Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XVI): The Monster Club (1981) dir. Roy Ward Baker

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of a final anthology film produced by Amicus's Milton Subotsky, THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)

GR: Well. Here we are.

We’re in THE MONSTER CLUB (1981), to be precise, and oh boy is it the happenin’ place to be on a dark and chilly night when you got time to kill and want to share a drink with a fiend. The film is both the most and least appropriate to leave off on during a conversation concerning Amicus Studios. It has all the macabre, darkly witty qualities of the company’s former films, combining garish horror with a satirically pointed look at the very same conventions that they had built their reputation upon. Vampires leer with goofy fangs, creatures and critters dance with wild abandon, and a fellow who appears to be a Jewish werewolf comedian all lighten the air with their wink-wink, nudge-nudge mannerisms and hamminess. Its trio of terror tales is uniformly good to great, delivering solid thrills, innovative twists on old mainstays, and atmosphere as thick as London fog that would make any avid viewer’s black heart flutter.

It also brings a creative team together from the company’s old days that is swoon-worthy: a group of thespians including Vincent Price, John Carradine and Donald Pleasance; composer Douglas Gamley back at the bandstand; Roy Ward Baker (ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS) directing; a script based on the short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, the scribe who provided the sources for Amicus’ previous portmanteau FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974); and even ol’ smiling Milton Subotsky is back as one the producers. THE MONSTER CLUB is in every way a triumph and a perfect swan song for Amicus.

Except it’s not an Amicus movie.

As you alluded to in your earlier post, THE MONSTER CLUB is in no way, shape, or form a product of Subotsky’s and Max Rosenberg’s brainchild, rather a joint picture made under the strange entities known as Chips Productions and Sword and Sorcery Productions. It’s very true that it brings back many of the company’s members for this little ghastly jamboree, but THE MONSTER CLUB is not in fact a card-carrying member of the studio that dripped blood. This is a point that undoubtedly surprises a lot of folks, because the film feels like the genuine package so much that it’s hard not to imagine it sitting amongst the shelves with DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and TORTURE GARDEN (1967). And sure, if we had wanted to be sticklers about it, we could have excluded THE MONSTER CLUB and just ended this mini-blogathon with THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974). But, honestly, doesn’t that just sound depressing when you read it? THE MONSTER CLUB is truly an Amicus film in spirit, and that’s all that matters to me.

And in a way THE MONSTER CLUB points the way toward the new generation, namely in its wraparound segments, the vibrant life blood of youth coursing through the synthesized notes of the musical numbers that fuse punk and glam and Gothic into a heady mix that is just too good to resist. The headquarters of the eponymous society itself are sweeter than gargoyle lollipops (try them sometime), a pad that looks like it was hastily adorned with trappings from the nearest Spencer’s Gifts shop to make it look as “spooky” as possible, a set from a horror host’s program infused with a neon, late-night party atmosphere. It’s a glorious world that the vampire Eramus (Price) and his favorite author Chetwynd-Hayes (Carradine) reside in. Here is a place where the writer’s works, all in lurid paperback editions, are proudly displayed in a bookstore’s window. And not only do humans enjoy reading Chetwynd-Hayes’ shudder stories, but the monsters get a kick out of it too! This is a world where horror flourishes, a plane of existence that practically thrives on it and where everyone loves it unremittingly. When I die, I hope my soul goes to the disco spookhouse that is THE MONSTER CLUB, a place where I can strip my skin away to reveal the gyrating skeleton underneath or shake my booty in a rubber Halloween mask as I please.

I think you’re going to need to take it over from here. They’re playing my song…

NT: THE MONSTER CLUB is probably the only film in cinematic history bearing the credit of “Music by John Williams and UB40.” Oh, sure, the “John Williams” in question is an Australian guitarist, not the noted American composer, but the juxtaposition of the names and the associations they evoke is nonetheless appropriate: this final quasi-Amicus production is classic English horror of the ‘60s and ‘70s dressed up in the spandex and oversize blazers of the ‘80s. It’s a creaky Gothic castle redecorated as a punk rock club. The sight of old horror fogies like Vincent Price and John Carradine being given VIP treatment at a youth hot spot while electric guitars blare over the soundtrack proves that you’re right: this is an alternate world we’re visiting.

