didn't go away--they just changed shape:  George A. Romero's CREEPSHOW was in theaters the next year, Price would similarly appear in the wraparound segments of the much more grisly 1987 horror omnibus THE OFFSPRING (aka FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), and more recently, the two V/H/S films and THE ABCs OF DEATH have found an audience with newer and apparently more lenient horror fans.  But THE MONSTER CLUB was the last of its kind: the British portmanteau rooted in classic horror.  Fittingly, it was also the last feature film directed by Baker (1916-2010), whose career began with Hollywood fare like the Marilyn Monroe thriller DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952).  He's best known among serious cineastes for the Titanic classic A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958), but not long after that, he became a go-to horror guy for Hammer and Amicus, helming such genre favorites as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967) and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), among many others.  After THE MONSTER CLUB, Baker moved into British television until retiring in the early 1990s.  Late in his life and still sharp and full of stories, he contributed several commentary tracks on DVD releases of some of his classic horror films.

Scorpion's Blu-ray, framed at 1.78, really is the best this film has ever looked (despite their usual packaging typos, like "R. Chetwood-Hayes" and "Milton Dubotsky"), and it features two outstanding extras courtesy of journalist/historian/close Price friend David Del Valle, including an audio interview and an hour-long, career-spanning 1987 interview for Del Valle's public access show THE SINISTER IMAGE. Price, taking a little time to plug Lindsay Anderson's just-released THE WHALES OF AUGUST, is very much the elegant raconteur here, candidly talking about his classic films and his old and, in some cases, departed Hollywood friends.  This same interview, previously released as its own DVD by Image, is featured on Shout Factory's upcoming Price box set from his AIP/Poe days.

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