Fright Fest 2018: The Monster Squad (1987)
Directed By: Fred Decker (Night of the Creeps, Robocop 3)
Starring: Duncan Regehr (V, 1988’s The Last Samuri, Zorro Television Show), Tom Noonan (The House of the Devil, Late Phases, The Alphabet Killer), Jon Gries (Skinwalker Rancher, Napoleon Dynamite, Fright Night Part 2), Tom Woodruff Jr. (Pumpkinhead, Tremors, Mortal Kombat), Michael Reid Mackay (Highway to Hell, Sleepwalkers, X-Men 2), and Stephen Macht (Graveyard Shift, Trancers film series, The Legend of Galgameth)
Written By: Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero) and Fred Dekker (House, Night of the Creep, Robocop 3)
Release Year: 1987
Just like with Near Dark, I’m going to give a bias warning for this one too. I have loved Monster Squad since I was a kid, and to this day, it’s a film I bring out when my depression gets the better of me. There’s something about it that has always managed to cheer me up, even at my lowest. I’d say it’s the nostalgic remembrance of the clubs we used to make as kids, but I was a weird kid, so my clubs were usually of the one person variety. I think it might have been because Horace, otherwise known as “Fat Kid”, actually got a fairly positive spin despite it being the 80’s and him being, as his name implies, the fat kid. There weren’t a whole lot of overweight characters that were anything but jokes or bullies when I was young, I remember loving Bonanza for the sole reason that Hoss was a fat guy this fat kid could look up too, but Horace was an exception. He might start out as mostly a joke, but by the end of the film, he’s not only been given the best line in cinematic history, and I will fight you over this if I need, but he’s become quite the young badass. Then again, I might love this one simply because it’s an awesome movie, and it cheers me up, but if you’re the drinking type, raise your glass to Horace, not the warrior we wanted, but the warrior we needed.
The Monster Squad is about, and this might surprise you, a squad of monsters facing off against a squad of kids determined to stop them. The movie plays on two fronts and I honestly did not realize this until sitting down to type out that sentence. On the one side, you have a time displaced Dracula gathering a group of monsters consisting of the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein (‘s Monster for those of you that insist on purity in their monster names), and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. On the other is a group of kids who love anything to do with monsters. Consisting of club leader Sean (Andre Gower), Sean’s best friend Patrick (Children of the Corn’s Robby Kiger), the aforementioned fat kid Horace (Brent Chalem), youngest member Eugene (Michael Faustino who seems mainly known as the younger brother of Married with Children’s David Faustino), and generic cool kid Rudy (Ryan Lambert), the club generally gets together to discuss their love for the darker things in life. That is until the diary of legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing falls in Sean’s lap.
With the help of a “scary German guy,” the group is able to translate the fatal mistake that led to Dracula winding up near the end of the 20th century. This makes for a horrible realization, monsters are very real, and they’ve come to Sean’s hometown to finish what Van Helsing started, but with their own evil spin. While Dracula gathers his allies, the kids gear up for war, but victory won’t be as easy as they think, and the key to winning might just come from someone Sean doesn’t want as part of the gang, his little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank).
This is another one of those movies that despite how much I love, I must admit has its problems. The difference here is that the problems don’t really distract all that much because this isn’t a movie meant to be taken seriously. Don’t take that to mean that it’s just a silly little jokefest. The Monster Squad can be creepy, even frightening at times, the makeup is fantastic, and the monsters are faithfully adapted from their old Universal counterparts, but above all else, it’s a fun movie for us weird kids who grew up loving the old monster movies. Sure, there are ridiculous moments that will make you shake your head. I’m not sure why club leader Sean gets so freaked out when he sees a phone message from someone named Alucard. Yes, it’s Dracula spelled backwards, but as much as I loved monsters myself, by 13 I’d figured out they weren’t real. I’m also not sure how these kids got away with making so many weapons at school. I don’t remember shop class having the most attentive teachers, but I’m pretty sure they would have noticed my making wooden stakes and silver bullets.
The part that really bugged me though was the police assault on the Wolfman where once the bullets have no effect, they decide that beating him with their clubs will somehow work better. Still, none of those things take away from my enjoyment because as much as they might bother me, they’re quickly forgotten due in large part to how fun the film is. There are three main things that make this movie what it is for me, the atmosphere, the actors, and the monsters.