Each of THE MONSTER CLUB’s three segments (while maybe a touch goofier than usual) would have no real trouble fitting into the fold of any prior Amicus-produced anthology. However, one could not say this of the film’s wraparound segments, which mostly take place in the eponymous nightclub and could almost better be called “musical interludes.” The brightly hued, hip environs and patrons and upbeat, jocular tone of these segments is totally at odds with everything Amicus ever produced previous to this moment. This commingling of old storytelling sensibilities and glossy modern aesthetics is jarring, particularly because of the inability or disinterest on the part of Baker, Subotsky, Chetwynd-Hayes, et al. to blend these disparate parts into a unified whole. Instead, we’re provided with three typically pulpy Amicus horror tales punctuated by rock songs about vampire romance and weekend skeleton stripteases. I honestly don’t know what to make of it.

We could call it callous marketing. Perhaps the intention was to wrangle some final dollars out of the tired Amicus anthology formula by appealing to teenaged audiences through surface-deep appropriations of youth culture. Or, maybe the intention was to garner the interest of children through corny vampire humor. Without the checks and balances of his partnership with Max Rosenberg, Subotsky infects the film with an unadulterated strain of the childish glee and fascination with storybook monsters that we’ve endured previously in a more subdued fashion in the earlier anthologies. Third option: maybe what we see in the film is no more than these once-Amicus, now-ancient filmmakers following (or attempting to follow) the natural trends of horror in the 1980s towards the frivolous and excessive. Hell if I know. THE MONSTER CLUB feels at moments like all of these reasons and none of these reasons are responsible for its genesis.

Moreover, this confusion of intention produces a tonal inconsistency that throws into question our perception of every last thing we see on screen. Example: The many scenes of the titular rock club feature shots of sundry creatures in dime store Halloween masks who are bobbing and thrashing about to the tunes being played on stage, as if they populated a low-rent Mos Eisley Cantina. At no point is it made apparent to us whether or not we should be accepting those masks for the fleshy and furry faces of actual monsters. That’s the sort of diegetic limbo the film places us in throughout, somewhere between earnest worldbuilding and ludicrous spoof.

Re-watching the film has revealed to me that my feelings have cooled a bit since my last viewing. It’s a charming film, certainly, and (as I’ve touched on above) it’s uniquely bewildering, but it’s also pretty far from the best anthology that Amicus (or those persons directly related to Amicus) has to offer. As noted, tonal inconsistency is an issue, but worse yet is that the second segment (or, the entire middle section of the film) is utterly forgettable. (I should know; I’d forgotten it!) Still, THE MONSTER CLUB’s unmitigated juvenile enthusiasm for its subject matter carries it farther than you might expect. How can one quibble with the opening anthem’s declaration that “Monsters Rule, OK!”? Some things are obviously true.

GR: It’s too bad that George Pal had already called “Dibs!” on the title WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), because the dichotomy between the music video-jive of the wraparound segment and the hoary, Old World theatrics of the actual vignettes in THE MONSTER CLUB is pretty stunning. While Halloween-masked boogiers get funky on the dance floor, Eramus regales us with tales of shuttered misfit monsters, Borscht Belt bloodsuckers, and fog-shrouded ghoulery. Peanut butter and chocolate it most certainly is not, and yet I find it to be a delicious concoction nevertheless. Sure the two thematic worlds on presentation here could hardly be any more different to each other, but they’re both individually fun and full of their own special appeal that the big clanging noise they make when they run into each other is dulled by my overwhelming affection for each of them. Sometimes I think I’m much too loving for my own good.

