By 1980, the era of the horror star was fading fast. The painted covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland gave way to the gruesome photomontages of Fangoria. The Jaws, Halloween, Alien, Amityville and Friday the 13th franchises were underway. Auteurists were taking note of George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg and Larry Cohen. Stephen King’s novels were regularly being turned into A pictures. Ray Harryhausen’s elegant, painstaking stop-motion monster methods were supplanted by the rubber-on-the-floor work of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. Hammer may have had a House of Horror on television – in a series not actually produced by Hammer Films – but were essentially out of the business. The partners of Amicus, so named because it sounded friendly, had fallen out during the company’s run of Doug McClure-vs-dinosaurs movies and split to pursue their own interests. Milton Subotsky, the member of the team who genuinely loved fantasy and horror, founded Sword and Sorcery Productions and developed a slate of projects – including some early Stephen King stories, which showed that he was au fait with contemporary horror. Subotsky secured funds to produce The Uncanny (1977), an Amicus-style anthology, and Dominique (1978), a twisty mystery, but had less luck with ambitious projects.
Unwilling to relinquish formats that had served in the past, Subotsky put together another anthology. He trusted direction of The Monster Club to Roy Ward Baker (Asylum, 1972; The Vault of Horror, 1973) and commissioned a script from Edward and Valerie Abraham (Dominique) based on the book by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, who’d provided the source material for Amicus’ well-liked From Beyond the Grave (1974). Imagine owning the rights to Stephen King’s Night Shift and choosing to make The Monster Club. It’s as if Subotsky circa It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) had been sitting on an option for the Beatles but decided to go with Acker Bilk. As it happens, Subotsky not only wanted to revive portmanteau horror but return to his bopsical roots by filling The Monster Club with random 1980 pop turns the way he assembled the line-ups of Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956) and Just for Fun (1963). Furthermore, he envisioned a horror film ‘for children’ and a twice-the-value-of-Scream and Scream Again teaming of six great horror stars. In the event, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski passed, but Donald Pleasence, John Carradine and Vincent Price signed up (Patrick Magee did too, but apparently didn’t count as horror royalty). Not all horror icons were best-advised in the ‘70s: Cushing and Lee proved unavailable for Halloween (1978), but happily turned up in Shock Waves (1977) and Meatcleaver Massacre (1977). Pleasence cannily said yes when John Carpenter offered him Dr Loomis and become the first horror star to cross over from Famous Monsters to Fangoria. It must have piqued Subotsky that Cannon and Pete Walker were able to get Price, Lee, Cushing and Carradine – plus Sheila Keith, who was below the Amicus radar – for The House of the Long Shadows (1983). Though that, too, served mainly to rub in the fact that the times they had a-changed.
The Monster Club opens in a foggy, studiobound street as Chetwynd-Hayes (Carradine)* admires a display of his own books (and haggard author portrait) in a shop window. In a parodic gay hook-up, Chetwynd-Hayes is pounced on by trenchcoated vampire Eramus (Price). After the writer has literally been sucked off in a back alley, the elderly gents adjust their clothes and it turns out Eramus is a fan of the author of the novelisations of The Awakening and Dominique. The genial fiend takes Chetwynd-Hayes as his guest to the Monster Club, which has décor more reminiscent of a Chinese restaurant than a goth hangout. They settle down at a coffin-shaped table and a handy ‘family tree’ of monsters prompts the telling of three stories, ‘The Shadmock’ and ‘The Humgoo’ (from The Monster Club, 1975) and ‘My Mother Married a Vampire’ (from The Cradle Demon and Other Stories of Fantasy and Horror, 1978). Between episodes – we note an accurate depiction of club life as it takes an entire story for Eramus to get the drinks he’s ordered – pop acts (B.A. Robertson, the Pretty Things, Night, The Viewers, UB40) perform numbers like ‘I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love’ and ‘Monsters Rule OK’. Extras in shoddy masks (are they supposed to be masks or actual monster faces?) bump into each other while jiving on a crowded dance floor. The intent might be to evoke the cantina from Star Wars (1977), which to be fair features a couple of duff masks amid the brilliant make-up jobs … but it’s mostly embarrassing**. A tiny, animated gag has a silhouetted stripper (Suzanna Willis) peel off her clothes and her flesh to become a prancing skeleton. Baker’s horror output ranges in quality from Quatermass and the Pit (1967) to The Scars of Dracula (1971), but he can’t summon enthusiasm for the musical numbers, overusing Top of the Pops-style jittery zooms. Incidentally, given that this is a monsters-only club, are we supposed to presume none of these pop performers are human?***.
The overall theme is that regular humans are worse than monsters, illustrated in all the stories and underlined by a to-camera speech from Eramus. Some problems are baked into the source material. That monster family tree is insufferable when explained out loud (‘now, a weregoo and a werevamp would produce a shaddy, … now, a weregoo and a vamgoo would produce a maddy … but a werevamp and a vamgoo would produce a raddy … now, if a shaddy were to mate with a maddy or a raddy, the result would be a mock …’). Vincent Price overplays sinister jocularity as if a vampire drag guest spot on The Dean Martin Show or F Troop or recording the tipped-in skits and rhymes for The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. When he rattles off the speech about human monstrousness, the Pricean word stresses are disastrous; Baker should have told the star that drawing out ‘disembowelling’ is funny but doing the same for ‘extermination camps’ is tasteless. From Beyond the Grave does well by Chetwynd-Hayes’ macabre humour; here, we get Richard Johnson in a tux doing a Bela Lugosi voice and mugging through jokes about remembering to wear his ‘stake-proof vest’ while Donald Pleasence gurns like and idiot as Inspector Pickering of ‘the Bleeny’. Otherwise, the wit is on a level of Eramus saying ‘Evil Hell’ as a monster version of ‘Good Heavens’. It’s bizarre that episode two – identified in the end credits as ‘Vampire Story’ – is set up by a vampire film producer (‘I know, aren’t they all’) screening an autobiographical film … then spends a reel or so acting as if it were a mystery why Father (Johnson) isn’t around in the daytime and there’s a coffin in the basement. Despite bits from Britt Ekland, Anthony Valentine and Neil McCarthy, ‘Vampire Story’ is a strong contender for the title of Worst Episode in any Subotsky horror anthology. It’s not that a lighter moment among horrors is necessarily a mood-killer – the much-maligned golf anecdote of Dead of Night (1945) is a handy palate-cleanser between two much darker pieces – but comedy episodes really need to be funny to work.
