'80s films, 31 Days of Halloween, Adam Carl, Andrew Gower, Ashley Bank, auteur theory, Bradford May, Brent Chalem, Carl Thibault, co-writers, Count Dracula, creature feature, cult classic, Dracula, Duncan Regehr, favorite films, fighting monsters, Film auteurs, Frankenstein's monster, Fred Dekker, horror films, horror-comedies, influential films, Jack Gwillim, Jason Hervey, kids in peril, kids vs monsters, kids' movies, Leonardo Cimino, Mary Ellen Trainor, Michael Faustino, Michael MacKay, monster hunters, Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps, Robby Kiger, Ryan Lambert, scrappy kids, set in the 1980's, Shane Black, special-effects extravaganza, Stan Winston, Stephen Macht, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Monster Squad, The Mummy, the Wolfman, Tom Noonan, Tom Woodruff Jr., Universal monster movies, Van Helsi, Van Helsing, writer-director, young adult films
At the risk of sounding like a complete grump (“Please get off my lawn, if you don’t mind too terribly”), kids/young adult movies were a lot better in the ’80s. I know, I know…everything was better back in the day, right? Far from being a knee-jerk condemnation of anything new and au courant, however, I actually have some solid reasoning behind my opinion (mixed with plenty of good, old-fashioned personal prejudices, of course). Sure, there was plenty of awful, commercial, soulless bullshit out there, just like there always is, but there was also a pretty unbeatable string of absolute classics that came out between 1981 and 1987: Time Bandits (1981), E.T. (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985), Fright Night (1985), Labyrinth (1986), Stand By Me (1986), The Gate (1987), The Lost Boys (1987) and, of course, Fred Dekker’s amazing The Monster Squad (1987).
If there’s one commonality that these decidedly disparate films share, it would have to be the understanding that children are neither angelic cherubs nor empty vessels for adult motivations: like adults, kids have their own personalities, foibles, quirks, ways of talking and notions of “good vs evil.” The best kids’ movies, as far as I’m concerned, are the ones that allow children to be genuine and act like real kids: they swear like sailors, use non politically correct language, think the opposite sex is completely gross (up until the moment those hormones kick in), are smarter than we give them credit for and think that adults who talk down to them are dumb-asses. The very best kids’ movies don’t sugarcoat or sanitize everything: there have to be real stakes because that’s the way life really is. Think back to films like E.T. and The Goonies: despite their status as “kids’ movies,” both films feature genuinely scary, dangerous moments. The aforementioned ’80s kids’ films all feature death as a very real consequence, which makes them successful as both kids’ movies AND genre films. As far as I’m concerned, the very-best kids’ movies, just like the very best animated films and cartoons, should be able to be appreciated by adults, as well. Dumbing down entertainment does no one any favors.
All of this, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that The Monster Squad is one of the most kickass films in the long and legendary history of the modern cinema. This is pure opinion, of course, but I’m also fairly sure that it could be proven scientifically, if necessary. I can’t actually recall the first time I saw the film, although I’m fairly positive I was no older than my early teens, if that. Since that time, however, I’ve fondly returned to Dekker and scribe-supreme Shane Black’s ode to growing up in the era of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria magazines time and time again. Like the best films of that era, I never get tired of re-visiting the movie: each time, it’s like taking a little trip back to my childhood, a time when monsters were real, adults were lame and kids had all the answers, even if no one was asking them the questions.
Kicking-off with a supremely fun setpiece set “100 years in the past,” we’re introduced to that most famous of monster hunters, Abraham van Helsing (Jack Gwillim), as he and his “freedom fighters” attempt to rid the world of vampires and monsters. “They blew it,” as the on-screen text tells us, but we already knew that: otherwise, what would be the point?
In the here and now, we meet our two main protagonists: Sean (Andrew Gower) and Patrick (Robby Kiger). They’re the kind of kids who are totally obsessed with all things monster and horror-related: they get sent to the principal after they’re caught drawing monsters in class and even have their own “official” monster club: the Monster Squad. The other member of their group is Horace (Brent Chalem), the wise-beyond-his-years outcast who gets saddled with “fat kid” by school bullies E.J. (Jason Hervey) and Derek (Adam Carl) and is pushed around so much that he’s always just one pivot away from a pratfall. The worm turns, however, when E.J. bullies Horace once too many times and incurs the wrath of Rudy (Ryan Lambert), the resident “bad kid.” Rudy’s in junior high, wears a leather jacket, smokes cigarettes, peeps on girls through bedroom windows with binoculars and doesn’t take kindly to bullies: the triumphant scene where he forces E.J. to eat Horace’s candy bar off the ground sets the stage for what’s to come…these misfits are about to shine!
