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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Monster Squad - A Film Review

                After watching the Nostalgia Critic’s review of The Monster Squad, I decided to do my own review of it. His review was decent, but seemed to miss what made this movie a B-movie classic. The movie has this rawness to it that came out of a director’s passion for filmmaking, and taking children seriously as heroes of a film.

Fred Dekker, the director and co-writer, grew up loving Universal movie monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man. He wanted to make a movie that celebrated these creatures. Fred Dekker had previously written and directed the awesome horror films House and Night of the Creeps. I haven’t seen House, but Night of the Creeps is both a great throwback to 1950s horror films and a sardonic 80’s horror comedy with fourth-wall jokes , references to horror legends (all the characters have the same last names as famous horror movie directors), a cynical and badass one-liner-spewing detective (played by the always awesome Tom Atkins), and a good mix of both danger and dark humor. There was even a joke that gets recycled in The Monster Squad. “Dead people don’t just get up and walk away!” followed by a reanimated dead body lurching down the street.

For The Monster Squad, Dekker co-wrote it with Shane Black, who would soon hit it big that year of 1987 with writing Lethal Weapon (as well as The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and writing/directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3). The film was cast with kid actors who were locals from L.A. that had mainly done T.V. shows and commercials, and the adults were familiar character actors like Stan Shaw, Mary Ellen Trainor, Tom Noonan, and Duncan Regehr. Most of the behind-the-scenes knowledge that I will include in this review I learned from watching the movie with the DVD commentary of Fred Dekker and his then-child actors Andre Gower (Sean), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), and Ashley Bank (Phoebe), all grown up in the 2007 commentary for the 20th anniversary two-disc DVD release.

I first saw this movie when I was between the ages of 5-7 (I am currently 31). My mom must’ve rented the movie for me, and I really enjoyed it, even if I was too young to understand everything. Which was probably for the best, given that the movie has a lot of swearing, violence, sex jokes, and all this adult stuff that went over my head. I don’t know why my mom rented it, or if my sister or I requested it, but she got it, and I thought it was awesome. I feel happy that I got to see it at a really young age, and now it’s being appreciated over 25 years later as a cult classic.

The film opens up with Van Helsing in the 1800s trying to destroy Dracula and having a female virgin recite an incantation in German to activate an amulet to send him into another dimension. But it backfires and Van Helsing, the virgin, and his crew go into the other dimension.

Cut to present day, where Sean and his friends go to junior high in Southern California, and get into typical trouble: in the principal’s office for drawing monsters during class; swearing under their breath; dealing with bullies like Wayne from The Wonder Years until teenage rebel Rudy (who may or may not have killed his dad) defends them; and talking about their clubhouse crew, the “Monster Squad,” where they discuss ways to recognize monsters and defeat them.

Dracula makes his entrance into the movie by stowing away on a plane that is flying a crate with Frankenstein’s monster in it that Dracula is shipping (unbeknownst to the pilots), escaping with the crate, and meets with the rest of the monsters in a swampy area at night, with lightning and fog and the works. The way the monsters all join one by one with their own slow entrances is a great tribute to the Universal films of Dekker’s youth, and would get childhood fans of these movies psyched up.

Both Duncan Regehr (who would later play Zorro in a 1990s TV show) and Tom Noonan (who had played a serial killer in Manhunter) excelled as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Dracula is on a mission to get the amulet, he is regal but abstains from any kind of seduction or charm, and he is just cold and without feelings for anyone. He would murder little kids to get what he wants. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster is a big softie, sympathetic to children, and is gentle with them.

I enjoy the touches of Sean’s home life, with his dad as a tired, stressed cop who lights up a cigarette while having a heart-to-heart chat with his son and teases him for watching to see Groundhog Dog: Part 12, a typical slasher movie. And the mom is frustrated with her husband always being out all the time with his job and neglecting family, and are heard having an intense argument as the kids pretend to be unaware. There’s even a scene where you see that she had her suitcases packed in the background, as if there was a deleted scene of her planning to take the kids and leave him suddenly. It’s those little realistic touches of family strife and potential divorce in a kids’ movie about fighting monsters that makes it more special to me, more jaded and raw.

