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The Monster Squad Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 30, 2009

    The Monster Squad Review

    “Awww, why do you want to review that - it's crap?”

    Well, that's the reaction I got from one of my closest friends, and a fellow film-fanatic, when I told him that I couldn't wait to write about Fred Dekker's 1987 creature-feature throwback, The Monster Squad. And the thing is, his reaction wasn't exactly unique - which bothers me quite a bit. There's no scientific formula for why a film works, or doesn't work. You could argue about the screenplay, the casting, the performances, direction, music, effects, whatever, till the cows come home ... but it often boils down to something completely elusive and, for lack of a better expression, magical to make a movie work. Now, after he had sent-up the alien and zombie genres with his terrific Night Of The Creeps (see my BD review elsewhere), Fred Dekker, still young, enthusiastic and devoted to all things fantastical, bent his not-inconsiderable talents to creating a pastiche to the cherished pantheon of old Universal Horror and, in particular, the monster mash-ups that ironically rang the death bell for the studio's once indomitable series of classic creature hokum. Perhaps, with hindsight, he and co-screenwriting buddy Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black should have taken heed from the critical and commercial tide-turning backlash that hurling together Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man had received back in the forties. But the fact that with The Monster Squad they forged a modern-day equivalent that walked a tightrope between kids' fantasy and genuine horror, between comedy and ripe homage should not be overlooked in any way.

    For all of its idiocies and contrivances, The Monster Squad, is damn fine entertainment and far from “crap”.

    The fact that it failed miserably at the box office is down to two things. Firstly, despite harking back to the crackly, fogbound style of Universal's backlot sets and yak-hair festooned characters, it was weirdly ahead of its time, actually premeditating the likes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and even Harry Potter in positing a world of classical crossovers, youthful exuberance in the face of supernatural villainy and good, old fashioned team spirit. Secondly, it was defiant in its fence-sitting attitude in that it was clearly intended as a kids' film, yet unafraid to water down the danger and the jeopardy that the kids, themselves, would face. And this, perhaps more crucially, was the element that had parents keeping the chosen market away ... in droves. Whilst the film does have some intense moments sitting maybe a tad too awkwardly alongside the fun-filled capers, Black and Dekker's (oh dear, I'm sorry about that!) approach does not condescend to kids, does not sanitise the threat and diffuse all that redolent atmosphere, and does not wimp-out. It is pretty much a given that darkness will be thwarted and that the monster-bashing moppets will win the day, but there are still a couple of times when you have some doubts about how many of them will make it back in time for supper. Dekker had already proved that he could manipulate audience expectations and ramp up some emotional connection despite the irresponsible lunacy of his plot in Night Of The Creeps with the sacrificial last stand that one of the main characters makes, and in The Monster Squad, which was neatly announced in graffiti on a toilet wall in his zombie-bug shoot 'em up, he hints at unhappiness and discontent on the home-front and the desperate need that these little guys have to belong to something and the desire to feel wanted. But this is most definitely not some kind of moral drama. It's a monster flick, folks. And that's that.

    “No, Sean! Scary house! Real monsters! Us, twelve years old, remember?”

    “Midnight ... end of the world ... remember?

    There's little point in logically assessing the hows, whys and wherefores of these terror titans coming together, because it simply doesn't add up. Their bunk-ups back in Universal's (un)hallowed days probably made even less sense than in Shane Black's typically apocalyptic (at least for Mankind, anyway) story, and if we really want to pick holes then we can also rightfully hamstring Stephen Sommers' woeful Van Helsing, too. In fact, it would probably be far more constructive for us to just hamstring Stephen Sommers! After a playfully frenetic and cockamamie prologue that sees, in true Hammer fashion, a gaudily-lit Gothic pad getting raided by Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) and ye olde band of freedom-fighters - obviously promoted from the simple torch-bearing peasants of yore - who are attempting, but failing, to consign Dracula (a box-faced Duncan Regehr) to a dreaded limbo-land through a swirling vortex opened up by the very amulet that is the source of his power, we are swept up into the present day (well, 1987) and into the club-house of the freshly christened Monster Squad. This gang of imaginative, horror-besotted twelve year olds, and one cute but irritating younger sister, convene in a fantastic tree-house, share movie anecdotes and genre lore and yearn for adventure. And, boy, are these pint-sized outsiders going to get one!

