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“One hundred years before this story begins… it was a time of darkness in Transylvania… A time when Dr. Abraham Van Helsing… and a small group of freedom fighters… conspired to rid the world of vampires and monsters… and to save mankind from the forces of eternal evil… They Blew it.” – The Monster Squad, 1987
That opening title, crawling slowly up the screen in Hammer horror red lettering, sets the tone for The Monster Squad pretty much perfectly. It’s a horror film, but it’s also a comedy with its tongue set firmly in its cheek. It’s cheesy and playful and ridiculous and if you’re not willing to go on that ride then you might as well never watch the film and stop reading this article. I am one of the few 80’s babies that remembers The Monster Squad, let alone loves it and I am here to let you know why you should love it too!!. I say “remembers” as The Monster Squad is the forgotten kids film of the 1980’s.
Everyone knows The Goonies, Big, The Explorers, The Never Ending Story, ET, Labyrinth etc; inspiring, enjoyable and imaginative films that stir memories galore when you catch them on TV of a Sunday afternoon or a Christmas Day. But for some reason The Monster Squad seems to have slipped between the cracks. I still can’t understand why as The Monster Squad is so much fun it’s criminal, bearing more than a passing resemblance to that little Netflix show from last year I think a few of us caught – Stranger Things. And what makes it so much fun? Well, it’s totally bonkers to begin with, with an enthusiasm and a knowing wink to the John Hughes comedies of the 1980’s and the Universal horror films of the 1930’s and 40’s.
Let me explain, there are these five kids who get their hands on the diary of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and then they discover that an amulet of enormous, earth destroying power is hidden somewhere in their town. Oh, and there’s this mysterious scary German guy living in a ramshackle house at the end of their street that the kids find themselves drawn to for help. And, of course if that wasn’t cool enough for you then there’s also Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman, Gill Man and The Mummy running around trying to bring about the end of the world. And, in case you needed a little extra something to stoke your interest, it’s also written by Shane Black. I mean, what more do you need. Do you not love this film already?
Written by Black and Fred Dekker and directed by Dekker, The Monster Squad was a complete flop when released in 1987, but has become something of a cult classic in the years leading up to this, it’s 30th anniversary. Back in the day, in one of his more bad-tempered reviews, Vincent Canby of The New York Times, described The Monster Squad thusly;
“The comedy is cheerless. The performances are either inept or unlovably coy…and (it) looks like a feature-length commercial for a joke store that sells not-great, rubber monster masks.”
He obviously didn’t watch the same film that I did as The Monster Squad is anything but cheerless. It is far from perfect and yes, it is one of the most ludicrously plotted films you will ever see (why are Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster being flown over Louisiana in the first place? How does Wolf Man just turn up in this town? How does Dracula find the amulet? And why does Dracula’s cane conveniently double up as a lighting conductor?), but Mr. Canby and numerous other critics at the time missed a vital element of The Monster Squad – this is a horror/comedy aimed not necessarily at kids but at the kid in all of us. That’s the important bit, it’s designed to appeal to the things that sparked our imagination as children and that is what makes it ridiculously loveable. Adults can watch it and remember the children they once were; kids can watch it and want to be the children featured in the film, taking on the monsters of their nightmares and winning. I have often compared films to time machines and The Monster Squad is no different; on recently re-watching it I instantly recalled my ten-year-old self, running down the fields behind my house looking for monsters, expecting to find Dracula or The Wolf Man hiding in the trees behind the street where I grew up. Such is the power of film, to plant a seed in a child’s imagination and bring it to life.
And that is what my love of The Monster Squad is – it is a memory of being a child, of being entertained and scared, of laughing and wanting to cry, out of not only fear but also an emotional connection to the characters. I had this discussion with a friend of mine only recently and we both agreed that films aimed at kids which are seen when you are a child will always resonate with you no matter how old you become. Her example was her boyfriend who had never saw The Goonies as a child, only as an adult, and he found it hard to see why a generation of adults in their 30s consider it a classic. I firmly believe that this is simply because he missed the magic of it as a ten-year-old when imaginations were the fertile, alluvial soil of possibilities. The Monster Squad is the very same for me, as a 35-year-old man I will consciously admit that the film might/will come off as being odd, camp and cheesy, verging on the ridiculous. Yet every time I press play I am not a 35-year-old man but a ten-year-old boy watching other ten-year-old boys tackle the greatest monsters ever seen on screen. If you’re searching for the elixir of life I think you should stop and turn your attention to your DVD collection, I guarantee you it’s there.
