The Monster Squad (1987)
Directed by Fred Dekker
Written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker
Starring Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Stephen Macht, Duncan Regehr, and Tom Noonan
In the 1940s, Universal was desperate to keep raking in that sweet monster movie cash but only had a few new monsters in their roster. Sequels weren’t quite doing it, so someone hit on the idea of having a few of them meet. After Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man met with success, Dracula was tossed into the mix (almost literally) for House of Frankenstein and then House of Dracula. The Mummy was supposed to be worked in somewhere, but that plan never came to fruition. Fortunately, The Monster Squad corrects this oversight.
An opening crawl tells us that Abraham Van Helsing and his companions failed to stop the forces of darkness. In fact, it states that they screwed up, so you know it’s a comedy. Then the film shows them using a gem to open a vortex while being attacked by Dracula and a few corpses, so you know that there are actual stakes. A hundred years later, because fate likes big round numbers, Dracula brings the Frankenstein Monster to a quiet California suburb where Van Helsing’s friends have hidden the gem. Once there, he summons the Gillman (a reworking of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Mummy (conveniently on display at a nearby museum) and seems to inspire spontaneous lycanthropy in the poor bastard who becomes the Wolf Man. It’s up to a handful of kids and a concentration camp survivor to finish the job for Van Helsing.
The creature effects are fairly good — better than they needed to be really. Stan Winston and crew did a spectacular job of re-imagining the monsters. The Mummy is emaciated and worn, Gillman has a face like an angler fish, and Frankenstein’s Monster is years ahead of its time in expressing humanity while still harkening back to Karloff. Sure, Wolf Man looks goofy, and Gillman is kind of stiff, but there is genuine affection that shows in the redesigns. Even Dracula looks fresh, and how do you manage that with the sheer volume of portrayals?
The monster designs aren’t the only winking homages that are fun for fans of the old Universal films. A few of the more obvious nods are the armadillos in Dracula’s castle (used by Tod Browning for Dracula in place of rats) and a scene where Frankenstein’s Monster comes upon a little girl by the water (which ends differently than in James Whales’ Frankenstein). It’s neat when a film so clearly loves its history. I credit co-writer/director Fred Dekker with a lot of the heart of this one. As I’ll elaborate in another review this Hubrisween, he knows and loves his genre films.
Co-writer Shane Black would score a franchise-launching hit this same year with his script for Lethal Weapon. A college friend of Dekker and fellow monster enthusiast, Black had the right tools to bring to The Monster Squad to make the jokes land and the pace move along. Sadly, this also resulted in a larger-than-normal amount of homophobic banter as well as sexual blackmail. Just what you want in what’s otherwise a kids’ movie.
Actually it’s probably the swearing that bumped the movie up to the relatively fresh PG-13 designation. On initial release it took in less than a third of its cost, stalling out Dekker’s career just two movies in. As fondly as they’re remembered now, back to back flops are not the way to start in Hollywood. While there’s a compelling argument to be made that the failure was due to presenting old-fashioned monsters to an audience that craved the new breed of supernatural killers, I believe that the rating had more of a negative effect. Parents still associated PG-13 with excessive gore, so an otherwise perfect kids’ movie couldn’t gather an audience of children. If it actually had contained gore, that might have helped attract an adult audience. If it had been made now, as a CGI movie with clean language, it would probably have become a sleeper hit.
The Monster Squad has built up enough of a cult over the years that it got a deluxe soundtrack reissue with bonus tracks and a recent re-release on bluray. I would never have seen it at all if it weren’t for a film marathon that included it, but I immediately fell in “strong like” with it. So here I am to spread the word. If you’ve been avoiding it — as I did — because the only thing its fans seem to say about it is “Wolf Man’s got nards”, then I urge you to give it a chance. It may not be perfect, but it’s quite entertaining and wears its heart on its stake.