The Monster Squad
Dir. by Fred Dekker
Starring Andre Gower, Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan
A club of monster movie-obsessed pre-teens learns that monsters are real when Dracula comes to their town, accompanied by the other Universal horror monsters. He’s searching for a mystical amulet hidden somewhere in the town that will give him the power to permanently upset the balance between good and evil.
I grew up watching this movie. I don’t consciously recall seeing the original Universal horror movies until I was in college, so this was almost certainly my cinematic introduction to Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man and others. In recent years, my family has embraced The Monster Squad in the way that a lot of millennials have Hocus Pocus. We watch it every Halloween after trick or treating ends.
Continuing with this unplanned series of mid-80s “kids in serious danger” movie reviews, we have The Monster Squad. This one is nestled right in the “cult classic” zone, neither as widely beloved as The Goonies or as little-known as Cloak & Dagger. It actually seems to be very heavily inspired by The Goonies, from the mix of personalities in the club to the life-threatening dangers they have to face along the way. Mary Ellen Trainor (the mom in The Goonies) even plays the mother of the main character here. However, I think that the supernatural plot differentiates it sufficiently enough for the film to stand apart from its influences.
Speaking of influences, the movie leans very hard on a familiarity with monster movies in general and the Universal horror pictures of the 30s-50s in particular, while also being a PG-13 movie marketed at a demographic much younger than the average horror aficionado. This leads to an odd unevenness of tone, where the movie veers wildly from comedy to horror and back again. It contains both graphic sequences where characters get blown up with dynamite, and a scene where one of the kids kicks the Wolf Man in the groin and is surprised that he’s “got nards!”
However, I think that this shifting of tone makes a little more sense when you realize that the movie was an early script by Shane Black, whose Lethal Weapon pulled off the same thing much more successfully earlier the same year. Many of his scripts, such as Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, display a similar mix of serious action and humorous banter. It’s just that this one involves kids, so I feel that there was an inclination for him to go with what he perceived as a more “juvenile” sense of humor, which only serves to heighten the clash in tones.
That isn’t to say, of course, that I don’t appreciate the humor or writing. I actually find the dialogue and interactions between the various Squad members to be very believable, and quite true to how 12-year-olds might have actually acted in the mid-late 80s (I’d like to say that I know that from experience, but I was only five years old when this movie came out). Of course, that also means that there’s a current of true-to-the-period casual homophobia in some of their insults to each other. Also, the sole PoC in the movie (which is doubly glaring given that it’s obviously set somewhere in the American South) is the skeptic cop who doesn’t take anything that’s going on seriously, and gets blown up to start the “shit gets real” finale.
Finally, I want to take a moment to praise the design and portrayal of the various monsters in the movie. While the style of werewolf used isn’t my favorite – I never felt that the Universal Wolf Man read as a “wolf” all that much without any sort of actual muzzle – the makeup itself and the transformation sequences are quite well done, if a little short. The movie’s Frankenstein (which they accurately identify as being the name of his creator, not the monster, and then go ahead and use for him anyway) evokes the classic Boris Karloff makeup while being updated for then-modern techniques. And the version of the Creature From the Black Lagoon makeup created for this movie is perhaps the best fishman creature makeup pre-Shape of Water. While the lead villain, Dracula, is saddled with a fairly cheesy costume taken right out of the Bela Lugosi movies, Duncan Regehr gives it his all, bringing a subdued, quiet menace to every scene. He’s actually one of my favorite portrayals of Dracula in any movie.
So yeah, looking back on the movie as an adult, I can see how it has a bit of a tone issue, and how some of the horror elements had to be toned down to make this into a family-friendly movie. However, there’s still a lot to like about the movie. Certainly enough to where it deserves a place alongside Hocus Pocus as a cult Halloween movie.
-It’s clear that the creatures themselves weren’t all that they studied about the classic Universal movies when making Monster Squad. In the original Bela Lugosi Dracula, Dracula’s castle was inexplicably populated by armadillos (native to North America) instead of rats, and hyenas instead of wolves. Sure enough, in the first scene of Monster Squad, Dracula wakes up from his crypt in Transylvania and two armadillos go running off in the background.
-This is yet another movie with a couple of significant Star Trek connections. Duncan Regehr (Dracula) was the reoccurring character of Shakaar on DS9, and the main character’s dad, Stephen Macht, was also on that show in the three-parter that opened season two.
-The reveal that the “scary German guy” that all of the neighborhood kids are afraid of, and whom they reluctantly turn to for help, is actually a concentration camp survivor is not done particularly subtly. However, given how young I was when I first saw this, I’m not sure I actually understood the implications of the number on his arm for some time.
-[minor spoilers for the general plot concept of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn fantasy book series (highlight to read)]: This movie starts with an opening crawl that ends “a small band 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.” Every time I pitch the plot of Mistborn to a prospective reader, I use pretty much this exact phrasing, minus the vampires part.
-“Wolfman’s got nards!”