Why do I love it? You know, that’s a very hard question to answer. Much like The Lost Boys and The Goonies, I love the notion of a group of disparate friends that share one common bond, this mismatched bunch coming together to battle an evil far stronger than them. Maybe that is why Stephen King’s IT still terrifies me. Maybe that’s why Stand By Me is one of the most affecting films I have ever seen. What connects each of these? Coming of age, loss of innocent and the learning of hard lessons that effect the adult you will become. The Monster Squad gang of kids are no different. Horace, the fat kid, learns how to deal with his bullies, eventually winning their respect by protecting them. Rudy, the cool kid, learns that it means more to stand up for your friends than to look cool doing it. Phoebe, the Feeb, has her heart broken for the first time. Sean, the leader, finds his voice and his confidence; the things he believed in and were deemed ridiculous by the adults around him are now the very things that have gained their respect. It should be noted that all the adults in the film are presented as sceptics and incompetents bar one, the Scary German Guy. He is the only adult that believes the kids and this is an important connection as this character was a concentration camp survivor, he has seen true evil and quite possibly stunted his emotional growth. Is he a child, in mind only, just like them? Maybe.
Of course, no monster squad could exist without actual monsters and this is the niche selling point of The Monster Squad. It is such a great introduction to the Universal monster movies, the first time that practically all the staples of the Universal horror slate were brought together in one film (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula did try unite them in the late 1940’s but with no Mummy or Gill Man featured). The Monster Squad is very much a film made in reverence to the original films; the opening sequence is a total homage to the slow tracking shot through the crypts of Todd Browning’s original 1931 Dracula. Phoebe’s first encounter with Frankenstein’s monster down by the lake is also a little nod to not only Shelley’s novel but James Whale’s original film version. The Mummy’s first sighting, slinking away from the museum bears a strong resemblance to the first appearance of the Mummy in Karl Freund’s 1932 original. This was not a reimagining in the style of the recent Wolf Man, Mummy and Dracula adaptations, but very much a loving take on them and the visual presentation is then crucial as these monsters have to look like we remember them.
The practical visual effects in The Monster Squad are half the draw of the film; the late, great Stan Winston was charged with recreating Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Gill Man and he is quite lovingly faithful to the original monsters, the Gill Man, in particular. His take on The Wolf Man may be the best practical effect version committed to film and his Frankenstein’s Monster is also a joy to behold, he has everything you associate with the character from the Universal movies, the scars, the strangely tinged skin and the bolts (in his temples though, not his neck). The Mummy is stunningly put together and the stuff of real nightmares (a thought brilliantly aped in the film when a monster does end up in a Eugene’s closet). These great visual effects are then countered with throw backs to the original Dracula, the heavy cobwebbed passage ways and the plastic squeaking bats suspended on strings. Duncan Regehr is the only one of the monsters who doesn’t require a physical transformation or heavy prosthetics of some sort. His Count Dracula is a great combination of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and, for a film forgotten and maligned, he can stand proudly beside both of those iconic actors as his Count Dracula is as strong as any on screen. Yes, he plays the Count with a bit more of a smirk than a snarl, more of a Roger Moore Bond than a Connery or a Craig, but his little colourful additions to the character make his final, desperate assault all the more striking. His final attack on Phoebe is genuinely scary as it’s the first time we see him become the blood crazed Count of our own imagination and this is captured perfectly by Phoebe’s honest screams and tears, seeing Dracula’s blood red eyes and long fangs.
There is also plenty of emotion and heart in the film and, maybe surprisingly it comes from the monsters themselves. When the Wolf Man is shot by Rudy’s silver bullets and he transforms back from the monster to a human, just before he dies he thanks Rudy for releasing him from the werewolf curse. Frankenstein’s monster is the heart of the film. When the gang accept him as being on their side he is invited into their treehouse and in one of the most touching moments of the film he catches his reflection and cowers away, realising that this is how he looks. All he can say is “scary” and it really is a little moving, mainly down to Tom Noonan’s wonderful portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. He and Phoebe form a very real bond and I defy you not to feel a lump in your throat when he gets sucked into the vortex. She throws him Scraps, her teddy bear, so he’s not alone in Limbo. This is heavy stuff. Sean is dealing with the breakdown of his parent’s marriage and there is one short scene between Sean and his father that is really touching. After being refused permission to go to the movies with his friends, Sean sits out on the roof of the house with a radio and a pair of binoculars to watch the movie on the distant drive-in screen, trying to find the audio on the radio. His dad joins him, knowing that he’s messed up with Sean’s mother and Sean. They share a burger and fries and just sit there watching the film. Simple, but lovely.
For me The Monster Squad works because it plays so well as a coming of age story, just set to the backdrop of a monster invasion of a small American town. It’s not trying to be Shakespeare, it’s not even trying to be any of the films that it is so obviously inspired by, The Monster Squad is most definitely its own type of thing. If you want The Goonies then this is probably not for you. If you want The Lost Boys then this is certainly not for you. If you want Scooby Doo then you really should start questioning your taste in movies (I jest, there’s always room for Scoob and co). But if you want some kind of amalgam of the three then you will certainly find The Monster Squad your kind of film, it’s just a shame it took 30 years to find. And never forget, if you ever get caught in a one-on-one with The Wolf Man and you have no silver on you, all you have to do is kick him between the legs as “The Wolf Man’s got nards!!”