March 10, 2013

THE MONSTER SQUAD Is An 80's Love Letter To The Classics

"Wolfman's got nards!"
Chief among the gaps in my viewing history is the entirety of the classic Universal monster collection.  By now the characters all sort of exist within the collective unconscious and most anyone can identify Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolfman, The Mummy and The Creature From The Black Lagoon immediately on sight.  However, I've never actually seen any of the original films starring the likes of Bella Lugosi, Lon Cheney and Boris Karloff.  I plan to tackle at least one movie for each of these iconic characters and now is actually a great time to do so, as Universal just released fully restored editions of each film in a great blu-ray boxed set.

But until I get around to dropping $90, I figured I'd get the ball rolling with 1987's The Monster Squad.  It's a movie I've seen fondly remembered and highly praised on the web for a long time now, starting right around the time that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was released.  I fell in love with Shane Black's modern detective noir comedy immediately, and while he's famous for action classics like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, he also wrote this tale of a group of neighborhood kids obsessed with monster movies who are forced to defend the universe from an all-star team of evil creatures lead by Dracula himself.

To be honest, that's really all you need to know.  There's a whole plot about an amulet, a 100-year prophecy and a German ritual that must be intoned by a virgin, but it's practically besides the point.  We're here for the monsters, and for the most part, they do not disappoint.  Duncan Regehr's Dracula is fantastically menacing and Stan Winston's Wolfman make up is pretty solid as well.  The always fun Jon Gries even gets a great transformation scene that is clearly influenced by Rick Baker's work in An American Werewolf In London.  The Mummy and the Creature From The Black Lagoon each look great but aren't really given much to do.  In fact, they both essentially disappear for most of the film which is a real shame.  On the other hand, Frankenstein's Monster is the absolute star of the show.  Dracula sends him to retrieve Van Helsing's diary from our pint sized heroes, but he quickly befriends the kids and becomes their soft-hearted protector.  There's a bit of the old teaching-the-fish-out-of-water-to-say-modern-slang stuff that would go on to induce so much eye rolling in Terminator 2, but without Edward Furlong it actually plays much better.  Tom Noonan brings a fantastic degree of pathos to the role and it's almost enough to make me want to watch a whole movie of just Frank and the kids hanging out in their treehouse.

If I had discovered The Monster Squad when I was in second or third grade, I have no doubt I would have totally loved it.  Moreover, it almost certainly would have spurred to seek out the Universal classics sooner.  That said, it's hard not to look back at it now as a low rent version of The Goonies.  The kids are never really fleshed out and given their own distinct personas, to the point that I honestly had trouble remembering some of their names.  The plot often makes no particular sense and doesn't so much border on silly as it blows right past silly on its way to absurdity.  For example, Dracula blows up the empty treehouse with sticks of dynamite for no other reason than to be a dick.  Also, an army battalion shows up at the end because the youngest kid sends a handwritten note that says, "Dear Army guys, there are monsters.  Come quick!"

For me, the biggest bright spot comes in the form of the main character's cop father and his wise cracking black partner.  They have a few fantastically clever scenes punctuated by rapid fire dialogue that almost feel like a rough draft of Lethal Weapon.  In fact, both films were released in 1987, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Black simply recycled some exchanges from one script to the other.

Anyway, Monster Squad is cute and fun and seriously entertaining, even if it is totally a creature of the 80s that's designed more for adolescents than adults.  It's not quite the home run I'd been lead to believe it was, but it is a solid ground rule double.  It often feels like a great premise that's been somewhat squandered, but it's the kind of movie that I'd love to show my future kids, if only so that it might instill a greater love of the legendary monsters from an early age.  I'd hate for them to repeat my mistake and go thirty years missing out on the classics.

Title: The Monster Squad
Director: Fred Dekker
Starring: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Stephen Macht, Duncan Regehr, Tom Noonan, Jon Gries
Year Of Release: 1987
Viewing Method: DVD

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