Our first story, “The Shadmock,” introduced to us by way of head-scratching monster genealogy, is a rather delicate little sonata that plays up the pitiful poignancy of its main character before ratcheting up the gruesome terror for its crispy dénouement. Lovers Angela (Barbara Kellerman) and George (Simon Ward) catch wind that a local, rich hermit named Raven (James Laurenson, memorable for his sinister turn in the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episode “Rude Awakening”) keeps all of his valuables and bundles of cash locked in his mansion’s safe. Sniffing prime bait for a little thievery, Angela tries laying on the charm when she applies for a general secretary/housekeeper position under Raven’s employ. However, the lady finds the gentleman’s appearance a little upsetting.

Raven is the poster child for reclusive oddballs. His skin is milky pale from prolonged periods spent indoors, his oily hair parted down the middle in choirboy fashion and the dark rings under his puppy dog eyes hinting at a restless and tortured soul. That’s because Raven is a shadmock, that most despised of bastardized monsters, a Looney Tunes caricature of creepiness fueled by an intense hunger for affection and acceptance. The shadmock, though, is not without his own set of fangs, except that his comes in the form of a banshee-like whistle, one that renders those who hear it into a pile of singed flesh.

The first segment of THE MONSTER CLUB is probably the film’s best and undoubtedly its most unique. One cannot confuse it for any of the other adapted stories from R. Chetwynd-Hayes’ Amicus resume, in this or the previous FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). It is perhaps most notable in its prevalent mood of loss and alienation. Any attempts at cheap shocks or cheesy humor are (mostly) dispelled in favor of painting a somber portrait of Laurenson’s character. In some ways this first story makes THE MONSTER CLUB feel more legitimate because it takes the time to study Raven’s monstrousness directly rather than superficially exploit it. It is the very fundamental difference between Raven and the other characters that serves as the story’s focal point. What is it that makes someone a monster? Is it an outwardly grotesque appearance? The potential or inclination to harm? Can a monster ever truly feel and, more importantly, find love?

We see that the shadmock is even an outcast amongst his own kind. During a masquerade, Raven’s fellow beasts effortlessly glide around the ballroom while he stands off to the side, a lonely island unto himself. While the other creatures here all wear similar masks, Raven’s opaque façade is especially indicative of his rank in their dark society. He is the plain, the unwanted, the unremarkable. His desperation is sharply illustrated for us when he comes upon Angela in the very act of pilfering his riches. In Raven there is neither rage nor even hurt at this betrayal occurring right before his eyes—the typical reaction of a wronged demon in this sort of story.

Instead he willingly tells Angela to take whatever treasures she wants… so long as he is able to hold on to her and have her love. It’s sickeningly sad, and the woman’s disgusted rebuke stings bitterly. Our hearts can’t help but go out to Raven as he emits his piercing whistle, tears brimming in his eyes. This is not an act of wanton vengeance. It’s pure, raw hurt. The image of the charred Angela advancing on George that caps off the story loses a bit of its punch because of this, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The episode’s truly devastating moment has already come to pass.

The next story is “The Vampires.” Talk about your highs and lows. Now, I don’t necessarily hate “The Vampires,” but as my family has a fondness for saying about meals that didn’t particularly wow them: “Well, you don’t have to make this for me again.” That may be a little harsher than what I really feel, but the company that the second vignette keeps with its two bookending tales can’t help but make its charms feel diminutive in comparison. Which is honestly something that I hate doing with anthology films: basing the value of one story on how it stacks up against the others. So let’s try to look “The Vampires” right in its puss and call it out for what it is.

The story, for what it’s worth, mainly concerns a young boy named Lintom Busotsky (Warren Saire, and no points for figuring out the anagram) whose father (Richard Johnson) is a creature of the night straight off the boat from the old country. Lintom himself is constantly teased at school—palely shadowing the estrangement theme from “The Shadmock”—not because he is also a genuine Nosfertau, surprisingly enough, but just for being a lanky loser in general. And yet these playground taunts are evidence enough for one Mr. Pickering (Donald Pleasance) to recognize the boy’s allegiance with the undead. Eventually the man gains the child’s trust and makes a house call one day along with some of his associates, proving to the lad that his parents were right to warn him about “men carrying violin cases.”

