Written by: Fred Dekker and Shane Black
Directed by: Fred Dekker
Starring: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, and Stephen Macht
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I'm in the goddamn club aren't I?"
This is going to sound slightly heretical, but Universal’s two monster rally flicks, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, have always been a bit of a letdown. Though the studio would eventually give its stable a more worthy send-off with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I could never shake the feeling that these other two more straight-laced attempts were huge missed opportunities. Neither holds a candle to Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, nor did they really rally all of the monsters on-screen together (Dracula is dispatched early in the first one, while Frankenstein’s monster spends most of the second one comatose on a slab). Luckily, I grew up with an instant remedy for this problem: The Monster Squad, a film that delivered in a way those two House films never could by blending the spirit of golden age Universal Horror with a modern approach that really brought these monsters roaring back to life after a decades-long hiatus.
Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) and his buddies are devout fanatics who have formed a club dedicated to all things monster-related: their habits, how to kill them, the peculiarities of their anatomy. They’re a bunch of whip-smart rascals completely inhabiting a world that would be familiar to its target audience—it’s a place where tree-house powwows represent a shelter from the doldrums of the outside world: the bullies, the bickering parents. Like anyone of such a persuasion, they want to see the 12th entry of the latest slasher movie even though their parents dismiss it as the same old junk that came out the last time. For a film that’s as retro-flavored as The Monster Squad, it would have been easy for Fred Dekker and Shane Black to take a cynical approach to the movies splattering themselves all over movie screens at the time, but that would have rang false because they both know good and goddamn well that the Friday the 13th movies held the same sort of appeal for 80s kids that the Universal Horrors did for themselves growing up: they, too, were an irresistible sort of forbidden fruit that held an equal mix of delight and terror.
That’s growing up as a Monster Kid in a nutshell, and that’s why The Monster Squad works: it feels exactly like the type of movie one of us would have made because it downright adores that culture and refuses to approach it from a cynical perspective. Nor does it pander: a lot of kids’ movies are base, obnoxious attempts to cater to the lowest common denominator, but The Monster Squad is strikingly authentic, perhaps due to its relative coarseness—these aren’t a bunch of recognizable Hollywood actors playing caricatures of kids but rather a relatively believable group behaving more or less like regular kids (compared to say, The Goonies, which has Feldog, Short Round, Samwise Gangee and company irritatingly squealing about in a very Amblin adventure). Black wasn’t really the Shane Black at this point, and he was restrained by a PG-13 rating, but you can faintly here him in the clever banter and the pulpy, wiseass tone (not to mention the brief buddy cop routine involving a couple of characters that would anticipate Lethal Weapon).
Unlike a lot of movies that don’t hold up when you’re an adult (and The Monster Squad has on the two occasions I’ve revisited it), this one does because it doesn’t just “make you feel like a kid” (a phrase that’s often repeated for nostalgia-porn films that mostly just act as lobotomies)—it reminds you why it ruled to be a kid: the camaraderie, the danger, the excitement, the insular nature of retreating into your own world and the thrill of having it validated. Monsters are at their most potent when you’re younger because they still hold an allure despite their horrific nature. Some kids grow up watching this stuff between their fingers and peeking from under their bed sheets, but The Monster Squad is for those kids who would totally go out there and beat the shit out of Dracula and his minions.
Capturing that spirit is perhaps why the film transcends its thin plot—seriously, “Dracula and his minions return from a century-long slumber” is the gist of it. Their return corresponds with an amulet that surfaces once every hundred years or so, and the squad has to track it down to rid the world of evil with the help of a book written by Van Helsing himself. All of this stuff just happens to sort of fall into their lap, and the film is efficient and brisk in the Universal tradition. There’s a jauntiness to it that’s right to the point and serves as a reminder that movies don’t need to be needlessly ponderous or bloated to function. In fact, Monster Squad exhibits extreme competence when it comes to functioning since it sets up elements that are eventually paid off in the climax; for example, the famous “Wolf Man’s got nards” quip is a callback to an earlier conversation about how those old movies couldn’t show Larry Talbot’s dong, which explained why he always wore shorts. Other recurring stuff sneakily pays off, such as repeated references to one of the kids’ sister, whose promiscuity winds up almost screwing them all.
But with a movie with a title like this, you’re obviously here for the monsters, who are lovingly resurrected. Duncan Regehr might not go down as one of the most memorable Draculas, but he’s definitely a traditional one. Whereas other 80s offerings updated the vampire for the suburbs, dusty small towns, or the boardwalk, The Monster Squad has Reghr strut-in in full-blown billowing cape mode, sort of a halfway point between Lugosi’s slick, exotic take and Christopher Lee’s sex-charged turn (a ghastly trio of Dracula’s brides also appear). On the other hand, Tom Noonan is a stand out as Frankenstein’s monster, here interpreted as a blatant update on Universal’s monster, from his appearance to his childlike nature that becomes a boon when he’s adopted as the squad’s mascot (if that doesn’t capture the spirit of Monster Kids, then I don’t know what does—in many ways, the Monster reflects everything that makes them tick). Joining them are the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Gill Man, all done up in updated digs thanks to Stan Wilson’s fantastic designs that obviously take their inspiration from the Universal designs (despite The Monster Squad not being a Universal production).
Like their Hammer counterparts, they’re all just a little more garish, and the film is quite a bit more gruesome than any previous monster mash. It certainly stretched the limits of a PG-13 rating with its on-screen impalements and even an exploding body that spews dismembered body parts all over the place (this is another reason the film can’t take a cynical attitude towards splatter movies—because it basically is one, and well-done splatter is just another thing for horror kids to get geeked about). None of it is too unbecoming, though, as The Monster Squad knows when to pull up and lean on its funhouse atmosphere—it’s a light movie, all things considered, and I imagine it’s exactly what a classic Universal Horror might have looked like if the studio had actually bothered to update their stable themselves. I’ll never understand why Universal didn’t always keep these characters in a constant rotation, but at least Fred Dekker was around to basically do it for them. Like any decade, the 80s were full of revivals, and Dekker was at the helm of two of the best in this and Night of the Creeps (maybe the greatest creature feature the 50s never produced)… …which of course meant Hollywood put him on a collision course with goddamn Robocop 3, after which he never directed anything again. That’s some bullshit.
For whatever reason, The Monster Squad itself suffered a similarly obscure fate. It got exactly one VHS release back in the late 80s and languished as a cult favorite for pretty much two decades until its devout fan base staged their own rally and got Lionsgate to put together a really nice 2-disc special edition DVD that features a restored transfer, the original stereo audio, and a new 5.1 mix alongside a horde of special features. In addition to the usual promo stuff (a still gallery, TV spots, the original trailer), there’s also deleted scenes, a conversation with the Monster, and a big, 5-part retrospective featuring interviews with the cast and crew. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also two commentaries with Dekker; one joins him with squad members Andre Gower, Ryan Lambert, and Ashley Bank, while the other pairs him with DP Bradford May. All of this stuff also got ported over to the Blu-ray a couple of years back as well, so The Monster Squad eventually got its much deserved reverence after all. During the past 25 years, it’s become enshrined in the horror lexicon due to its quotable lines and colorful cast of characters (including Scary German Guy, who lives in that one weird house that haunts every neighborhood, naturally), but it’s also the real deal that doesn’t just coast on nostalgia. Buy it!
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