The atmosphere is a mix of eerie, creepy fun and the kind of cheerfulness that could only come from a 1980’s movie. There’s a great contrast between the brightness of day and the darkness of night, and I don’t mean just the lighting, though that does play a part. The days are full of excitement, hope, and happiness with a hazy summer light filtering through everything while the nights are full of danger, terror, and the ever present threat of death with many spots having little to no light, leaving the viewer to wonder what could be hiding. There is a complete switch up between the way the kids present themselves emotionally as well, with their excitement slowly turning into fear as the sun goes down.
The scariest moments are offset by humor and the more humorous moments are offset by tragedy. I think one of the best examples of this, and minor spoiler here, is when cool kid Rudy, the owner of all but one of the coolest quips in the film, stakes one of Dracula’s thralls. It’s a cool scene with Rudy standing up to a great evil, making jokes, and bravely facing off against the trio of vamps, all with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth because how else are we to know he’s the cool kid. What starts off as him seemingly enjoying the action turns into terror when he’s forced to stake a vampire that’s right in front of him. He’s not terrified of the vampire herself as much as it’s the horror of realizing he’s just killed another person, albeit one who was trying to kill him, but still someone who is just as much of a victim as he almost was. It’s a terrific scene that showcases the dichotomy between the lighthearted fun and the darker undertones in The Monster Squad.
The creepiest thing by far though, well, other than the kids having a camera pointed right at the bedroom of the girl next door, comes from Dracula himself. Played by Duncan Regehr, who despite my seeing him in this first will always be Deep Space Nine’s Shakaar to me, this version of Dracula was no joke. Channeling his best Bela Lugosi, and adding in a little Christopher Lee for good measure, Regehr manages to do an amazing Dracula whose calm demeanor hides a dark and hideous monster underneath, one who has no qualms about killing anyone that gets in his way. He was a fantastic addition to the cinematic Dracula’s lineage, and speaking of fantastic actors…
I’m always pleasantly surprised by how well everyone does in this movie, both the kids and their monstrous adversaries. The standouts are the already mentioned Duncan Regehr as Dracula and the always creepy Tom Noonan (Wolfen, Robocop 2, Manhunter) as Frankenstein…’s Monster, yes, I know. His inherent creep factor added quite a lot to the character. I’ve always been a massive fan of the job Boris Karloff did, and he hasn’t been beaten yet in my opinion, but Noonan comes very close. He does an unnerving rendition, one that adds the same sense of sadness as Karloff’s portrayal. He’s also just as loveable as he is creepy, adding yet again to the film’s dichotomy of fun and fear. It’s hard to be so creepy and win the audience’s sympathy, but Noonan does it well.
Not that the other monsters do a bad job, these two were just the best for me. Michael Reid Mackay, an actor accustomed to never being seen, is wonderful as the Mummy. He’s no Karloff, and considering how talented Karloff was, that’s not necessarily a knock, but he has a shambling gait and stiff body posture that made one imagine that this guy very well could have been sleeping for the last two thousand years. There’s something off about his mannerisms that works very well for the character’s rotting appearance. Special Effects maestro Tom Woodruff Jr., another actor accustomed to being in costume, pulls off a good Creature from the Black Lagoon, otherwise known as Gillman. I wish his costume had allowed for better facial expressions, but he’s still able to give a lifeless looking character a great life of its own. Lastly for the monsters is the combination of Jon Gries (Dr. Roberts for fans of Dream Corp LLC) and Carl Thibault. Gries plays the human part of the Wolfman with dread and terror. You can see the hatred and fear he feels about turning into his other half, and because of this he is always in a state of total panic. Thibault plays the wolf part, and considering he’s going against another horror legend, Lon Chaney Jr., he had some big shoes to fill, and while those shoes had some room left in them, he did a pretty good job with his bestial movement and animalistic tendencies.