The most unfortunate thing about “The Vampires” is that it feels like a retread back into the old Amicus days when they tried to inject blatant shtick into their tales of horror. Or, “The Dreaded Days of the VAULT” as they’re still known amongst the villagers. We get more goofy eye-teeth here ala “The Cloak” segment from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) and Johnson goes all out as he puts on his Bela-in-the-opera-cape act for our “amusement.” It can get to be some pretty tedious stuff, all of which reaches its patience-trying apex in the tale’s climax when the vampire father reveals that he was wearing a “stake-proof vest” and a ketchup packet the whole time. To quote Johnson’s rabbi: “Oy vey!” This blatant fangfoolery deadens any potential impression that the story could leave upon our minds. To allude to an earlier comparison you made, this humor is generally not clever or innovative but rather as tired as an old, rubber chicken, thus cementing its status as generally forgettable.

There are some bits that work though. I was actually chuckling out loud when the two B-Squad members carry out the vampified and now-slain Pickering to their van, the solemn funeral dirge skipping in its track as one of the men tries to kick an errantly swinging gate door open and the long stake jutting out of the corpse’s body grinding against the floor of the vehicle as they stuff it into the back. But as you say, it’s all fairly unmemorable and were it not for the few titters it elicits from the audience it might have been hardly worth mentioning.

But let’s give three cheers to the final selection for bringing our spirits back up. “The Ghouls” does not attempt to look at monstrosity with a poetic eye or give it a jovial poke in its ribs like the two preceding tales but rather chooses to exist as a pure and wholesome example of the Saturday night creature feature. Which is to say it’s oodles of good, creepy fun. Sam (Stuart Whitman), a film director in the process of shooting his latest horror picture, decides to do some location scouting to find the perfect patch of decrepit land to serve as the backdrop to his dreary drama. And that he certainly finds in the out-of-the-way town of Loughville (see above for “no points”), a rotting hamlet just off the highway and equipped with its very own insular, rolling fog. Once there he is accosted by a skeevy, wild-haired innkeeper named Patrick Magee, his helpful and winsome daughter Luna (Lesley Dunlop), and a whole pack of rabid inhabitants who would like to have him over for dinner.

It’s nothing earth-shattering, but what I was most surprised by in re-watching this particular segment is how it breaks free of the limiting shackles that are inherent in the anthology format to become a kind of mini-movie in its own right. Once Whitman eludes the fetid claws of the hungry horde for the first time and holes up in the crumbling church with his female companion, “The Ghouls” begins to take on a slightly grander scale, echoing the type of siege pictures that genre pioneers Carpenter and Romero made so famous.

This makes “The Ghouls” both a call back to simpler horrors and an appropriation of contemporaneous genre movies all in one. On one side we have the ravenous ghouls hurling stones and cursing at our human hero, on the other the rough and tumble Whitman warding off his pursuers with a gilded crucifix. The story even has a neat bit of video game-esque worldbuilding when Whitman discovers a diary amongst the skeletal remains of the town priest chronicling the progressive invasion of the ghoul-people, complete with vivid illustrations in the style of Bernie Wrightson that paint the monsters in a more fantastic light than the dirty vagabonds that make up the murderous mob in reality. It all makes for a fairly invigorating experience, one that is punctuated by notes of both melancholy and that dark irony that short horror tales thrive on.

Ahh, I’ve become tired from my trademark wordiness yet again. I think I’ll leave the final estimation of this film in your reliable claws. I shall acquaint myself with a blood martini and listen to the next band’s set. I hear they have a killer groove.

But before I go I feel it is appropriate to raise a toast. Here’s to your tireless efforts, my friend, and here’s to the house that was Amicus.

NT: Once again, I fear you’ve unearthed my coffin-brain and scooped the exact thought and word content onto your plate, at least with regard to what I felt needed to be said about this particular picture. Well, perhaps you’ve only scooped out nearly all of my words. Like the noble Humegoo, I’ll make use of whichever dangling nouns and verbs are left in my ravaged neural network while attempting to offer some closing thoughts on these segments and the film in total. Pardon Humegoo inarticulateness. Here me go.

