The Monster Club
An overlooked portmanteau?
Huw Lloyd presents his argument in defence of the 1981 horror anthology, The Monster Club…
I love a portmanteau film, plain and simple. But what is that, I hear you ask? Quite simply it’s a collection of two or more short films linked by a theme. Usually with a host forming a bridge between the films and providing some form of continuity.
As horror fans, many of us automatically jump to the sterling work of the British production company Amicus Productions (1962 -1977), who produced some of the most memorable works in this sub-genre of horror with titles such Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, Freddie Francis), The House that Dripped Blood (1971, Peter Duffell) and Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker).
Whereas these amazing films went on to gain well-respected positions in the pantheon of horror cinema, one film appears to have slipped under the radar and often gets overlooked or simply forgotten – 1981’s The Monster Club. Produced by Milton Subotsky following the demise of Amicus, The Monster Club could be regarded as Subotsky’s final fling with Amicus’s house style. Sadly, it was a flop at the box office and roundly battered by the critics at the time. Eventually, though, The Monster Club found a place on home video and began to gather a small following. It was here, as a young impressionable horror nerd, I discovered the film sat on a dusty shelf at my local video shop.
So then, what is The Monster Club about? Directed by one of my all-time favourite directors, Roy Ward Baker, the man behind Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967). The Vampire Lovers (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970) alongside several Amicus titles, the premise of The Monster Club is a fictionalised encounter between real-life horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes played by John Carradine and Vincent Prices’s vampire, Erasmus. As a side note, this was the only time that Vincent Price would play a vampire in his distinguished horror career.
As payment for being such a good sport about being bitten, Erasmus takes the bewildered author along to his favourite nightspot and regales him with three stories of the macabre. This is one of The Monster Club‘s Marmite moments. Once inside the club, we are treated to an assortment of creatures., though if you think you are going to be treated with Jack Pierce-quality monster makeup, you will be disappointed. Instead, inside is a series of rubber masks and leotards. We do, however, get the first of a number of fantastic musical interludes. The first being Monsters Rule O.K. by The Viewers, an insanely catchy song that I found myself singing for days after.
We then come to the first of our stories, ‘The Shadmock‘, the tragic tale of Angela, played by Barbara Kellerman. Under duress from her criminal boyfriend (Simon Ward) she answers an advertisement for a housekeeper/sectorial job to the reclusive Raven, a half-human creature known as a Shadmock, played by veteran New Zealand actor James Laurenson. Low-and-behold, Raven falls in love and proposes to Angela, who reluctantly accepts in order to gain access to the safe that contains Raven’s fortune which she intends to rob at their engagement party.
Of all the stories in The Monster Club, this is the goriest with some great face-melting on offer. James Laurenson is superb as Raven, channelling his inner Phantom of the Opera, combining both the vulnerable and psychotic to create a truly tragic creature.
Before the next instalment, we’re treated to Sucker For Your Love, another musical number performed by BA Robertson who would go on to write The Living Years for Mike and the Mechanics. Horror comes in many forms, my friends. The middle tale in the portmanteau often tends to be the weakest and this is very much the case here in ‘The Vampires‘, despite the casting of screen legends Britt Ekland and Donald Pleasence. Here we meet Lintom, a timid boy who is bullied at school and misses his father, who works nights. The young Lintom is told to be watchful of strangers – in particular, men carrying violin cases. As it turns out that his father is a vampire and has been on the run from the Bleeney. Yes, that’s right, the Bleeney, a none-too-subtle play on the British television series, The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78).
The Bleeny is a branch of the government whose purpose is the hunting of vampires and have tracked the boy’s vampiric father to the pleasant, unassuming semi-detached in middle-England. As comic relief section of the film, some of the gags land with excellent timing and fall firmly into the realm of silly slapstick. Others, not so much. Fortunately, it doesn’t hang around too long and is certainly not a bore.
As The Monster Club moves into its final story we reach the third musical number, and my personal favourite, The Stripper, performed by Night. Here, we are treated to the fantastic vocals of Stevie Lange. This is a great sequence involving a cheeky burlesque performance that merges into an animated sequence in which the performer not only removes her clothes but her skin too.
The last story, ‘The Ghouls‘, is the strongest overall and the best, delving into folk horror territory in a long-forgotten part of England. We follow filmmaker Sam, played by Stuart Whitman, who is looking for a suitable location for his next film, setting out on his mission only to turn off the motorway, through the swirling fog (never a good sign!) and end up in a village that appears trapped in time. Sam meets the village innkeeper played by the brilliant character actor, Patrick Magee.
As the segment progresses, Sam discovers the locals are hell-bent on stopping him from leaving. Mobbed by the village and locked in a room, he is brought food by the innkeeper’s daughters, Luna (fans of British soap opera Emmerdale will recognise a very young Lesley Dunlop as the Hum-ghoul). On the advice of Luna, Sam manages to take refuge in the church where he discovers the grizzly history of the village and the fate of its inhabitants. There is a genuine sense of dread and claustrophobia in this story and it certainly has enough to suggest that in another life, it could have been developed into a feature.
Is The Monster Club perfect? Absolutely not. If you can overlook its rubber masks, silly humour and many other imperfections, however, you will find a wonderful slice of eccentric British horror filmmaking, a curious late-period vehicle for John Carradine and, of course, Vincent Price hamming it up deliciously as only Vincent Price can.