Ed. note– This is one whacky portmanteau horror film. It’s been fun for me since I first saw it as a kid, and I’m glad to bring it back for Opening the Vaults.– P.F.
Welcome to the Monster Club! Where the ghouls get down, the vampires vamp it up, and werewolves watusi. Okay, that last one was a stretch. But it’s no stretch to say that THE MONSTER CLUB was one of the joys of my childhood, a mixture of creeps and laughs that I always stopped to watch when it used to show up on channel 9, back in the days when channel 9 would show the Kong movies on Thanksgiving and a triple bill of Godzillas the next day.
The premise is weird, albeit simple. Real life horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, played here by haggard monster movie veteran John Carradine, is walking the deserted streets at night when a rather ill looking man accosts him and begs for help. The man is actually the vampire Erasmus, essayed with ghoulish glee by the great Vincent Price, who taps into his neck for a quick nightcap. It turns out Erasmus is an avid fan of Hayes’ work, and insists on repaying him by bringing him to the exclusive Monster Club, of which he is a prominent member. Reluctantly, Hayes goes along with the appreciative bloodsucker.
Once there, Hayes questions Erasmus about a genealogy chart on the wall. Erasmus explains that all monsters emanate from three sources: vampires, werewolves and ghouls. Cross-breeding has led to a number of variations, and a few mutts. This conversation leads to the three horror shorts that make up the bulk of the flick.
The first short tells the tale of a shadmock, the lowest form of hybrid. It begins with a man in an asylum, and then flashes back to a couple in their dingy flat, where they discuss how to scam money. The woman applies for work at the shadmock’s ancestral home, where he has secluded himself; seeing him step out from the shadows, she runs off, vowing never to return. But her greedy lover is convinced there’s a fortune they can steal without the shadmock noticing, and so he sends her back. He doesn’t realize that there’s a price to pay for everything, especially in breaking a monster’s heart. This is the best of the three shorts, because it manages to offer up a new monster, and yet holds to some of the tried and true genre staples, such as the dark, empty house. And I felt terrible, both for kindhearted shadmock and the woman. She clearly is afraid to wrong her employer, and later comes to sympathize with him; yet she’s beholden to her avaricious lover, and both pay dearly.
The second tale rides along in more traditional territory, with the story of a vampire. But it’s spun on its ear into a comedic piece. Donald Pleasence leads a group of hunters, intent on bringing the local monster down. Clearly the boy in the story, a nerdy sort, has no idea his father is a creature of the night, and his mother has accepted the downside of a marriage to one, all the time shielding the boy. When Pleasence and the boy cross paths, there are some interesting twists. Suffice it to say, some people will hold to the duties of their job no matter what the consequences. This is my least favorite of the shorts; unlike the others, it’s very obviously tongue-in-cheek, and the humor really drags it down. I can’t help but find the irony in this: the framing device with Price and Carradine is very cheeky, and so this tale logically fits the overall tone best. Those wraparound segments, though, rely on two masters having a ball playing off one another; whereas the vampire segment seems to be trying too hard.
The third story returns to traditional territory, but again with a twist. Humgoos are the result of cross-breeding between ghouls and humans. According to Erasmus, they don’t do much of interest outside of eating carrion; but when he warns Hayes “Oh, but their relations do have some fascinating habits,” it foreshadows some really ghastly things to come. The tale starts off with a horror director working on a scene. Unhappy with the actors’ performances and just about everything else on the shoot, he takes it upon himself to scout out a new location. When he veers his sports car off the highway, down a road that’s not on the map, bad things are surely on their way. He ends up in a town seemingly born of the ever-presnet fog, just the atmospheric setting he’s searching out for his movie. But the terrors in this town are not to be held solely to celluloid. The rest of the story deals with his attempts to escape and return to the main highway. This short was a bit predictable, and the acting’s a little hammy, but it captures the tone properly, and has a wicked twist at the end that still to this day I love.
Nobody would mistake The Monster Club for an A- horror movie. But anybody who holds old school horror in high regard will appreciate the film for what it is: solid B-movie horror that does a number of things right. The casting is foremost in its approach; Price is brilliant, especially given the limited screen time. Carradine looks worn out, the same old man who appeared in THE HOWLING that same year. But he plays Hayes with just the right twinkle in his eye, as a man who’s spent his whole life creating horrors, and now has just the right sense of wonderment when faced with real ones. Genre stalwarts such as Pleasence, Britt Eklund and Stuart Whitman play this movie for exactly what it is, and yet raise its level through their performances.
The scenes in the club are hilarious. Spruced all over the dance floor, the “monsters” wear obviously fake monster masks, but then, the whole film is a romp, so it works. A number of different bands perform monster-themed songs in the club, and the tunes are surprisingly catchy. Even the direction has more than a bit of class to it, as certain scenes stand out: as Hayes walks quietly through the night, Erasmus’ hand pops into the frame as if to grab him; the way the third tale looks like it’s beginning in some monster’s lair, and then the camera reveals it’s a movie set; and by far the best scene in the film, where a stripper removes more than her clothes. Even the minor details impress; the table at which Hayes and Erasmus sit is a lit up coffin lid, with a grinning skull atop it. Roy Ward Baker, a veteran director of many Hammer horror films, turns on the fun, and it works.
Will today’s audiences enjoy THE MONSTER CLUB? Probably not. I’m afraid many horror fans will find it dull, as there’s very little blood and not much is scary. But anyone who listens to Erasmus’ final speech and doesn’t get a chill down the spine is totally desensitized. Trying to get the club to accept Hayes as a member, he draws a terrible picture of why man is the greatest monster of all. Powerful stuff, even if played for laughs.
I usually don’t mention special features in reviews anymore, but the commentary on the flick’s DVD is well worth discussion. It is, hands down, the single worst commentary I’ve ever listened to on a film. Instead of getting some horror authority such as David Skal, or somebody even tangentially involved with the film, Pathfinder hired two clowns named Luke Y. Thompson and Gregory Weinkauf to dump on the film mercilessly. I realize we’re not dealing with KING KONG here, but fans of the film deserve better than the dumpster fire this commentary is. Hell, I’d have happily done a commentary for Pathfinder, and it would’ve served the film’s fans better, because I enjoy this flick for what it is.
Also noteworthy, there’s a section called “Music from the Film,” which offers exactly that: each song over a static screen. Damn, the songs from this flick are so weird (“Monsters Rule O.K.,” anyone?) and yet so cool, this is one awesome feature.
I bought THE MONSTER CLUB years ago on DVD for six bucks out of pure nostalgia. And those fond remembrances paid off. Sure, it’s not THE OMEN. But it’s not supposed to be. It is, as the tagline on the front cover states, “A tongue-in-cheek trilogy of terror!” one I enjoy watching today just as I did on channel 9 in my youth. Do yourself a favor and head on down to the Monster Club. It’s worth the price of admission, even if you are a mere human.