The Bitter End Of British Horror’s Golden Age – Looking Back At The Monster Club

The notorious misfire from Amicus producer Milton Subotsky is every bit as disastrous and dismal as you’ve been told.

I first saw The Monster Club as a kid on its original UK release (when this now 15-rated movie was seen as suitable for the whole family) – in fact, I went twice, so determined and desperate was I to enjoy it. I’ve subsequently seen it a couple of times on TV and again on the recent Blu-ray release. So by any standards, I’ve given the film plenty of chances because, despite everything, this is a movie you desperately want to be good. But despite the revisionist reviews of desperate nostalgists, the sad fact is that this is a film that misfires on almost every level. Lots of movies get one or two things wrong – few have been so consistently misguided and wildly out-of-touch as this.

A little history first: producer Milton Subotsky had risen to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as the creative force behind Amicus Films, the main British rivals to Hammer (even though Subotsky and his financial partner Max Rosenberg were American, the latter still based in the US). Amicus was very much a second-division Hammer, but the company did manage to carve its own identity, taking the portmanteau format popularised in films like the 1945 movie Dead of Night and making it their own with a series of films from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors to From Beyond the Grave. When Amicus broke up (in a rather unamicable way), Subotsky formed Sword and Sorcery Productions – so named because his dream project was a big-budget adaptation of Lin Carter’s Conan knock-off Thongor novels – and continued to use the portmanteau format with a pair of misfires – 1977’s The Uncanny and this film. The disastrous failure on all levels (but mostly financial) of The Monster Club effectively did for Subotsky’s career – while he would subsequently have ‘co-producer’ credits on a few films like The Lawnmower Man, this was strictly down to his ownership of a handful of Stephen King stories that he then licensed out – he had no creative involvement in anything after this.

Despite primarily being a horror film producer, Subotsky had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about producing ‘family entertainment’. He was dismissive of Hammer’s sex and violence and was always looking at ways to make his horror films family-friendly despite the fact that the BBFC considered the genre to be inherently adult in nature. He rightly knew that kids loved horror, and wanted to make films that they would be able to see. Famously, in 1970 he produced The House That Dripped Blood with the intention of securing an ‘A’ (PG) certificate, only to be scuppered by distributors who thought that audiences would not turn out for a horror film that wasn’t rated ‘X’ (showing their integrity, the BBFC obliged by upping the rating at the distributor’s request). When Amicus moved away from horror to the likes of The Land That Time Forgot and At the Earth’s Core in the mid-Seventies, I imagine he was thrilled. The Monster Club was another attempt to make a horror film for kids. The problem was that the last thing any horror-fixated nipper wanted to see was a horror film aimed at them. These were, after all, the kids who were staying up late to see Hammer horror films on TV and by now were reading Fangoria. Family-friendly emasculated horror was going to appeal to them about as much as a plate of liver and onions. That’s not to say that a PG-rated horror film couldn’t have worked – this was, after all, only five years since the likes of Jaws and Grizzly had played UK cinemas with ‘A’ certificates. But those films tended to skirt past the definition of ‘horror’, at least for the censors – supernatural terror was always treated as inherently dangerous for children and getting a film that featured traditional horror movie narratives passed with a family-friendly rating would involve a great deal of fudging and restraint – too much to satisfy most fans.

Worse still,  The Monster Club was further fatally compromised by a cripplingly-low budget, a sense of embarrassment that seemed to infect most of the cast, a truly dreadful screenplay, awful ‘pop’ music (a spectacularly misguided attempt at ‘youth’ and ‘cult’ appeal by filmmakers whose fingers were a very long way from the pulse of teen culture) and indifferent, tired direction. It was notable that when the film was in production, it received a lot of positive press coverage, but once completed, this immediately dried up – the newspapers could recognise a dead duck when they saw one. The Monster Club eventually limped its way across the country, being laughed off-screen by audiences (the reaction from the paying punters on my second viewing was the most vocally vitriolic that I’ve ever heard). The film failed to get US distribution and a planned sequel – Monsters and Meanies, would you believe? – was quickly shelved. As a coda to the golden age of British horror, the film felt like an apt statement – tired, out of touch and a bit embarrassing as it tried to cash in on the past glories of all those involved.