    “You stay here and change into something a little more ... comfortable, whilst I go out for a quick bite.”

    That's Drac laying down the night's itinerary for Wolfie, in case you didn't guess.

    With the original diary of Van Helsing now coming to rest in the hands of young Sean (Andre Gower), who is the ostensible leader of this erstwhile “Scooby” gang, a certain Mr. Alucard (yeah, okay, so the name “Louis Cypher” might throw a sozzled Mickey Rourke off the scent in Angel Heart, but the Count's spur-of-the-moment anagram isn't going to fool a monster-savvy kid for one second) seems pretty keen to get his spidery hands on it. The diary may provide the necessary clues to the whereabouts of that pesky amulet, now located somewhere in Anywhereville, USA ... which is, as it happens, just down the road from Sean and his chums in a big, old spooky mansion. But after dropping into the States without even passing through Immigration, Dracula isn't about to enter the fray all by his lonesome. So, calling upon the equally shady Wolf Man (a local “lunar-tic” played by Carl Thibault), Frankenstein's Monster (shipped by air from Bavaria alongside Dracula's uptight passenger, and played by magnificent uber-creepoid, Tom Noonan, celebrated bogeyman from Manhunter and Robocop 2), the swamp-residing and convenient load-carrying Gill-Man (special effects designer Tom Woodruff Jnr fleshing-out the elaborate suit) and a disheveled and rather superfluous 2000 year-old mummy (Michael McKay), who just got up and “went for a little walk” out of the front door of the local museum, he assembles an A-team or, more fittingly, a B-movie team to assist him in his sinister mission for world supremacy. For once every hundred years, you see, that amulet becomes fragile and, with the accompaniment of a certain incantation, can be used to vanquish him and his evil cohorts to oblivion. Then again, Van Helsing tried it at the start of the movie and he blew it, so what chance do a bunch of kids stand against the forces of evil?

    With the clock ticking towards that fateful centennial midnight hour, Sean's parents on the verge of separation, little Eugene's (Michael Faustino) closet filled by something that certainly isn't employed by Monsters Inc, the cops losing corpses by the minute, little Phoebe (Ashley Bank) bringing somebody very large and intimidating home for tea, and the quest to find a local virgin to recite the necessary ritual mantra coming up short, the town is in for one helluva couple of nights.

    “Scary German guys is bitchin'!

    The pitch that sees Dracula recruiting his ferocious and decidedly unpopular brethren was practically stolen, warts 'n' all by Sommers for his tortuously over-long travesty with Hugh Jackman. Dracula needs his “skeleton crew” to help him fashion his new dominion over the world of Man, but Frankenstein's Monster, once again misunderstood and really nothing more than a gentle, big-hearted giant, is the one whose conscience will be his scheme's eventual undoing. Even the Wolf Man, in human form, is a reluctant accomplice. Doped-up and strapped down until the Moon casts its spell, he is as much as victim of the Count as the three luscious high-school girls he keeps locked under the stairs for a night-time nibble. The inclusion of the mummy (“Band-aid-Breath”) and the Gill-Man (a brilliantly conceived, though underused homage to The Creature From The Black Lagoon) is really just a little bit of padding, roughly designed to match a monster to a munchkin. It is the main three icons, as always, who are the pivotal shudder-inducers.

    “Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets ... K-Mart?”

