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 leads to the first of three horror shorts that make up the bulk of the movie’s running time.
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 worst for the woman, who 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 Plesence leads a group of undead hunters, intent on bringing a 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 Plesence 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 three shorts; unlike the tales that wrap around it, this one is very obviously fang-in-cheek, and the humor really drags it down. And yet, 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. Perhaps I just don’t find this vampire tale particularly funny.
The third story returns to traditional territory, but again with a twist. Humegoos 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 ghoulish town, 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 the horror genre in high regard will appreciate the film for what it is: solid B class entertainment 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 haggard 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 Plesence, Britt Eklund and Stuart Whitman play this movie for exactly what it is, and yet raise its level because of their performances. The scenes in the club are hilarious. Spruced all over the dance floor, the monsters all wear obviously fake monster masks, and yet 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 what was obviously a low budget affair into a respectable film.
Will today’s audiences be scared by The Monster Club? Probably not. Having survived through the torture porn era, I’m afraid many horror fans will find it dull, as there’s very little blood. 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.
Not so powerful are the special features. In my review of I Walked with a Zombie, I mentioned how that disc housed the second worst commentary I’ve ever suffered through. The Monster Club commentary somehow manages to outlame that one. Luke Y. Thompson, some geek with a website, and Gregory Weinkauf give atrocious statements that don’t qualify as insights. Just who these two men are, I have no idea, but they have no place discussing a movie they know nothing about. Often they lampoon the flick, and their comments slap the face of its fans. Patherfinder, the company which released the movie on DVD, would have done better to avoid a commentary, than to pay these two buffoons for one.
The Monster Club
A number of minor extras appear. Oddly, a section labeled Production Credits is actually a static ad for other Pathfinder releases. The trailer is in the same vein as the movie itself, though a little thick on the cheese. The biographies are thorough. Music from the Film allows access to just that; the songs play over a static screen. The stills gallery from the film and production notes are exactly what one would expect. The disc also features an essay on the background for the film, by George Reiss (color me biased, but I like my movie review better!). As with the guys who did the commentary, I have no idea who George Reiss. Let’s be honest. Not a great set of extras, but for a movie like this, I’d usually expect no extras at all. So for 6 bucks, I appreciate that Pathfinder put together any extras package. And they respected the ratio! Having only seen The Monster Club on TV before, I realized the first time I watched this disc that it had a theatrical release, in 1:85 to 1.
Much like I did with Maniac, I bought The Monster Club because of nostalgia. And those fond remembrances paid off. Sure, it’s not The Omen. But it is, as the tagline on the front cover states, “A tongue-in-cheek trilogy of terror!” one I enjoyed 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.
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