Universal Pictures turns 100 this year. Back when they were 75, their famous monsters returned to the screen courtesy of Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad. Dekker and co-screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) resurrect Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon for 1980’s audiences. Thankfully, they don’t give them standard ’80s operating protocol (machine guns, one-liners). Outside of some serious no-no language from Dracula, and an added feature to the Wolf Man, Black and Dekker keep the proceedings retro. The monsters retain their old-school appearance, subtly updated by makeup guru, Stan Winston.
The filmmakers love their source material. One can imagine the human aspects of The Monster Squad as some form of semi-autobiographical recollection. A group of young boys have a club devoted to old Monster movies. Though it’s 1987, these kids are mostly focused on the pre-slasher days. Jason and Freddy are nowhere to be found, though at some point, there’s mention of Groundhog Day 12. One can only hope the axe murderer slashing his way through this series turns out to be Bill Murray.
While our band of brothers has the usual suspects (adventurous leader, requisite fat kid, annoying runt who wants to join the group), The Monster Squad can’t help but add a little fantasy to its motley crew. The coolest teenage rebel in the neighborhood expresses interest in joining this Geek Squad. The leader, Sean (Andre Gower), asks Rudy (Ryan Lambert) questions pertaining to the monsters he’ll encounter later. Rudy aces the test, though there is some question about the ways to kill a werewolf. Rudy’s reward for being in the treehouse of a bunch of pre-pubescent kids is an unobstructed view of the exhibitionist sister of one of the Squad members.
Squad borrows a page from 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In that film, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula plans to resurrect Frankenstein’s Monster and take over the world. Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man enlists Bud and Lou to help him stop Drac’s evil plan. The Monster Squad follows a similar plotline, complete with Wolfie issuing his dire warnings, but the true ally here is the Monster. In a minor bit of inspired casting, Frankenstein’s monster is played by writer-director Tom Noonan. Noonan fills the role of yet another standard ’80s preteen movie staple, the gentle mutant. Frankie’s creation is just Sloth from The Goonies with more personality. There’s a sweetness to his interactions with 6-year old actress Ashley Bank.
The Monster Squad begins with an opening scroll, which talks about “a time when Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and a small band of freedom fighters conspired to rid the world of vampires and monsters…and to save mankind from the forces of evil…” The scroll pauses a bit, then informs us that “they blew it.” Blame the magical amulet, created by Richard Edlund and his visual effects team. Activated by a virgin’s spoken words, the amulet opens a portal that will pull anyone and anything evil in its path into Limbo. Van Helsing’s discovers in his research that the amulet, though technically indestructible, can be shattered once every 100 years. If destroyed, the forces of evil will take over. Unaware of how powerful it is, Van Helsing and a slew of the undead are accidentally sucked into the amulet’s black hole.
Fast-forward a hundred years to 1987. With Van Helsing doing the Limbo Rock, Drac is free to obtain the amulet and destroy it. He rallies the aforementioned troops and literally descends upon the same town that houses both The Monster Squad and the amulet. While being transferred via plane, Drac and his packages fall through the cargo bay and into a lake. Also present in the lake is the Creature from the Black La—I mean, whatever this body of water is called.
Meanwhile, strange things are happening in town. At the museum, the priceless mummy exhibit mysteriously walks off without notifying museum security. A crazed man (Jon Gries) barges into the police station proclaiming to be a werewolf. He’s temporarily shot dead, resurrected by the moon and Drac’s call to arms. All interested parties meet at 666 Shadowview Lane, where the amulet is hidden, though they have no idea how to use it. All our Universal monsters report to a revamped vampire who looks, so help me God, like Mitt Romney.
Our human heroes have their own problems. Horace (Brent Chalem), aka “Fat Kid,” has to deal with The Wonder Years’ Jason Hervey bullying him. Sean’s 5-year old sister, Phoebe (Ashley Bank) keeps trying to join the all male Squad. Eugene (David Faustino’s brother Michael) has a monster in his closet (he wisely contacts the Army about this via a note written on Kindergarten-style paper. They show up.). And Sean’s priceless copy of Van Helsing’s diary is written in German, rendering it unreadable by anyone but the Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino) who freaks out the neighborhood kids. Count Mittens wants that book—it’s the instruction manual for the amulet—and he’ll do anything to get it.
On the Night of the Creeps DVD, Dekker says he and Black collaborated on the screenplay while at UCLA. This explains why our heroes have a frat-boy attitude despite their average age of 13. These kids jockey for position and goof off even in the face of danger. They constantly refer to people with less than polite nicknames. They taunt each other by saying “faggot” a lot, which is either piss-poor screenwriting or a wink toward just how homoerotic their Squad really is. Girls aren’t allowed, and while Rudy is staring at the topless Emily from the gang’s treehouse, at least one of those boys is staring at the leather clad Rudy. You can wring a lot from some un-PC language and close male camaraderie!
The filmmakers wring even more out of ’80s film clichés, including Edlund’s effects and the soundtrack. Michael Sembello, formerly of both Stevie Wonder’s band and the Flashdance soundtrack, sings to us about “rocking til you drop” and “dancing ’til your feet fall off.” It’s so goofy, so 1987 that I had to repeatedly watch the (standard ’80s issue) weapons-making montage to hear it. Sean’s homemaker Mom and cop dad’s marital problems are touched upon, and the lone Black face in the film is, in true horror movie fashion, sent to his death. When Count Mittens blows up Black actor Stan Shaw’s police car with a stick of dynamite, I immediately thought “well that’s one way he can win a Presidential debate…”
I liked The Monster Squad better when I first saw it. Unlike Dekker’s masterpiece, Night of the Creeps (which I covered here last year) its allure must have worn off as I aged. Still, I was engaged during this viewing, and there are nostalgic touches I still enjoyed: Frankenstein’s first encounter with Phoebe pays homage to the tragic little girl scene from the 1931 classic. A candle designed to “ward off monsters” conveniently goes out just before the climactic attack. A drinking game can be made from the blatant product placement of Burger King and Pepsi. The closing credits rap song is even worse than the one in Dragnet. And Fat Kid does what no one else ever considered in a werewolf movie: He kicks the monster in the nuts. As the monster stoops in pain, the late Chalem utters the film’s most quoted line:
“Wolfman’s got nards!”
So does The Monster Squad, though they’re not as big as I remembered.
The Odienator’s got nards too. Sometimes he uses ’em at Roger Ebert’s Demanders Blog, Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness.