October 31st, 2014
|09:46 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Monster Squad|
"You know who to call when you have ghosts, but who do you call when you have monsters?"1
I figured for the end of the month it would be nice to watch something a little bit lighter but a still classic. Last year's Die Farbe was excellent but a little too bleak, you know? It's tempting to go with Young Frankenstein which I watched with some friends a couple of nights ago, but I've also been hankering to revisit The Monster Squad, which I haven't seen in a few years.
The Monster Squad is the obvious peanut butter-and-chocolate marriage of the formula from The Goonies to the monsters from the old Universal horror movies. Boys of my generation should remember the film because we were exactly the right age for it when it came out.
We should, but many of us don't apparently. Somehow The Monster Squad failed at the box office, which relegated it to video rental hell, and shut its creator, Fred Dekker, out of mainstream Hollywood. It's unfortunate, really, because while it was never destined to fit into anyone's Serious Top 10 list, it's a remarkably entertaining movie that meets all of its own goals.
So. The Monster Squad is a group of adolescent boys whose monster club is the bane of their parents' and teachers' existence. Class lessons are being ignored, chores aren't getting done, and little sisters are feeling excluded. The leader of the club (or at least, the main character of the movie) is Sean (Andre Gower), and he receives as a gift a copy of Abraham Van Helsing's diary. The diary is a priceless, one-of-a-kind artifact, but annoyingly it is written in German. No one in the club speaks any foreign languages, other than middle-school Spanish. This is a problem.
The kids screw up their courage and go to see Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino), which is only name by which the character is referred in the film. SGC turns out to be affable and willing to translate the book, which explains that once a century, the forces of evil have a shot at gaining a foothold in the physical world, but have so far been repelled every time by an amulet made of pure, concentrated goodness. Van Helsing fought the good fight last time, but next big night is a few days away, and the amulet is in a nearby basement--what luck!
While the kids are figuring all of this stuff out, Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) is rising from the grave and reassembling his posse: the Mummy, the Gill-Man, the Wolf-Man (Jonathan Gries in human form, somebody else after the transformation), Frankenstein's Monster (the venerable Tom Noonan), and a trio of schoolgirls whom he transforms into his Brides. Dracula's plan is to seize the amulet and destroy it, thereby ensuring a reign of darkness (and a pretty awesome one at that). Frankenstein's Monster wanders off and encounters Sean's little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank), and Sean is forced to admit her into the club since she's the only one who actually knows a real-life monster.
As the appointed hour approaches, Dracula & Co. grow in power as the kids prepare to fight some monsters. Now: Where will they find the required virgin to read Van Helsing's incantation at the final moment?
The formula of The Monster Squad is one that began in boys' adventure magazines, was honed over the 20th century in The Hardy Boys and The Mad Scientists' Club, and was polished in films like The Goonies, Explorers, and The Sandlot. Typically, the target demographic of these entertainments was pre-adolescent boys, but gender didn't matter--everybody my age wanted to be one of the Goonies.
In The Goonies, Chunk describes the group as "the rejects". The Monster Club seems assembled from Goonies rejects: somehow they are less socially awkward, but paradoxically less cool. Sean is a good everyman to anchor the movie, and his right-hand-man Patrick seems to be a stand-in for Fred Savage. Horace (known to the local bullies as Fat Kid) is cut from the same fabric as Chunk, and if he's not quite as likable it's only because Chunk got there first. Phoebe and Eugene are maybe a little too young to take part in the proceedings, and Rudy ("Sean, he's in junior high.") is maybe a little too old to be hanging around with the Monster Club. Rudy is right at that age where his leather-jacket-cigarette-smoking-sunglasses act seems pretty badass, but I bet he gets beaten up a lot by the time he gets to high school.
Still, it's hard not to like the characters, and it's easy to get caught up in the seat-of-your-pants frenzy of excitement. My parents wouldn't let me see it when it came out (I was 7), and I can imagine being swept up in the story in a way that simply doesn't happen to adults; do you remember what it was like to watch exciting movies as a kid? Do you remember your body's physical response to the climax of a good story? I do. It was energizing! I couldn't sit still! What happened to that? I don't know. But I do know that I would not have been able to handle The Monster Squad. My parents were worried that I'd be scared (and I might have been), but one way or another I'd have kept them up all night.
It's really very unfortunate that Fred Dekker didn't go farther in Hollywood after The Monster Squad. His Night of the Creeps came out the previous year, and though it wasn't a hugely successful blockbuster, it pushed the right buttons to function as both an homage and a tight popcorn-horror movie. The right people noticed, which is how we got The Monster Squad, but the box office didn't respond they way they'd hoped it would. Since then, Dekker directed Robocop 3 and an episode of Tales from the Crypt, but is mostly known for writing episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise and the first two House movies. He's not exactly slumming, but he got buried after such a promising start.
In the meantime, both movies have aged relatively well. I'm not sure how modern kids would react to The Monster Squad, but I find that it holds up well, and other adults around Teh Interwebz tend to agree. The fashions and the godawful rap song during the ending credits mark it as a product of the late '80s, but whatever--if you can't handle nostalgia then you can't handle pop culture.
As to the horror element: fans of the movie like to assert that The Monster Squad is the only movie (other than Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein) to assemble the three main Universal monsters. That's more or less true, but I'm not sure these monsters are canon. The Gill-Man is no Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite is no Larry Talbot. The internet tells me that Duncan Regehr is a more highly-regarded actor than Bela Lugosi, but Bela brought more gravitas to the bloodsucker, and certainly would not have stooped to calling young Phoebe a "bitch". I'm not sure that's a complaint, just an observation. The most relatable monster, though, is Frankenstein's. That's usually the case--Frankenstein's Monster is a tragic figure, not a bad guy, and Noonan gives an appropriately touching performance. Frankenstein's Monster is essentially the same character as Sloth from The Goonies--but his story is a little bit sadder.
Anyway, it's a good movie. It was a good movie when I was eleven (which is probably the age I was when I saw it), and it's a good movie now. There's so much more going on in the story than I've mentioned, and it all works. The Monster Squad is a perfect ending to this year's October; a real blend of horror and comedy that doesn't lean too far in one direction or the other.
Here's the trailer.
1That's the tagline from the poster. I changed the opening sentence of this review at the last minute. Originally, it was going to start with "Wolfman--as you're probably already aware--has nards.", but I cut it because it's a reference to a line in the film which I didn't otherwise reference. And if you haven't seen the movie--who am I kidding? You've already seen The Monster Squad.
I still think it's a good change.