But where would a Monster Squad be without monsters to fight? Luckily (or unluckily), the gang is going to have plenty of monsters to take a swing at. Seems that ol’ Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) has hatched a plot to take over the world with the help of some old cronies: Frankenstein’s monster (Tom Noonan), the Wolfman (Carl Thibault), the Gillman (Tom Woodruff Jr.) and the Mummy (Michael MacKay). When the adults around them, including Sean’s policeman father, Del (Stephen Macht), fail to connect the dots on the bigger scheme, it’s up to The Monster Squad to stop Drac’s plot. Lucky for them, they just happen to have their hands on Van Helsing’s diary, which might have a tip or two on how to stop the unholy fiends. Unluckily for them, however, Dracula is on to them and will stop at nothing until all impediments to his progress have been destroyed, be it man, woman or child. Things are about to get awful hairy but never fear…the Monster Squad is on the case!
From start to finish, Dekker’s The Monster Squad is just about the most fun someone could have at the cinema, especially if you happen to be a horror fanatic likes yours truly. The cast is phenomenal, highlighted by totally fist-pumping performances by Chalem and Lambert as, respectively, Horace and Rudy. Horace, in particular, is a totally awesome character: he’s a completely three-dimensional character who’s the furthest thing from the odious “fat kid” stereotype in youth movies. In fact, Horace’s progression from picked-on outsider to ass-kicker is subtle because he already kicks ass when we first meet him…by the end, he’s just received enough self-assurance to be proud about it. One of the greatest parts of this film (or any film, for that matter) is the epic moment where Horace’s former bullies look on in admiration as he helps mop up the monsters. “Hey, fat kid…good job,” says E.J., looking suitably awed. Horace’s response? “My name (cocking his shotgun) is Horace!” If you don’t jump up from your seat, cheering, you were probably never young, to begin with.
As I mentioned earlier, the kids in The Monster Squad actually look and sound like real kids: they swear, discuss “wolf dork” as the reason for the Wolfman wearing pants (which leads to the legendary moment where Sean tells Horace to kick the Wolfman “in the nards.” Horace complains that he “doesn’t have them,” before being proven wrong once he actually kicks him and the monster doubles over in pain. “Wolfman’s got nards!,” Horace triumphantly proclaims, as if he just discovered the cure for cancer), say “Bogus” a lot, roll their eyes at authority figures and are casually cruel and sexist. They’re pretty much the furthest thing from sanitized “Disney” versions of kids and are all the more indelible for it.
Despite having only three films under his belt (Night of the Creeps (1986), The Monster Squad and RoboCop 3 (1993), Fred Dekker is easily one of my favorite filmmakers in the entire world. Night of the Creeps is an absolutely perfect ’80s B-movie (one of the film’s best jokes is even repeated in The Monster Squad, as Del notes that dead bodies don’t walk around, only for us to witness the Mummy doing just that), as is The Monster Squad: I must admit to remembering nothing whatsoever about RoboCop 3 but I’m willing to wager that must have been pretty swell, as well, if Dekker was involved. For my money, he’s one of the most successful, effortless combiners of horror and comedy in the business. Dekker also populates his films with dynamic, fascinating characters, whether main or supporting: no one in a Dekker film is just cannon-fodder, regardless of how much or little screen-time they get.
One of The Monster Squad’s secret weapons, of course, is screenwriter Shane Black. Beginning with his script for Lethal Weapon (1987), Black has been responsible for some of the best, smartest and most interesting action scripts in the business: he wrote The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), all of which flip the genre on its head in some interesting, fun ways. Co-scripting with Dekker, Black comes up with one of his best, tightest scripts: the film is full of not only great scenes but plenty of awesome dialogue, as well. There’s a great moment where Rudy tries to kick in the door of a locked church, only to be told, “Don’t kick the church: it’s religious.” His response? “It’s locked, is what it is.” Classic. There’s also a really great, subtle moment where the kids remark that the “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino) who helps them translate Van Helsing’s diary must know a a lot about monsters. “I suppose that I do,” he replies wistfully, as the camera lingers on his concentration-camp tattoo. It’s the kind of real moment that happens all too little in most kids’ movies: The Monster Squad is full of them, however, and all of that credit is due to a tremendously good script.
Ultimately, even after studiously looking for flaws, I can only find minor quibbles with The Monster Squad: despite being designed by Stan Winston, none of the monsters are really a patch on the originals (the Mummy, in particular, is rather scrawny) and the film can also, upon occasion, get a little silly. It is a kids’ film, after all, so at least some measure of silliness is to be expected. For the most part, however, The Monster Squad, like Night of the Creeps, is just about as flawless as they come: action-packed, full of great humor and a real love letter to the Golden Age of Monsters, Fred Dekker’s film is an unmitigated classic. If there were any justice in this world, The Monster Squad’s promise of further adventures would have been fulfilled ten-fold. As it stands, however, we’ll just have to settle for what we got: one of the very best kids’ movies of all time.