Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Monster Club That Would Have Me as a Member

Pre-internet, pre-having every possible query a mere Google away, many of us had the experience of watching some (in hindsight) unremarkable Saturday afternoon movie and being haunted by said movie for years and perhaps decades, and having practically no way to prove we didn't just hallucinate whatever images burned themselves into the soft clay of the nine year old brain.

One of the movies that haunted me in that 'did I actually watch that or was it a dream' way was the 1981 Vincent Price anthology shlockfest THE MONSTER CLUB. According to IMDB:
A writer of horror stories is invited to a "monster club" by a mysterious old gentleman. There, three gruesome stories are told to him; between each story some musicians play their songs.
The mysterious old gentleman (Price) is almost immediately revealed to be a vampire. A polite and thoughtful, but hungry, vampire. In return for letting him feed, Price introduces the writer to a very curious kind of social club, one for actual 'monsters.' 

Two images from the movie haunted my own brain for decades. I'll start at the end and then work my way back to the beginning...

First: the final tale in the anthology is of a London movie director who goes on a disastrous location scouting trip. With the kind of arrogance that generally gets one eaten/maimed/ravaged in these kinds of movies, the director declares that he himself will find an appropriately scary village for his film in progress. 

He hops in his Jag (men in these movies are always jauntily hopping in their Jags) and eventually turns down a country road and right into an ominous fog. As it happens, he has come upon a village where the inhabitants get everything from boxes in the ground-- a village of ghouls. 

There was something so claustrophobic, so gray and uncanny about this particular story. You don't see many horror movies about ghouls, do you? 

And come on, any horror movie about a haunted English village is going to be good. It just is. It's the eighth rule of horror.

I guess in a weird way catching THE MONSTER CLUB some random weekend on Channel 9 only accelerated my incipient Anglophilia. And my love of anything coming from Hammer or, in this case, Amicus. Among the churned out genre drek there one finds these darkly sparkling gems of original weirdness, perfect for a Saturday afternoon's entertainment.

The low-key umheimlich vibe of  THE MONSTER CLUB managed to burn its way into my brain, most admirably on what appears to be a minuscule budget. (Make sure you check out the 'masks' on the extras dancing in the Monster Club.) The other part of the movie that haunted me was cleverly executed interstitial scenes with Price and Carradine, each of which set the stage for the next tale.

Erasmus (Vincent Price) and his new friend the horror writer (played by the iconic John Carradine) are seated at a table in the club with a curious genealogical chart behind them. As they sit at the table chatting (and taking in the bonkers musical numbers which are totally worth watching the movie just for that), Price's explanation of the monster hierarchy serves as a disturbing bit of world building. The monster 'club' decor (the non-stage part) looks a lot like the kind of mid-priced Long Island Chinese restaurant my parents preferred, but dressed with a couple skulls and other macabre knickknacks  Maybe that's why I found these scenes so unsettling; the juxtaposition of the strangely familiar with the terrifyingly unreal.

Notice that poster in the background? It's the kind of thing that I would've found unsettling as a kid, but I didn't know why. Watching the movie now I found a different part of my brain unsettled, the part keyed into our shameful history of racial science.

Erasmus (Vincent Price) takes the opportunity to give a little explication of the monster world using this chart:
"That's a monster's genealogical chart. You see, first we have the primate monsters. vampires, werewolves and ghouls. Now, a vampire and a werewolf would produce a werevamp but a werewolf and a ghoul would produce a wereghou but a vampire and a ghoul would produce a vamghou. A wereghou and a werevamp would produce a shaddy. Now a wereghou and a vamghou would produce a maddy. But a werevamp and a vamghou would produce a raddy. Now, if a shaddy were to mate with a raddy or a maddy the result would be a mock... Frankly that's just a polite name for a mongrel... 

If a mock were to mate with any of the other hybrids their offspring would be called shadmocks... Shadmocks are the lowest in the monster hierarchy
-What happens when a shadmock whistles? ...
The Shadmock may be lowly, but his power is not to be trifled with... And thus is introduced our first story, the tragic tale of a Shadmock and the love that is not meant to be.

Now, on the one hand, each time I listen to Vincent Price deliver this dialogue, the more deliciously absurd and unscary I find it. More than wondering who the fuck thought up unterrifying names like shaddy and maddy, I wonder how many takes Vincent Price needed to do it without laughing.

And yet... as unscary as shaddys and maddys are, it's the 'monster hierarchy' and its concern with blood purity and distaste for 'mongrels' that is very, very scary. Watching as an adult I immediately thought of this:


The "1935 chart shows racial classifications under the Nuremberg Laws: German, Mischlinge, and Jew." [I tried to find an English language version of the chart and finally found one but it turned out to be on an American neo-Nazi website and after I got over my nausea from looking at the website, I decided this blog post would have to do without a translation of the chart. Sorry]

From Wikipedia:
While both the Interior Ministry and the NSDAP agreed that persons with three or more Jewish grandparents would be classed as being Jewish and those with only one (Mischlinge of the second degree) would not, a debate arose as to the status of persons with two Jewish grandparents (Mischlinge of the first degree). The NSDAP, especially its more radical elements, wanted the laws to apply to Mischlinge of both the first and second degree. For this reason Hitler continued to stall, and did not make a decision until early November 1935. His final ruling was that persons with three Jewish grandparents were classed as Jewish; those with two Jewish grandparents would be considered Jewish only if they practised the faith or had a Jewish spouse. The supplementary decree outlining the definition of who was Jewish was passed on 14 November, and the Reich Citizenship Law came into force on that date. Jews were no longer German citizens and did not have the right to vote.

The movie ends on a not terribly original horror movie theme-- the old 'who's the real monster here?' trope. The Vincent Price character proposes that the writer be accepted as a member of the Monster Club. The other members protest. He's just a 'Hume.' What can he do? What can he do? Vincent Price gets to launch into a very satisfying catalog of the monstrous the nature of the 'Hume' race, exterminating hundreds of millions of their own kind without even a fang or claw or whistle worth mentioning. Upon which the other members joyously welcome the 'Hume' as one of their own.

There's a lot more to say about this little horror gem, especially the soundtrack, but I'll simply close saying that the whole thing is available on youtube and you should watch it immediately. THE MONSTER CLUB offers exactly what good horror movies are supposed to do- an opportunity to both revel in, and feel ashamed of, one's own hidden monstrousness. Something I find imperative in these disturbing days, tho I don't know about you...

1 comment:

  1. I read the monster genealogy chart as a satire of bourgeois racism in British horror media (which Carradine and Price were probably sick of at this point). Vampires always represent the scary non-British aristocracy, Werewolves are the aristocrats of "soiled" Latin or Celtic blood (gypsies always factor into werewolf stories) and ghouls are your basic wart-y, mongrel peasantry.