I think your reading of “The Shadmock” is on point. It’s the most emotional and affecting tale to come out of a Subotsky production, and it ranks as my favorite sub-half hour slice of horror we’ve discussed over these past few months. Essentially a whistling-monster infused reimagining of DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) in miniature, “The Shadmock” forces us to confront our notion of the monstrous in a way similar to how the earlier film encouraged us to reevaluate our conception of the archetypal heroic young lovers. Despite his sickly pallor, unflattering hairstyle, and combustible whistling, can we in truth call Raven a monster? Or is his monstrousness a result of his society’s labeling of him as a monster, for reasons difficult to put into words? Moreover, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to classify the callous, indifferent couple, Angela and George, as the real monsters of this piece? What makes Raven a monster in this world is his loneliness and his desperation for human (or monster) connection. The merciless nature of those around him (even the damned cat is without pity!) makes of Raven a curious, repugnant creature by contrast. To desire love, above all earthly things? Aaagh!

Though perhaps I’m a monster, too, because I couldn’t help but get a kick out of the abrupt cut the film makes from a close-up of Raven’s anguished face to a close-up of B. A. Robertson’s face snarling out the first few lines of a rock song (“Sucker for Your Love”) back at the Monster Club. No time to wallow: the party must go on. (And to note: Robertson’s twitchy performance of this ditty, filmed for its duration in that extreme facial close-up, is among my favorite moments in the film. I like to think his performance is belying the early stages of a transformation into one breed of beast or another.)

Moving on, I’ll take a pass on “The Vampire.” In my family, we have the saying “If you can’t say anything nice, make sure he isn’t wearing stake-proof vest.”

Unsurprisingly, I’m also in agreement with you on the merits of “The Ghouls.” It’s a fine segment for us to go out on, and—as is par for the course with Amicus/Subotsky—it’s as ridiculous as it is genuinely suspenseful. (As you mention, the villagers in their tattered rags and bluish complexions are a peculiarly ramshackle vision of ghoulishness. Or, as Eramus would explain, “smaller budget.”) You’ve singled out my favorite aspect of the episode by mentioning the storybook history lesson of Loughville: I found those Wrightson-esque visualizations of the ghouls to be more horrid than anything Amicus has ever given us. Initially, I was surprised to find myself being so drawn into the ghastly static narrative of this story within a story, but the terrifying power of those lined faces and limbs—doing things as innocuous as dancing or peeking out from the bed covers—repulsed me in a way the main narrative’s moving images never could. (More evidence for the power of oral and visual storytelling, right?) This brief tangent within “The Ghouls” reads a little like a Lovecraftian tale of fiendish human degeneration, and that type of story never fails to set my skin a’crawling.

After all of the above has transpired, we wind up back at the Monster Club, and we watch as Vincent Price dances and claps out of time at the front of the stage upon which The Pretty Things play some English faux-reggae. This is after he has given a long, impassioned, winking speech to the assembled creatures of the night, arguing for humanity rightful place in the ranks of monsterdom (because of all the war, genocide, and assorted murders committed by humans, you see…). This is an appropriate end to our Amicus journey. Amicus was at times ahead of the curve in the horror business, at most other times behind, and sometimes so far off the curve its point failed to register on the graph. Their productions were at times deathly serious and at times were presented with a tongue so firmly planted in cheek they risked choking on it as it slipped down their throat. Amicus tried just about everything, to varying levels of success, during its short tenure in horror cinema, and that rambunctiousness has earned my appreciation (and I’m certain it has earned yours, too). Their films were perhaps never great, but they were always game, and they were—without (much) pretension—never embarrassed to be making the sort of horror they were making, whatever its negligible artistic value. The Amicus films were, in a sense, like Vincent Price dancing to reggae. We love them an offal lot.

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