Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club is a typical anthology horror film, unique only for its retro style. While the film horror genre had gotten quite nasty by 1980, The Monster Club reminds of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in its style, tone and attention. In fact, its wrap-around interstitial segments and source (a single author, here a more contemporary figure than Poe or Hawthorne), are taken directly from older, classical fright films. Production house Amicus had produced several such anthology films, of which this is the last.
Price, in fact, is present here in the role as host, as Count Eramus, an ancient vampire and member of “The Monster Club”, a clandestine joint where monsters can hang out and catch some tunes (the film is based on this “monster underground” concept). The tales he tells are based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, acclaimed British writer. Confusingly, Chetwynd-Hayes is present in the film as a character, played by John Carradine. Chetwynd-Hayes meets—I presume—a character of his own creation in Eramus, who introduces himself by biting Chetwynd-Hayes on the neck. Not enough to turn or kill him, of course, just enough for a taste (“You’re my favorite author” Eramus says, and “It was the finest blood I have ever tasted”). Eramus brings Chetwynd-Hayes to a Halloween party at the club, with promise of inspiring tales. This is strange, as he’ll be telling Chetwynd-Hayes his own stories.
The scenes in the club are light and humorous, and each features a full musical performance. The music is a mix of new-wave and Thin Lizzy-style pub-rock, featuring such bands as Night, The Viewers, the Expressos and a reunited Pretty Things (one of the greatest psychedelic bands ever, here shilling a bland reggae-influenced style). In fact, music is practically oppressive in this film, present throughout. When a band isn’t performing in the interstitial bits, a UB40 song is playing. During the segments, the music of a single composer is featured, including John Williams in the first.
Each segment is in some way based on a hierarchy of creatures which Eramus outlines early in the film. For example: if a werewolf mates with a ghoul, it produces a “were-ghoul”. This idea may have seemed clever in the script, but is confusing on-screen, despite the handy chart Price keeps pointing at. The subject of the first story is a “Shadmock”, creatures which look like gaunt humans and have the ability to melt people with a deafening whistle (this odd concept is typical of the film). The well-off Shadmock we meet here is looking for love, which he finds with his house-keeper, who is working for a con-man, who plans to rob his mansion. Inevitably, he catches her in the act, and shows the audience what happens when he whistles. This segment is competent if a little dull, and ultimately the least successful of the three.
In the second section, Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes turn to hear a man on stage tell a humorous story from his youth, in what is the most overtly comic of the three tales. The boy in the film is the son of a human woman (the gorgeous and talented Britt Ekland) and a vampire, “Count Manfred”. His family has moved from Transylvania to England, but have been followed by vamp-hunter Pickering, played by Donald Pleasance, who approaches the boy as a priest and delivers the creepiest line in the film: “I’m not a stranger, I’m a clergyman! Would you like a caramel?” Pleasance and his cronies follow the boy back to his house, in an attempt to assassinate the Count, with the stakes they carry (“Beware men who carry violin cases,” Manfred tells the young Viscount). The music in this section is fantastic, traditional Transylvanian folk music performed by John Georgiadis. This is the most likable segment in the film, and the type of story that really fits the format. Pleasance is great here, high-energy and committed to the story’s inherent camp.
Between this and the final tale is the film’s most awkward moment. A rock band called Night performs while a woman strips down to her (animated!) skeleton. “Magnificent!” and “Beautiful bones!” are a few of Eramus’ remarks. This scene feels inappropriate, as the film feels decidedly PG otherwise. This moment is more in keeping with dismal grime-fests like Night Train to Terror, another horror anthology (which also features a gimmicky premise—God and Satan telling tales on a moving train—and live musical performances). The tone otherwise is carefree and sentimental, almost melancholic in its nostalgia (palpable but vague). The animated skeletal frame reveals the budget for these wrap-arounds, and feels more movie-of-the-week than feature film in its tackiness. This criticism aside, the dark turn of this act sets the mood for the final third of this film, its heaviest and scariest.
In this tale (told partly in illustrations by John Bolton, the still-active British comic artist), a horror director is out scouting locations when he finds himself marooned in an anachronistic village of ghouls, who want to eat him. With help from Luna, a hilariously naïve “Humghoul” (“They not go in there, fall down if go in there!”), he manages to escape, (spoiler) only to be picked up by police and driven right back to the village square. The police are escorting the mysterious “Elders” to the town for—what? Some kind of inspection maybe. This is the creepiest, most depressing moment in what is otherwise an light-hearted, inoffensive horror film. This segment also features fine music, by electronic composer Alan Hawkshaw.
After this story is over, the film fits in one final set-piece joke as its conclusion. Eramus officially inducts Chetwynd-Hayes into the club, reasoning that humans have committed more atrocities than any monster. It’s hard to see any political dimension to this, as the film is—for the most part—very silly and slight, without significant depth (I haven’t read any of the source stories, so I can’t comment on their richness). This is simply the final tag in a series of goofy moments, cheesy jokes and “Gotcha!” gags. Price is the perfect presider, as he’s in enthusiastic ham mode throughout. While I enjoy Price in anything, ultimately I prefer his toned-down, less-theatrical performances in such films as Last Man on Earth and The Conqueror Worm.
After Eramus’ induction ceremony, he and Chetwynd-Hayes throw up their hands and head to the ballroom floor to dance (with fat women!) as the Pretty Things (whom the audience has been waiting for) play the film’s theme, “Welcome to the Monster Club” over the credits. While this film’s length is typical of the anthology, it could have been tidier, especially in the wraparound segments. While the three stories are pretty clearly defined and ordered-by-tone (melancholic, humorous, frightening), they are all equally as successful. Which an audience member prefers will ultimately reflect personal taste. That said, its doubtful any one person will entirely enjoy the entire film. Well, the good with the bad, I suppose. As horror anthologies go, The Monster Club isn’t essential by any means, but it is still entertaining as an unpretentious (and un-ambitious) entry in the form.