Monday, October 5, 2015

Even Wolfman Has Nards: "Monster Squad"


If ever there was a film that could sum up my childhood, it would be Monster Squad. Scratch that. If ever there was a film that could sum up the childhood I wish I'd had, it would be Monster Squad. Directed by Fred Dekker and written by a then unknown commodity named Shane Black, Monster Squad is a loving homage to the classic monsters of the Universal era made at a time when the vacancy left behind by the slasher craze had yet to be filled. By 1987, filmmakers were still convinced that horror could be a moneymaker, and yet they were less certain about the type of fright films that could rake in the dough. Sequels were a guarantee, but audiences were tired of seeing Jason doing his thing over and over again (this trend is parodied in Monster Squad with Groundhog Day Part 12, a ridiculous slasher film that Sean [played by Andre Gower] watches from the roof of his house). 1985's Fright Night tried to kickstart a new vampire craze, which saw its apex two years later with the MTV-inspired The Lost Boys. Monster Squad was in some ways part of this new emphasis on old monsters, and yet it feels quite different. 


Whereas teens were the target audience for most '80s horror, Monster Squad tries to connect with both preteens and their parents. On the one hand, preteens were supposed to get a kick out of the main characters and their titular social club. Kids in 1987 could easily identify with the horror-obsessed Sean and his cohort Patrick (played by Robby Kiger), the cool older kid Rudy (played by Ryan Lambert), and the lovable and fat scaredy-cat Horace (played by Brent Chalem). Although they get away with a lot more than the average middle schooler, the Monster Squad still has to deal with school, parents, and curfews. You know, the truly terrifying stuff. 

On the other hand, the Monster Squad kids seem strangely out-of-place. Despite their clothes and their profanity (which Black and co. more than likely threw into the film as an added incentive for curious thirteen-year-olds), the Monster Squad harken back to the original "monster kids" of the 1950s and '60s. Thanks to television broadcasts of the Universal monster movies from the 1930s, the postwar kids, who had already gotten a taste of illicit chills from comic books, grew obsessed not only with Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the wolf man, but also with the bug-eyed Martians of their own decade. The end result was a widespread nerd culture devoted to monster movie magazines, campy rock and roll songs, and other ghoulish ephemera. When these kids grew up and became parents, they saw their adolescent years reproduced on the screen in the form Monster Squad


This cross-generational quality is echoed by the film's boyishly raucous plot. In sum, Count Dracula (played by Duncan Regehr) lands in Anywhere, America and quickly sets about freeing other monsters. The first is a local werewolf (played by Jonathan Gries). The next is an ancient Egyptian mummy housed at a local museum (played by Michael MacKay). Finally, Frankenstein's monster (played by Tom Noonan) and Gill-man (played by Tom Woodruff Jr.) are resurrected at a conveniently foggy swamp. Now, with his fellow monsters alive and ready to strike, Dracula sets up shop at a large mansion on the outskirts of town. Somehow, this mansion defies all logic and is actually more of a European-style castle (it even has a dungeon) smack dab in the suburbs. As it turns out, this mansion used to belong to the followers of Abraham van Helsing, the monster hunter who appears in the film's opening sequence, which involves a virgin reciting German, Dracula's gothic castle, an amulet, and a black hole that opens up once a year in order to eradicate all of the world's evil. Convoluted, I know. 

Well, the action of Monster Squad takes place one hundred years later. Dracula wants the amulet, so he can erase all the world's good and let darkness reign, while the boys of the Monster Squad have other ideas. Along the way, the Monster Squad find adult compatriots in the form of Scary German Guy (played Leonardo Cimino), a Jewish Holocaust survivor who helps the boys pull off the recitation ritual during the finale, and Sean's dad Del (played by Stephen Macht), a police detective who slowly figures out that monsters ARE REAL. Younger kids like Phoebe (played by Ashley Bank) and Eugene (played by Michael Faustino) help out, too. 


The biggest contribution comes from Frankenstein's monster, however. After turning against Dracula for no real reason at all, Frankie joins the Monster Squad and helps to save the day by sending Dracula back to hell. In the process, old boltneck doesn't make it, thus keeping the dictum that All Monster Must Die! intact. 

A zany, carefree, and heartwarming story about foul-mouthed kids and monsters running amok in modern America, Monster Squad is for the creepy kid in all of us. Film buffs may look at this film as nostalgia amplified to 1,000, or maybe they like to think of it as Shane Black tapping into his true self before he made millions with films like Lethal Weapon and Iron Man 3. Whatever the case, Monster Squad is gooey popcorn food for the eyes. One watch is enough to understand why middlebrow art remains so dominant, while two to twenty viewings are enough to get all of the catchphrases down to a science. Dig in, my friends. 


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