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A review of "The Monster Club" (1980)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

It's a little dumb, but The Monster Club is a lot of fun and definitely worth watching for fans of horror anthologies.  If you go into it looking for some late '70s pop rock, overblown jokes, and Vincent Price being himself, you'll have a fine time.  Just don't expect to be scared.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The Monster Club is an almost perfect representation of the evolution of horror anthologies in the late 1970s into the 1980s.  It was made by many of the staff of Amicus Productions, but it came out after Amicus had closed up shop and just around the time when Hammer was ceasing production as well.  You can thus view it as a weird transitional species in the evolution of short-form horror into what eventually would become Tales from the Darkside and then segueing into Tales from the Crypt.

It's a British production featuring luminaries like Vincent Price and John Carradine, but its sensibilities somehow seem very American.  Its tales are callbacks to period pieces in old European villages, with a focus on traditional monsters, but it breaks these up with contemporary pop music.  It tackles grim subject matter that begs to be viewed in a dim light, yet very little of it can keep a straight face and the movie dives into full-on cheesy joke mode for more than half its runtime.

In short, it's not "just another" horror anthology, even though you might be tempted to dismiss it.  There's a little more here than meets the eye.

The Monster Club uses one of the most bizarre and nonsensical framing devices I've ever seen for an anthology film.  We open on a dark London street.  Vincent Price, apparently a bum, staggers out of the shadows asks John Carradine for help... and then promptly turns into a vampire and bites him.

After Carradine comes to, Price, now looking more prim and proper, apologizes for the inconvenience and politely explains that he was careful not to infect him with vampirism - but he does very much appreciate the meal.  He was so famished!  And immediately, we're in Joke Mode, where Price is just being kind of a goofball instead of an actual menace.

Partly out of gratitude, and partly out of the fact that Carradine is a well-known horror writer and Price wants to get to know him better, Price invites his not-quite-a-victim to join him for a meal at the titular Monster Club.  It's a place downtown where all the monsters of the city can hang out, dance, and just be themselves.

While they go into the club, we are treated to the first of four musical numbers.  It kinda makes me think of Night Train to Terror, whose framing device includes a train full of punks rocking out in the background.  The differences are: A) The Monster Club is nice enough to have multiple sets rather than just the one song Night Train to Terror could afford, and B) The music in The Monster Club is awesome.  I don't mean that ironically.  It's legitimately good stuff that just probably shouldn't be in a horror movie.

Anyway, while enjoying the tunes, Carradine notices a strange poster on the wall.  Price explains that it is the "Monster Family Tree," which traces the genealogy and hierarchy of various beasts.  "For example, if a werewolf and a ghoul mated, they would produce a were-ghoul...," he says, and then he goes on listing various creatures for about another three minutes.

Carradine is intrigued by this premise, so Price decides to tell him the story of a Shadmock, which is one of the various hybrid monster types.  This takes us to:

Story #1: The Lonely Shadmock

Angela, a con artist, is looking for her next mark to defraud at the behest of her boyfriend.  She finds out that a rich dude is looking to hire a personal assistant and she decides to take the job.  Unfortunately, said rich dude is extremely creepy and unnerves her.  Nevertheless, she steels onward and tries to get into his good graces so she and her boyfriend can pilfer valuables from his estate.

The rich guy, Raven, is desperately lonely and can only find companionship in the various birds who fly over his grounds.  The birds aren't terribly important, but they do set up one of my favorite moments in the movie, which is when a cat stalks and kills one, and then the camera zooms in ominously on a fat-ass housecat sitting on a planter with a smug, scheming look on its face.

Since Angela doesn't immediately run away from him, Raven imprints on her and falls madly in love.  Angela is again freaked out, but accepts a marriage proposal in the hopes that it will provide her with the opportunity to crack into his safe and steal all his cash.  Said opportunity comes up when Raven throws an extravagant masquerade to celebrate their engagement.

Unfortunately for her, Raven catches Angela mid-theft.  He says he'll forgive her because he only wants her love, but Angela - for reasons unknown - decides that now is a good time to freak out and scream that she could never love anyone as hideous as him.  Raven then unleashes his secret Shadmock power: whistling.