The sad thing about The Monster Club is that it should have been good. Although Subotsky’s plan to pack the film with horror legends didn’t quite come off – Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Klaus Kinski all turned it down flat – it does have an impressive cast: Vincent Price, John Carradine, Donald Pleasence, Britt Ekland, Stuart Whitman, Simon Ward and others. Director Roy Ward Baker had a solid pedigree for Hammer (directing the likes of Quatermass and the Pit) and Amicus. The source material – a book of short stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes – is witty, creepy and entertaining, with its monster genealogy and new creatures working quite well. It’s dark when it needs to be, and eccentrically odd. But the stories in the film are effectively stripped of their horror and their humour, shot in a flat and disinterested manner and allowed to drag on for far too long (while previous Amicus anthologies tended to have five stories, this has just three, and the additional length does not help them). Even the rock music could’ve worked if Subotsky’s ideas of cutting-edge youth appeal weren’t the ageing Pretty Things and B.A. Robertson.

So what went wrong? Well, we can start with the Monster Club itself. The location of the linking story, it’s all wrong. We’ll leave aside the terrible, terrible masks that were supposed to be outrageous monsters for now. Let’s look at the narrative. Vincent Price plays down-on-his-luck vampire Eramus, who bumps into author R. Chetwynd Hayes (John Carradine, named as an in-joke) and ‘borrows’ some of his blood. Some hokey dialogue aside, this isn’t a bad intro. But when Eramus offers to take his new friend to the club, it all goes downhill. We can leave aside the fact that the vampire who hadn’t ‘supped’ for two weeks is suddenly the smartly-dressed member of a club where he is immediately served with blood (and can even be sniffy about the type!). That’s a plot contrivance. It’s the fact that such dapper, elderly chaps would attend a club that is so goddamned down market. They walk in and The Viewers (who, right?) are belting out Monsters Rule OK on a stage that looks like the back room of a grotty pub, while a bunch of ropey-looking monsters are jigging away on the dance floor. The Monster Club – surely the most exclusive of private members’ clubs – should be a sophisticated, underground place, not some tawdry disco that looks like Yate’s on a Friday night. And then there are the monsters. The use of cheap Halloween masks has long been mocked, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from pointing out how dreadful they are. Yes, they are cheap and trashy masks, but that’s not the worst of it. There is no attempt to make them look like anything other than people in bad leotards wearing Poundland level masks. One furry monster at the end of the film strokes his chin with a normal human hand. Another has the edge of his mask popping over the top of his jumper. Roy Ashton’s make-up sessions must have consisted of shoving a mask over someone’s head and saying “that’ll do”. This isn’t just the result of a low budget – it’s essentially laziness. Like no one could give a damn, even though these creatures are on screen, in close up and brightly lit, for ages.

Erasmus tells the author a couple of stories, while the middle tale is presented by ‘vampire film producer ‘Lintom Busotsky’ (another in-joke – notably, while Chetwynd-Hayes is played by the ageing Carradine, Subotsky has himself represented by the urbane Anthony Steel). The first story involves a ‘shadmock’ (one of Chetwynd-Hayes’ invented half-breed monsters), who kills through a whistle. The tale itself sees Angela (Barbara Kellerman) sent by conman boyfriend George (Simon Ward, seeming far too posh for the role) to work for reclusive collector Raven (James Laurenson) in the hope of robbing him blind. When she first arrives at his mansion, he keeps to the shadows until coming forward for a dramatic reveal – a sight that sends her reeling in disgust. And here is where things immediately fall apart. Raven is, I assume, supposed to be staggeringly ugly. But as he just has a bad haircut and a pallid complexion, the desired shock is just laughable (not to mention a bit of an insult to Laurenson given that he is presented as the ugliest thing imaginable). This notable lack of horror continues throughout the lacklustre tale, as Raven falls in love with Angela and asks her to marry him, only for things to go inevitably wrong. The Shadmock’s whistle melts flesh, but the result of his angry vengeance is a rather weak make-up job.

The second story is the comic relief – because God knows, every anthology horror film has to have one it seems – and has Richard Johnson (who made this a year after appearing in Zombie Flesh Eaters) as an unnamed East-European vampire (probably Dracula) now living an ordinary suburban life in London with his wife (Britt Ekland) and son (Warren Saire), who is bullied at school. I wouldn’t normally support bullying, but frankly, this kid is such a relentlessly irritating drip that you can’t help but feel that he’s brought it on himself. The vampire is being chased by The B-Squad – also known as (groan) The Bleeney (a joke that even in 1980 must’ve gone over the heads of the target audience, given that The Sweeney had been off-air for several years) – led by Donald Pleasence. And that’s pretty much it. A children’s TV level of comedy – including ‘stake proof vests’ that even Rentaghost might have rejected as a bit hokey – and bad acting from all concerned scuppers this one.

