Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Greatest Monsters of All

THE MONSTER CLUB (1980)
John Carradine, Vincent Price and friend fail to liven up
this banal portmanteau.

PRODUCED by Milton Subotsky and directed by Roy Ward Baker, THE MONSTER CLUB opens with horror writer Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes (John Carradine) being attacked by Eramus (Vincent Price), a vampire faint from lack of blood. Assuring the victim that his bite was not deep enough to cause effect, the grateful Eramus takes the author to the title establishment, where Eramus explains the basic rules of Monsterdom, and illustrates with three tales. We see the story of Angela (Barbara Kellerman), her bullish boyfriend George (Simon Ward), and Raven (James Laurenson), the gentle but repulsive Shadmock whose lethal power is his whistle. Secondly we learn of Lintom (Warren Saire), whose father (Richard Johnson) is a vampire. Lintom is having trouble at school and is befriended by what seems to be the local vicar, but is actually Pickering of Special Branch (Donald Pleasence), concerned with eradicating the undead. In the final story, an American filmmaker (Stuart Whitman) is on a location scout for a horror film, and finds what he is looking for in a village of ghouls. In the coda, Erasmus proposes Ronald for membership, but the creatures protest that Ronald is a human being, whereupon Erasmus, citing man's ingenuity for destruction, proves that humans are the greatest monsters of all.

Linking these stories are rock bands - including B.A. Robertson swathed in blue for 'I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love' and Stevie Lange singing the sordid tale of 'The Stripper' - while extras wearing mail-order monster masks gyrate their dance moves. Even in the wake of the onslaught created by DAWN OF THE DEAD and FRIDAY THE 13TH, Subotsky ploughed on undeterred with his quaint, juvenile brand of terror. The average moviegoer no longer identified with ghosts, ghouls and vampires, let alone a joint full of them, but at least THE MONSTER CLUB doesn't take itself too seriously. The second story - re imagining the childhood of Subotsky as “Lintom Busotsky, vampire film producer” - has been justly cited as one of the worst stories to grace any anthology, and is certainly on the same disastrous scale as the killer piano from TORTURE GARDEN. But Pleasence clearly relishes his role; no-one could have possibly, even in 1980, uttered lines like “I’ll see you home from school. It’s alright, I’m not a stranger, I’m a clergyman” with such aplomb.

"You could still love me": a page of John Bolton artwork for the fabled THE MONSTER CLUB comic magazine.

The most interesting thing about THE MONSTER CLUB is its unorthodox evolution. With Price, Carradine and Pleasence signed, but no time to shoot any footage to promote the project at Cannes, Subotsky turned to Dez Skinn, publisher of House of Hammer magazine. The producer had always been envious that his main rival had a promotional outlet, and asked for a comic strip adaptation to sell the film. Writing the strip himself, Skinn assigned artists John Bolton (stories 1 and 3, plus framing sequences) and David Lloyd (for story 2). With a print run of just a few hundred copies, Subotsky had his tool to target buyers, but also had a document that would act as a unique storyboard and source book for the production. The strip later surfaced in Quality's relaunched Halls of Horror, and was also part of Eclipse's John Bolton's Halls of Horror comic under the title 'The Monster Cabaret'. Amusingly, Eclipse took the notion further by dovetailing Bolton's adaptations of THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. from House of Hammer into this two issue 'Micro-Series,' with Eramus acting as an EC-style horror host. For Bolton, his conceptual art lead to work on the movie itself, producing the striking 'Tree of Monsters' plaque in the club, and the 'Ghoul history' in the final segment.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dr Terror's House of the Uncanny

DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)
THE UNCANNY (1977)

The Protagonist is revealed as Death himself in the climax of
Freddie Francis' DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS.

GESTATING from a proposed television series to be hosted by Boris Karloff, DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - Amicus' first anthology - has dated badly. Despite a title that suggests a haunted house or wax museum setting, the framing device actually takes place in a train. Five men are thrown together - apparently by chance - into a railway carriage where they are joined by Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing), who offers to read their futures as prophesied by a tarot deck, his House of Horrors. Each of the five stories are based on horror archetypes: Werewolf deals with Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum), a young architect uncovering the tomb of Count Valdemar, who has cursed the descendants of the man who killed him; The Creeping Vine is the tale of Bill Rogers (Alan Freeman) and a sentient plant; Voodoo has jazz musician Biff Bailey (Roy Castle) visiting the West Indies and stealing the beat of black magic; Disembodied Hand sees painter Eric Landor (Michael Gough) persecuted by Brian Sewellesque art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee); and Vampire tells of Dr Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland), attempting to set up a surgery in a small town where there is a blood-sucker on the loose.

Opening with Schreck enquiring “Room for one more in here?” - a direct reference to the Hearse Driver segment of Ealing's seminal portmanteau DEAD OF NIGHT - the stories are unintentionally funny and predictable, subscribing to Amicus co-founder and scriptwriter Milton Subotsky's child-like view of horror. Although there are virtually no exterior establishing shots, Francis' staging and Alan Hume's photography manage to convey some atmosphere and suspense. DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS is notorious for the Voodoo section, which is a direct steal from Cornell Woolrich's short story Papa Benjamin; everything about the foreign locale is presented as sinister, with White represented as normal while black – with the exception of cockney Kenny Lynch – portrayed as the dangerous other. In contrast, the Disembodied Hand's scenes between Lee and Gough - playing together for the first time since DRACULA - are immensely entertaining, and this story also benefits from Landor's genuinely unnerving severed digits.

"Cats aren't always cute and cuddly!" Felines are pure evil and the true masters of the world, according to Denis Heroux's THE UNCANNY. This Italian A sheet poster is more striking than anything in the film.

By 1977, the anthology format was not so much faltering but on life support. THE UNCANNY is a batty British/Canadian production co-produced by Subotsky. The film begins with writer Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) convinced that cats are taking over, and presents a manuscript to his publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland). This leads to three tales illustrating Gray's claims: the first ("London, 1912") involves Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood), who bequeaths her fortune to her cats only for the felines to wreak vengeance when a maid and son conspire to steal her fortune; the second ("Quebec Province 1975") is a black magic story of an orphaned girl whose cat is bullied by her new family; and the final segment ("Hollywood, 1936") has horror star Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence) killing his wife with the help of his mistress Edina (Samantha Eggar), only to be menaced by the dead woman's cat. Bookmarked by two pretentious quotes, its all gloriously idiotic, and ends on a memorable shot of Gray's eerie breath, lying dead after being ravaged by his tormentors.