Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Monster Club dims its lights


I've already noted the passing of director Roy Ward Baker, the British and Hollywood film director, who directed Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, the Titanic classic A Night to Remember, a sci-fi western with Bernard Bresslaw in it, the first ever Kung Fu Dracula film, the last ever kung fu Dracula film (same film actually), a Dracula film in which Peter Cushing's son is played by the chap who plays Sid James's son in Bless This House (yep: same one again), and the one where Dr Jekyll turns into a hot babe.

But to me, all of the above are merely footnotes.
Let the obituaries yell first and above all: Roy Ward Baker was the man who directed The Monster Club (1981).
It was his last theatrical work as director. Anyone who has seen it will share my certainty that he saved his best for last.
The Monster Club is important for being the only true first generation Hammer-Amicus era horror film that I can remember being on general release. (The only other candidate is House of the Long Shadows, but that's a bit more of a pastiche than a straggling authentic like the Club.)
Alas, I didn't actually see it on general release - I don't think its box-office glory trail extended as far as Plymouth - but I vividly remember staring at a full-page poster for it in my Doctor Who Monthly and thinking - as I still do - that it was one of the most exciting and enticing film posters I'd ever seen.
I even borrowed the title for my imaginary tv horror movie review programme, and cut out the poster to use as the cover of my spin-off book (which devoted a whole chapter to 'Horror Films with the actors who have played The Doctor in them').
I was a little older when I finally saw it, it would have been in the early days of Betamax, the day after its first ITV showing. Many, many subsequent viewings only confirmed my deathless regard for its manifold subtleties and delights.

Basically, the film was producer Milton Subotsky's last and most suicidal attempt to keep making the horror short story movies that he had made his trademark when he was running Amicus.
Already in 1977 he had come up with The Uncanny, a three-story clanger about killer cats. (He had already done a story about a killer cat as part of Torture Garden back in '67; but the twist this time was that all the stories are about killer cats, which gives the film a unique kind of negative momentum.)
The link story had Peter Cushing as a paranoiac author, trying to sell his publisher his book about how cats are evil and conspiring to destroy mankind, a thesis he illustrates with three anecdotes that then form the basis of the film. The first rips off the American film Eye of the Cat (1968) and has a good bit where Susan Penhaligon, trapped in the pantry by marauding moggies, is forced to eat cat food spread on crackers. The next, about a witch's cat, is set in Montreal (where the money came from) and features my favourite kind of miniaturisation effects - where the actors stand next to massive props - and a child actress you really want to get hold of and slap. The last steals the plot of Bram Stoker's The Squaw and features Donald Pleasance as Hollywood actor Valentine De'ath (with VD monogrammed on his dressing gown) who kills his wife but is himself killed by... her cat. Then finally, it's back to Cushing, who gets killed by some cats.
Is this the only horror film that opens with a Ted Hughes quote? I know of no others.

Then, in 1981, he was back; the film was The Monster Club, the director was Roy Ward Baker, and the tagline was "the horror film that's fun", which carries with it the peculiar implication that most horror films are not fun.
It stars Vincent Price as Eramus, a vampire with retractable fangs, a role that had already been turned down by both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The idea (if that's not too strong a word) is that Eramus bites a passer-by, who turns out to be R Chetwynd Hayes - the real horror author who wrote the original stories the film is based on, but here played by John Carradine, another actor whose answerphone presumably said, "I'm not in at the moment, but I'll do it."
As a reward for letting him have some blood ("from such a noble source") Vincent takes John to the eponymous club, where blood is served by the glass, the club secretary is a werewolf in a suit and glasses, the entertainment comes from the likes of The Pretty Things and B. A. Robertson, and the disco-dancing monsters all wear polo necks to disguise the bottoms of their plastic joke shop masks.

As well as several exceptionally good pop songs, there are three stories, as told by Eramus.
The first is about a hybrid monster called a Shadmock that can kill with a high-pitched whistle, who never leaves his house because he is so hideously, monstrously ugly. When a woman comes to his door, shock music yells on the soundtrack and she flees, screaming.
But this is the odd thing: there is nothing - absolutely nothing - wrong with him. He has fairly pasty skin, fairly - but not abnormally - large nostrils, and a fairly severe centre parting. But that's it. He's just an ordinary looking bloke. Now, how this came about I don't know. Perhaps there was a make-up design that relied on lighting and opticals rather than prosthetics, and it didn't photograph properly. Who knows? All we can see is a woman running in terror from a man who looks, at worst, like a bank manager.
Episode two is supposedly work in progress from an autobiographical film by "the great vampire film producer Lintom Busotsky". Richard Johnson is a vampire and devoted family man apprehended by Donald Pleasance and the men from Scotland Yard's B-Squad, a special unit formed to investigate "blood crimes" and known as 'the Bleeney'. Humour on this level is generally speaking rare after teatime. At the end the supposedly dead vampire rises from his coffin to reveal that he has been saved by his stake-proof vest. ("Filled with... TOMATO KETCHUP!" screams Johnson.)
Episode three is about a location-scouting horror director, played by Stuart Whitman, the only actor who envied Cameron Mitchell his career trajectory. He turns up at a village of ghouls, barely escapes with his life and flags down a police car, but the policemen have plastic fangs, and drive him back again to be eaten.

Oh, do I ever love this film! Of course, I know that the general feeling is that it's not even bad enough to be fun, just bad enough to be bad. But objectivity is out of the question. Unchanging, uncomplaining, and as unfathomable today as it was when it came out of the kiln in 1981, this film has walked with me through the good times and the bad. If I live to be ninety I'll still be finding an excuse to watch it at least once a year.

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