We cut away from this and pick up with Angela's boyfriend, who is hanging out at his place.  Then he hears Angela's voice and turns around to see her - but she's now horribly burned and disfigured by Raven's whistling.  As he screams, Angela pleads, "Won't you still love me?"

...and we cut back to the club, where we enjoy another musical act.

Then something very strange happens.  You'd expect that Price and Carradine would just turn to each other and talk some more, and then Price will tell another story.  You're wrong.  The Monster Club decides to throw a curveball: the club arbitrarily introduces a movie producer who goes on stage and tells the audience that he has a sneak preview of his next film for them.  This preview ends up being the next segment.

I've never seen that in an anthology film before.  When else has an anthology changed the format for its framing device mid-movie just for the hell of it?

Story #2 - The Bureau of Vampire Hunters

This is the least focused and by far the most comedic of the tales in this anthology.  It starts out with a young boy who's trying to learn more about his father, who is obviously a vampire.  He seems to be having problems at school since he gets bullied frequently, so you imagine that maybe it's going to be the story about how he overcomes his troubles using vampire powers.

But, no.  Almost out of nowhere, a government-funded group of vampire hunters, led by a guy named Pickering, comes into the story and hunts down the boy's father.  They stake him, but just before he dies, he bites Pickering and infects him with vampirism.  The rest of the hunters sadly realize they have to kill Pickering, too, and after doing so, they cart his corpse away for a proper burial.

Then the bullied kid goes to weep over his dad only to find - surprise! - his dad's not actually dead.  He had a "stake-proof vest" on that protected him, and he holds his son close and says, "What a happy family!" as the movie fades out.

The Monster Club patrons all enjoy this film, and then decide to follow it up, naturally, with a striptease.

But not just any striptease... a skeleton striptease.  As in, the stripper takes off her skin, too, which leads to a six-eyed monster to gasp in shock as his top two eyes bulge out with a SPROING! sound effect.  It's incredibly stupid.  Naturally, I dug it.

Then Price decides to finally get around to telling the last story.

Story #3 - The Semi-Literate HuGhoul

This one has the least substance of all three tales, but the most atmosphere.  There's a film producer who's looking for a location to shoot his next horror movie, so he travels to the isolated town of Loughville to see if it would be a winner.  What he doesn't realize is that the town is infested with ghouls.

After his car breaks down, he is more or less forcibly led to a hotel room where he waits and wonders what the residents of Loughville are going to do to him.  A human/ghoul hybrid named Luna tends to him, and he promises to help Luna escape whenever he leaves town.

During some downtime, the producer looks through an old priest's journal.  Here he finds out that the priest was the one who encountered the first ghoul at Loughville and misguidedly defended him from the suspicious townspeople.  Since then, more ghouls proliferated, and now they feast on the dead - and Loughville is no longer safe.

The producer runs away in a panic, taking Luna with him, and the ghouls give chase.  During their pursuit, they injure Luna mortally and she dies on the side of a road.  The producer gets away and flags down a cop car on the highway.  The cops give him a ride, ostensibly to the police station - but surprise!  They're actually ghouls on their way back to Loughville.  Lame.

Back to the club.  Carradine thanks Price for bringing him here, but insists that he must be going.  Price, however, has enjoyed their time together too much to let him simply leave, so he sponsors Carradine for a club membership.  The other monsters object since Carradine is a human, but then Price gives an impassioned speech about how humans are so much worse and deadlier than monsters by relating all the horrible things humans have done (nerve gas, nuclear weapons, genocide, etc.).  The monsters are impressed and change their minds, so Carradine's in.

Cue music to celebrate.  The movie fades out as they dance the night away to some sweet tunes.

The Stuff I Liked / Didn't Like

This is, in many ways, one of the stupidest things I've ever seen, but I enjoyed it.  It's almost like it succeeds in spite of itself.

You can zoom in on almost any individual component or element and identify it as a missed opportunity or an overblown bit of fluff, and yet it has enough charm to sustain you.