    The Wolf Man, as seen here in this crowded spectacle, may not be given much of a backstory, but what he gets is enough to have us actually sympathise with the poor wretch who is at the mercy of the lunar cycle and tries desperately to get himself banged-up before the full moon exerts its power. What I like about his hirsute alter-ego is that he is a lot more than just a flesh-ripping beast. He follows orders and certainly seems to be acting towards a greater purpose. But, hey, this is a Wolf Man, for Pete's sake, so what about his wilder side, eh? Well, he's pretty full-on in the physicality of getting the job done. There might not be any actual biting that we see, but he loves to tear into things and pummel people about with his wrestler's build, and there is a great pay-off to the early sequence that finds new Squad member, Rudy (Ryan Lambert), being quizzed during his initiation about how many ways there are to kill a werewolf, that is pretty, erm, explosive.

    The kids, themselves, are a great bunch. Gower brings some believable resilience and determination to Sean, sitting up on the roof to watch the latest chiller being screened at the drive-in through his binoculars and literally taking the fight to the monsters. Lambert's slightly older Rudy is the cool dude of the pack. Able to revert the school bullies (check out that enormous mushroom hairdo on one of them) to whimpering losers with just a quip and a gesture, he is modelled purely on Tom Cruise as seen in Risky Business. Yet, as Fred Dekker is keen to point out, although he looks like he rules the joint, there must be something missing in his life that makes him so smitten with the notion of joining the Monster Squad, although this void is jettisoned in favour of a winning street-smart attitude that makes him the action hero of the mob. Lambert is excellent in the role too, whether spying on girls getting undressed in the window or thunkking arrows into the breasts of Dracula's Californian babe-bride during a remakable pitched street-battle. Every gang has to have to a fat kid, and the Squad have the flatulent Horace, played by the late Brent Chalem. Responsible for the film's most famous quote after hoofing ol' hairy in the cojones - “Wolf Man's got nards!” - Horace is one step, but several hundred Twinkies away from doing the Truffle-Shuffle. And his shotgun-toting climactic turn is a classic moment of worm-turning pride. Robbie Kiger, as Sean's second-in-command, Patrick, has one of those immediately recognisable faces - yet one look at his filmography reveals astonishingly little to his name - and Ashley Bank ensures that Phoebe, Sean's interfering sister, is more cute than annoying. She and Noonan's statuesque patchwork Monster share a delightful nostalgic nod to James Whale's original movie ... but without the tragic outcome. However, it would be a heart of stone that didn't melt at the end when she is forced to say goodbye to a very special friend, and the sight of Dracula picking her up by the neck and hissing in her face is surprisingly effective and blood-boiling.

    Overall, this is a well-knit crew. Not as over-the-top as the Goonies, but just as resourceful - hats-off, then, to the quick thinking of a garlic pizza in the vampire's face!

    “That's it, Del. This case is too hard, man. Let's be firemen instead.”

    As Sean's career-suffering parents, we get to see Martin Riggs' perpetually exasperated welfare officer, Mary Ellen Trainor (one of those regular supporting MILF's from many a Richard Donner film, even playing another reckless kid's mum for lead Goonie, Sean Astin) and TV's familiar face Stephen Macht as his wits-end cop father, Del. The script attempts to wrestle to some marital blight into the bargain with Sean catching snippets of verbal strife and a strained home life, but this element is, thankfully, allowed to ebb away in the general mayhem that ensues once the monsters hit town. Although the film was potentially scarier than many parents were expecting, it seems that Dekker chose to draw the line at familial bust-ups. In this respect, a chunk of poor Mary Ellen's scenes wound-up excised from the finished film, and Macht certainly comes out smelling heroically of roses with far greater screen-time and much more presence in the story. His wisecracking buddy, Det. Sapir, played by the once-hulking Stan (The Boys In Company C) Shaw, provides some light relief, even if his character seems to have come strolling in from a TV movie. Elsewhere, we have the Scary German Guy, played by Leonardo Cimino, who aids the Squad in their deciphering of the old diary. Looking like a cross between a wizened old Stan Winston (the late, great FX-genius who was also the man behind the outstanding creature designs for the film) and an even older, more pinched Lee Van Cleef (if you can imagine such a thing) he narrowly avoids becoming the sentimental heart of the story with cracker-jack timing and crackpot driving.