Trace elements of quality come in the first and third stories, which actually come from The Monster Club. ‘Shadmock Story’ is an elementary EC Comics anecdote about a scheming couple, Angela (Barbara Kellerman) and George (Simon Ward), who plot to rob wealthy recluse Raven (James Laurenson), who has hidden himself away from the world because of his supposed hideousness (mostly down to lighting and a centre parting) … not realising that he’s a variety of monster who brings about horrible things when he’s driven to whistle (cue extreme close-ups of puckered lips). It’s a Tales From the Crypt riff on Robert Graves’ ‘The Shout’, but Kellerman – showing flickers of conscience as she feels pity for the mark – and Klaus Kinski-lookalike Laurenson – in the role presumably offered to Kinski – are fine. Like ‘Humegoo Story’, this takes Chetwynd-Hayes’ notion of a parallel world of monsters more seriously than the frame. When Raven announces his engagement to Angela, an assembly of masked family members who anticipate both Nightbreed (1989) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) convene for a stately, eerie ritual. In ‘Humegoo Story’, American horror film director Sam (Stuart Whitman) serves as his own location finder (who knows, maybe that’s how it worked at Amicus?). He ventures off the motorway to chance on the desolate village of Loughville. With an animated sequence providing the history of the takeover of the town by ghouls and patches of Chetwynd-Hayes’ better-quality dialogue, this is the film’s most palatable mix of black humour and horror. Loughville has some of the studio gothic atmos of The City of the Dead (1960), so Subotsky’s final horror film includes a shout out to his first. Baker stages the film’s only proper scare masterfully: a jump cut finds Sam suddenly surrounded in the village pub by pale, ravenous villagers. The protagonist is besieged by grim-faced ghouls (Magee needs minimal make-up as the inn-keeper) but aided by half-human half-ghoul ‘humegoo’ (spelling different than in the story) Luna (Lesley Dunlop), whose fate is a rare moment of pathos. That Sam exploits Luna and leaves her to die shows again that humans are inherently rotten and monsters misunderstood innocents who just happen to eat people. The barely-characterised protagonist escapes through the fog only to be picked up by fanged policemen who serve as escorts to ‘the elders’ on a visit to Loughville. As in ‘Shadmock Story’, it’s suggested that monsters not only live among us but have taken over … a chilly notion that doesn’t square with the bunch of dolts in masks down at the Monster Club itself.
American-born Subotsky had a bee in his bonnet about making an A or AA-certificate horror film, in the belief there was an untapped UK equivalent to the kiddie matinee monster movie market which thrived in America. He had been thwarted by British distributors who insisted a horror movie needed its X to be taken seriously by fans — including many thirteen year-olds who changed out of school uniform and lowered their voices to get by ticket-sellers to see the likes of Tales From the Crypt (1972). While Hammer argued with the BBFC and often had to make cuts even to get X certificates, Amicus sometimes had to add extra gore (as in The Beast Must Die) to bump the rating up into the adults-only category. With The Monster Club, Subotsky finally got his wish – an A certificate, perhaps awarded as much out of pity as in recognition of the film’s mildness. ITC put it out on a 1981 double bill with the similarly-rated The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and didn’t exactly break box office records. Stiff competition that busy horror season came from The Howling, Motel Hell (directed by From Beyond the Grave’s Kevin Connor****), Scanners and a value-for-money double bill of The Funhouse and My Bloody Valentine. e.
It was too early to be nostalgic for Amicus – though Romero’s Creepshow (1982), scripted by (of course) Stephen King, was a tribute to the source comics for Tales From the Crypt and proved the Subotsky formula could work in the 1980s … which was probably little comfort to a producer left standing on the dock while ships he had built in his mind for decades sailed off to fortune and glory.
*Ron Chetwynd-Hayes noted with some bitterness that Subotsky cast gnarly, arthritic, doddering John Carradine as him but had distinguished, velvet-voiced former matinee idol Anthony Steel play ‘Lintom Busotsky’.
**The John Bolton production art under the end credits shows just how far the realisation of this scene falls short of what the filmmakers hoped for.
***The pop music may be naff, but the episodes have interesting, unusual scores co-ordinated by Graham Walker, which get prominent individual billing in the end credits: ‘Shadmock Story’ has music composed by Douglas Gamley, performed by John Williams (the guitar guy not the Star Wars guy), with themes from Gabriel Fauré and Johann Strauss; ‘Vampire Story’ has music composed and played by John Georgiadis, based on Transylvanian folk melodies; ‘Humgoo Story’ has electronic music composed and performed by Alan Hawkshaw.
****Chetwynd-Hayes’ The Monster Club features up and coming monster filmmaker ‘Vinke Rocnnor’, director of From Behind the Tombstone.