For example, look at the monster family tree.  This is a clever premise and speaks to horror nerds who no doubt have engaged in discussions about the hierarchy of monsters over mugs of beer.  ("Vampires are the rulers, werewolves are their bodyguards, zombies are the servants...."  That kind of thing.)  An actual flowchart that dictates the monsters' social structure and the process by which hybrids are produced is a great way to pull double duty at both drawing in pop culture junkies - just like Jamie Kennedy's rules of horror movies in Scream - while also providing a serviceable foundation for a framing device.

...but there's not really anything there at all.  Price briefly goes over a couple of the major monster types and then just starts making shit up.  ("If a were-vamp mates with a were-ghoul, they produce a Shadmock, and if a Shadmock mates with a Shumtock, they produce a Vweebil, and if a Vweebil mates with a Duglock, they produce a Dugong....")  Who cares about a whole bunch of made-up monsters?  If you were making a movie about one specific new breed, that would be fascinating, but in the context of nerding out about monster folklore, your audience will want to hear about the classics.

By any reasonable standard, this is a failure.  But it somehow still works.  It's a credit to Vincent Price, really, who sells all his lines the way only Vincent Price could.  The Monster Club ends up being this fantastical, campy place where you can kick back and indulge in some Halloween Horror.

The Monster Club is the first and so far only horror anthology I've ever seen where the framing device ends up overshadowing the shorts themselves.  Ordinarily that might sound like a bad thing, since it would mean the tales are not particularly great, but that's not the case - the first and third stories are solid and hit the right note of Twilight Zone / Edgar Allan Poe macabre.  I would definitely rewatch them. (The middle story's kinda weak, but that's sorta par for the course for anthology movies.  The middle tales are almost always the nadir.)

So it's not a matter of the stories being poor, but a matter of the Monster Club being such a ridiculous premise that you want to see more and more of it.  That's incredible and it really puts to shame all the other anthology films where the framing device is basically just filler.

The one major flaw with the Club scenes, sadly, is that the musical performances aren't very fun to look at.  They aren't shot in a particularly interesting way, the singers aren't engaging in any theatrics, and there's nothing done in terms of editing or background acting to give it any substance.  One of the songs is filmed basically as just a tight crop on the lead singer, who's dressed up in pale makeup and bobs his head while the camera zooms in and out.

Oh, well.  At least the music was good.

The Part Where I Talk About a Remake and Probably Overthink Things

I'd really love to see a remake of this movie.  Although The Monster Club definitely can stand on its own in its current form, I think you could take it from something that mainly has appeal to dorks like me and perfect it into something that much wider audiences and dorks like me would love.

I think this is actually the perfect premise to remake if anybody wanted to give this style of anthology horror a reboot and kickstart a new generation.  Horror is in a weird place right now; the advent of low-cost, high-quality cameras and editing software has made it possible for a plethora of great, new ideas and talented filmmakers to break into the market, and there's definitely tons of great movies out there.  (The Babadook is a recent movie that now ranks among my favorite horror movies ever.)

Yet we're still over-saturated with zombies, vampires, and sexiness.  Horror is just as campy and stupid as ever, but we're all taking it so goddamn seriously.  Look at the V/H/S and ABCs of Death series as a perfect example - the shorts within those anthologies are often very clever and well-made, but with few exceptions, they're overly "dark."

What we really need is something simple, terrifying, and with enough presence of mind to tell us that it's okay to laugh at ourselves after we've had the crap scared out of us.  Something clever and energetic that wants to give the genre a shot in the arm.  I thought that's what we were going to get with The Cabin in the Woods - and to some extent, it left its mark - but the genre as a whole hasn't really had a burst of fresh ideas or changed much since the torture porn boom of the mid-aughties.

(To be fair, mainstream horror has always been a lazy genre.  But without something fresh to distract you every few years, you start to notice it more.)

The Monster Club is campy, ironic, and principally obsessed with fiends of the night.  It's the perfect breeding ground to capture the spirit of horror while paying lip service to ironic hipsters who think they're too clever to be scared - if you actually made it scary.

Can you imagine that?  You'd be settling down with your friends and sneering at the cheesy dance numbers, and then suddenly the movie takes a sharp left turn and becomes legitimately horrifying.  Your heart stops and suddenly you realize there's a good reason not to hang out with monsters: no matter how funny you think they might be, they will fucking destroy you.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch the whole thing on Youtube for free.

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