While the monsters are of course going to be the focus, the kids to a great job as well. Whether it’s Rudy realizing he’s killed someone who used to be just as human as himself, Sean becoming terrified at the thought of losing his sister, or Horace standing up for himself, the kids are capable of showing some real emotion in their portrayals. The Horace bit, where he’s forced to stand up for himself for what might be the first time in his life, still sends chills down my spine because for me, it was kind of inspiring when I was young. You can actually watch as his timid nature drains away to be replaced by a new sense of confidence, and it’s a fantastic scene. Leads Sean and Patrick come across as real best friends throughout the film which helps to give the audience a stronger desire for their safety, though this has less to do with their acting and more to do with the actors being actual best friends in real life. The kids also get some great one-liners. Try not to tell people “See you later bandaid breath” when you hear it, and that’s only the second best one-liner. The first is the infamous “Wolfman has nards” scene in which a shocked Horace realizes that yes, the Wolfman’s testicles are just as vulnerable as any other male creature. When I heard it as a kid for the first time, I spent a year kicking things so I could exclaim “Such and Such has nards”. Kick a lamppost, “The Lamppost has nards”, kick a trash can “The Trashcan has nards”, kick a police officer, run as fast as I can, those kinds of things.
Of course, for a movie dedicated to the old Universal monsters, the monsters are going to the most important part of the film, and The Monster Squad delivers on that front. The acting is great, as mentioned above, but so are the designs and the writing that created them. Shane Black, who just lost a lot of my respect with that piece of trash he tried to pass off as a Predator movie, must have some serious love for these guys because he adapted them very well. They each get their own small introduction as the monsters group together, and each introduction is a perfect microcosm of their original Universal origins. There are even scenes lifted directly out of the Universal movies, Dracula uses the silver wolf’s head cane to tame the Wolfman, Frankenstein (you know who I’m talking about) meets Phoebe near a lake in a scene very reminiscent of a tragic death from the 1931 film, the Mummy’s slow shuffle toward the camera, and even the Gillman lifting something out of the water all come straight from the original movies.
The look of the monsters is also directly lifted from the originals without outright copying them. Each monster has had an update, but retains the original Universal designs, and the result is fantastic due to the talent of Stan Winston and his team. Rumor has it that the Wolfman’s face is directly modeled from Winston in fact. It’s not just the makeup and monster designs that impress me, but some of the nastier FX as well. Of particular interest are a scene where Dracula is injured in a state that has him halfway between his human form and his bat from, and a scene where Wolfman is blown up only to put himself back together.
It’s wonderful to see all the old school monster love in The Monster Squad, and while that love is on display through the well designed monsters, nowhere is it more apparent than in the many callbacks scattered throughout the film. I’ve already mentioned some of them, but keep your eyes open, and you’ll be able to catch many more, like the fact that Dracula’s Transylvanian castle has an Armadillo infestation just like the Lugosi film decades prior. If you make a drinking game out of it, please make sure you have the ambulance on standby.
The Monster Squad probably isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s a great movie nonetheless. It’s a fun, creepy ride that will leave you with a smile. It always does for me.
Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too. Be sure to read his debut review here on Machine Mean with Near Dark.
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I absolutely LOVE this movie! I agree completely that Dracula is the real deal here. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t secure the rights to use the original Universal designs for the monsters, but they still delivered across the board ( the Gill Man in particular is creepy).
Tom Noonan as Frankenstein’s Monster is a treat and for once the kids at the center of the movie don’t come off as annoying. These are bright, funny , recognizable youngsters and the cast handles their roles skillfully.
What really surprised me about this movie, though, is how far they pushed the horror aspects. As PG-13 films go, this one really skirts that R rating, especially in the scenes involving the Wolfman. I think that’s part and parcel of why it works. Kids who love horror don’t need coddling and they’re not stupid. The Monster Squad understands that and proceeds accordingly. I’ve owned the DVD special edition of this movie for a while now and I watch it every year.
October 20, 2018 at 4:13 pm
This movie was a right to passage growing up, a fantastic gem. Wish the Mummy could have had a darker role, but that’s okay, the Wolfman, as you said, added enough dark to the comedy to balance things nicely.
October 20, 2018 at 8:38 pm
Nothing better than The Monster Squad.
October 20, 2018 at 6:26 pm
I love this movie and just found out that the actors who played Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein and Sean’s Dad are all going to be at the Scares That Care convention next Aug. in Virginia….so hyped to get to meet them.
October 20, 2018 at 9:40 pm