There are classics and then there are cult classics. Films held so dear by genre nuts that it’s hard to write a traditional review of them. If you grew up in the ’80’s and ’90’s, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad was such a film. A sort of holy grail for monster fanatics, the movie features almost all of the classic monsters, updated lovingly for the 1980’s. Absent only is the Invisible Man, but I think that can be forgiven.
It would be easy to write off Monster Squad as a crass Goonies/Ghostbusters hybrid. In many ways, it does borrow from the popular films of its day. Everything from Indiana Jones to the Friday the 13th franchise is referenced. But the screenplay by director Dekker and Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black has personality to boot. Their clear affections for classic horror films reach back much further than the 1980’s to The Little Rascals and even detective movies. Monster Squad might wear its influences on its sleeve, but is ultimately its own film.
The Squad themselves are almost pure wishful fulfillment for monster fans. Growing up in a small town, living for horror movies, I related a lot to these kids. I practically lived at my local video store, devouring as many horror movies as I could get my hands on. The very concept that your horror fandom could help you become a hero is years ahead of its time. It’s the kind of post-modern, self-referential thinking that became more popular in ’90’s. But it’s seldom handled as well or as with as much charm. The kids in the Monster Squad represent a good cross section of pre-teens and teens. Thusly, most kids can find someone to relate too. You could probably still find kids a lot like this in junior highs across America.
My personal favorite member of the Squad is Rudy (Ryan Lambert), a sort of New Wave version of a greaser. As the oldest member of the group, Rudy gets to play action hero most of the film and gets his lion’s share of the choice one-liners. However, despite the fact that Rudy might be the only horror hero ever to wear penny loafers, there is the sense that he isn’t quite as cool as he thinks he is. Deep down, he’s just another horror nerd like the rest of the Squad, otherwise why would he willingly hang out with a bunch of kids?
Andre Gower is also a lot of fun as Sean, the team’s leader. He’s not as flashy a character as Rudy, but Gower still shows excellent comic timing and he is totally believable as an accidental hero. While confident, Sean never comes off as an “adult” version of a child hero. He’s the buddy you wish you had in junior high.
There are adult heroes in the film as well. Notably Leonardo Cimino as “Scary German Guy” an elderly holocaust survivor who befriends the Monster Squad. Stephen Macht is also good as Sean’s workaholic cop father. Both characters aid a level of grounded reality to what could have simply been pure fantasy.
The designs of the monsters are also amazing. Each classic creature was updated by Stan Winston and his team. The film features not only one of my all-time favorite cinematic Wolfmen, but also has amazing versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Gill-Man. They just stop short of looking like their Universal incarnations, but feel contemporary of the 1980’s.
The head honcho of the monsters is none other than Count Dracula, played Duncan Regehr. Regehr ranks as one of my favorite screen Draculas. A sociopath with a dry wit, this Dracula is having a good time being bad, but never sacrifices his menace. There is a point where Dracula just pile drives through a group of police officers, which has shades of The Terminator. It made a very strong impression on me as a kid and is still one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Regehr, a former figure skater and boxer just sells the power of this superhuman killing machine. Combining that physicality with a certain stereotypical European haughtiness makes for a very watchable master villain.
It’s Dracula whom most of the plot centers on. It seems back in the 1800’s, his epic feud with Professor Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) ended with the Professor being sucked into limbo via a mystic amulet. Every 100 years, the balance between good and evil can be flipped. So Dracula has banded together the baddest of the bad and it’s up to our heroes to stop them. It’s wonderfully pulpy stuff; old fashioned in just the right way.
Horror veteran Tom Noonan also puts in a strong performance as Frankenstein’s Monster. Noonan’s take on the Monster owes a lot to Karloff’s classic portrayal. He’s childlike and seemingly unaware of his massive strength at times. He also forms a special bond with Sean’s younger sister, Phoebe (Ashley Bank). Those hoping for a more black hearted monster movie might not enjoy this kind of thing. But even as an adult, it’s hard for me not to be charmed by them as a duo.
The Wolfman also has an interesting arc, both an ally and enemy of Dracula. In his human form, he’s played by Jon Gries, whom horror fans will know from Fright Night II. Despite his limited screen time, Gries manages to give us the sense that he is a tortured soul. He doesn’t like what his furry alter-ego is up to and heroically tries to stop the Count the best he can. It’s a nice detail that fans of the original Wolfman movies will enjoy.
Monster Squad never talks down to its audience. The monsters are portrayed as dangerous and even ol’ Franky seems like he’s had a checkered past in Dracula’s service. I think one of the reasons the movie has continued to be popular with monster fans is that it does treat its subject matter respectfully. In fact it has more respect than most of Universal’s own attempts to reboot their classic horror franchise.
There is also substantial classic Hammer Horror style gore. While not quite the gallons of grue seen in other ’80’s horror flicks, for a kiddie movie they do bring the goods. The stand out sequence being one where the Wolfman gets blown to bits, only to reassemble moments later. There is only one way to kill a werewolf!
I still remember the first time I saw Monster Squad, it was at a Church camp sleep over on VHS. I watched it from behind a dining time, slightly scared, but always excited and intrigued. It was love at first sight. If anything, my appreciation of Monster Squad has grown with each viewing over the years. It’s a movie you should share with the young horror fan in your family. You might help their interest grow into a life-long love.