THE MONSTER CLUB, Britt Ekland, Richard Johnson, Donald Pleasance, 1980

Finally, we have the tale of the Hume-goo (that’s human-ghoul hybrid), which is the best thing here, and the only story to even come close to being good. Stuart Whitman is film director Sam, looking for a location for his latest film (which he’s already in the middle of shooting, suggesting a degree of production disorganisation). His search takes him to the mist-shrouded village Loughville, which is full of shuttered buildings and inhabited by shuffling, inbred types who are led by Patrick Magee. It turns out they are ghouls who have been living on the flesh of corpses dug up from the graveyard – and with meat having run out, Sam is next on the menu. But he’s saved by the half-human Luna (Lesley Dunlop) and the pair take shelter in a church.

It’s not a great story and falls apart at the most cursory examination (does eating human flesh really turn you into a different species?) but at least it has a bit of atmosphere and a sense of horror. You do rather wish that the story more accurately reflected the amazing John Bolton illustrations used during a spot of exposition, which are genuinely nightmarish – but it does at least feel like a proper horror story.

Between these tales, we get the musical interludes. These are mostly awful. The one exception is The Stripper by Night. Not only does singer Stevie Lange has an impressive set of pipes on her, but this is also the story where the stripper takes it all off – skin as well! The film switches from live footage of sexy exotic dancer Suzanna Willis stripping to cel-animation long before any skin is shown (even when making films for adults, Subotsky hated nudity with the passion of Mary Whitehouse), and the animation is pretty hokey, truth be told – but the concept is fun. Ironically, while the musical interludes are mostly awful, the film’s incidental music – ranging from a classical guitar piece from John Williams to proggy synth stuff by Alan Hawkshaw – is rather excellent.

Why The Monster Club is such a complete misfire is hard to understand. The only explanation I have for the catalogue of mistakes is that it was the last of its type – a final gasp for the ‘traditional’ British horror film and no one involved really cared anymore. The lack of enthusiasm all around is almost palpable and you have to wonder just why – despite the obvious one of a paycheque – anyone involved signed up for this to begin with. More than anything, it feels very, very tired.

For all its mistakes though, I would suggest that anyone with an interest in British horror should check it out. Despite all the faults, it’s a film that worth watching – you will groan with disbelief and there’s a strange car-crash atmosphere about the film that keeps you hooked. It’s a fascinating last chapter film, a perfect example of how entirely out of touch with their audiences some of the old school producers had become. If the sort of films made by Hammer, Amicus and their imitators still had any life in them by 1980, The Monster Club stamped it out entirely. That this film was being made in the same year as Friday 13th is pretty amazing.

Seen now, it’s a fascinating museum piece. Inevitably, it seems a little less old fashioned today simply because it exists within the world of vintage cinema and I can see how some people can convince themselves that the shoddy monsters, the music, the plodding narrative and the presence of Price and Carradine gives the film a certain nostalgic charm. But let’s not exaggerate things here – by any rational standards, this is a shoddy, clumsy and oddly depressing film that seemed dayed even before it had been released and has not improved with age. British cult cinema fans owe it to themselves to own a copy (and everyone should track down the superior comic book version produced by Dez Skinn). But by any conventional standards, The Monster Club is a very, very bad film.



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One comment

  1. I was a teenager when this came out and though I loved the cheesy old ’70’s portmanteau horrors – many of which don’t really stand up to scrutiny all these years later sadly – this one was always sub par – House of the Long Shadows was another stinker I expected more from. Strange to think that at the same time so many great ‘proper’ horror films were being made. I saw the double bill of Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein together in a local fleapit (glorious 2D only I’m afraid) years before this dross. Admittedly, I did quite like the stripper joke (a bit like the old strip tease soap kids bought back in the 70’s in holiday resort joke shops with a plastic skeleton in the essential purchase along with your strip tease pens and ‘naughty’ playing cards! We knew how to have fun in the 70s!) However the witless and unamusing BA Robertson was the final nail in the coffin..5 years after punk exploded in ’76 and this was the best they could do!! Sheesh! As Subotsky co wrote the stunning ‘Lonesome Train..’ which is one of my all time fave songs I could almost forgive him anything ..but not this shambles!

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