    Remember how you used to love it when the Starfleet security men (the alien fodder in the red jerseys) and the Moonbase Alpha guards (the alien fodder with a red stripe down their uniforms, this time), or even the soldiers from Doctor Who's UNIT (no red with these fellers) got involved in monstrous scrapes only to get wasted left, right and centre? Well, Fred Dekker has something of the same nostalgic hankering for seeing our trusted and reliable law enforcers getting out-gunned and decimated by something unutterably otherworldly. Here, he makes sure that we witness the town's rather scrap-happy coppers (all of them in those lush Cavett Cove-style, shiny green fleece-jackets) getting their heads squished, their arms twisted, their necks broken and just, well, flung about all over the place. After a moon-invigorated tussle with a pre-change Wolf Man in the local cop-shop, Dekker fires-up the body-slamming for a veritable tag-team grapple-fest of monsters vs rozzers during the free-for-all finale on the streets. It is a show-stopper and a crowd-pleaser all rolled into one continuous cavalcade of pulverising punishment and brazen brain-stomping. One casual backhanded swipe in the mush from Dracula, and you are out for the Count. Dekker does well with this elaborate action sequence ... although what exactly happens to the third Bride, Fred?

    “Give me the amulet, you bitch!

    Another element that proved to be a highly lauded golden laurel for The Monster Squad was the score from Bruce Broughton, that has remained fan-cherished and critically praised ever since the film's debut. A riot of grand orchestral colour and rich thematic mysterioso, this thundering music borrows from greats like Max Steiner, Frank Skinner (no, not the Mekon-headed comedian) and Hans J Salter, all of whom had tackled the heart-lurching might and spectral eeriness of vintage blood-curdlers for James Whale, George Waggner, Erle C. Kenton and Roy William Neill. Broughton, who was enjoying a massive string of critical successes during this period with the likes of Young Sherlock Holmes, Silverado, Harry And The Hendersons and The Presidio, pulled out all the stops and delivered a bravura score that so perfectly captured the gothic extravagance and thrilling necromancy of the story that it could be lifted off The Monster Squad and laid over the top of any of the classic chillers from Universal's most prestigious era. Fans of the Universal run can listen out for many little “steals” and nods that Broughton sneaks inot his score, too.

    “Hey, Fat Kid! Good job.”

    “My name ... is Horace!

    And film-fans, in general, can also enjoy the familiarity that can be found with Sean's cosy little street. It is the same one that housed the Murtaugh Family in Lethal Weapon - in fact, another cop-car hurtles across a lawn this time out, as well - and, just a couple of houses down from where Del pumps rounds into an unconcerned Dracula, you can see where Charlton Heston once fortified himself against the albino mutants in The Omega Man. Now, how's that for a genre pedigree? The Monster Squad may walk a tightrope between fear and farce, but the film is justifiably hailed as a cult classic, just one that took a while to permeate into the cultural lexicon. Fred Dekker imbues his madcap narrative with charm, wit and lots of good-natured references to the vintage horrors that inspired it. He works tremendously well with his young cast, who all acquit themselves with gusto. For my money, he makes a much better stab of Universal homage than Stephen Sommers, who confuses atmosphere with excess, and inventive theatricality with soulless incident. And it is even recalled in tone and in its classic creature-combo-pack style in the awesome animated Monsters Vs Aliens (see BD review). Yet the film did pitifully upon its cinematic run and quickly sank from screens, putting another nail in Fred Dekker's creative coffin after the poor showing of Night Of The Creeps before it. There is no mistaking the fact that the filmmaker's heart was broken and that he struggled to regain his once awesome knack for fun horror tributes. With the risible Robocop 3 cementing his cinematic dismissal it sadly seems, at the moment anyway, that he is consigned to little more than greeting fans at conventions and packing his two great, but largely unsung genre efforts with as much love and attention as he can muster for their long-overdue appearances on spinning silver platters.

    “Rudy, where you going?”

    “I'm in the goddamn club, aren't I?”

    Long Live The Monster Squad!