                As the monsters are causing havoc around town (a werewolf killed a coroner; the mummy escaped from the museum), and Sean finding Van Helsing’s diary through chance, the Monster Squad decide it’s time to fight back and take their town back. Because the diary is in German, the kids go to a neighbor they call amongst themselves “Scary German Guy” to translate it for them. Despite his creepy appearance and his house, which looks in disarray from the outside, he is kind and accepting of the children, giving them pie in his doily and lace-filled house, and is on board almost immediately with the plan to get the amulet to send the monsters away. And there is a good reveal as to why Scary German Guy is so knowledgeable about monsters.

                Dekker said on the commentary that “the key to making this kind of stuff work is, though it’s ridiculous, play it as though it’s real and it has this gravity to it.” He is exactly right, and that is very hard to get in movies that have ridiculous plotlines yet seem totally serious and believable, and convince the audience that the story is important and worth getting behind.

                Frankenstein’s monster meets the kids, and after some initial fright, the monster joins the team as their supportive against Dracula and his crew.  Through an 80’s movie montage complete with a synth-pop song, Rudy makes wooden stakes and silver bullets in shop class; a little boy writes to the military for help using crayons; the little girl plays with Frankenstein’s monster; etc. The upbeat pop song is a little out of place in the movie, as it is very poppy and 1980s, but it’s still a good montage.

                The boys enter Dracula’s house to get the amulet, and this is where the famous “wolfman has nards” scene happens. It’s still funny and ridiculous that when kids are faced with a werewolf, their first thought is to kick him in the groin. Even just the fat kid taking a running kick to the werewolf’s groin makes me laugh. And in 1980s kids’ movie-fashion, they escape the monsters by pressing a slice of garlic-topped pizza to Dracula’s face and burning him, but not before getting the amulet. And he retaliates by tossing dynamite in their tree house and presuming that they are dead, essentially just attempting to murder several children. He even blows up and kills the cop partner of Sean’s dad, and for a kids’ movie, that seemed pretty dark to violently kill the relatively nice comic relief of the movie.

                In the climax of the movie, where the kids and the cops are fighting the monsters, there are so many awesome, badass moments. The cop dad attempting to kill Dracula by dynamite with the line, “Suck on this, you son of a bitch”; Horace killing the Gill-Man with a shotgun blast to the chest and, when called “Fat Kid” by bullies, goes, “My name . . . is Horace!” and cocks the shotgun; Rudy stalking towards the three brides of Dracula, saying to the squad, “I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?” as he stakes and shoots arrows into them; “Don’t kick the church, it’s religious!”; “It’s locked, it’s what it is!”; Sean shoving dynamite into the Werewolf’s pants as the dad shoves him out the window and the Werewolf exploding in mid-air;  “You’re not a virgin, aren’t you?” “Well, there’s Steve, but he doesn’t count.” “Doesn’t count?!”; the actor playing Rudy who accidentally said “Bang” before he fires instead of just quietly shooting; Duncan Regehr really scaring the hell out of the little girl with his freaky eyes and fangs while choking her and hissing, “Give me the amulet, you bitch!” This movie did not pull any punches with giving heroic one-liners to children and having villains try to kill them.

                The monsters are defeated, either being killed or sent to another dimension, including Frankenstein’s monster, and the military shows up after everything is over. The Patton-esque general goes, “But who are you?” and the kids answer, “We’re the Monster Squad.” Cue bad rap song over ending credits.

                Unfortunately, this movie bombed at the box office. It was rated PG-13, and it couldn’t find the right audience. It was too violent for little kids, and too kiddie for teenagers. It grew in cult popularity over the next twenty years. Fred Dekker went on to write and direct Tales from the Crypt episodes and Ricochet, starring Denzel Washington, but suffered when he directed Robocop 3. Robocop 2 was great, but people said it was too violent. So while Dekker wanted to make Robocop 3 R-rated as well, as he was going into production with it, the studio wanted it PG-13 with less violence. The whole production had to be re-adjusted, and it screwed up the movie, turning it into a total mess and ruining Dekker’s career. The last screen credits he has had were writing episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a waste of his talent, and he should be back making clever and interesting horror movies. 

The latest that I have read is that he and Shane Black are working together again to write a Predator movie. Black, who was in the original Predator film, said to Collider that he likes “the idea of expanding and exploring the existing Predator mythology, rather than hitting the restart button.” This is promising news, and I’d love to see Fred Dekker get another chance at the big time. He has the talent for it, plus more cult movie cred for Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.

                So, The Monster Squad is a special movie to me, because I saw it at a very young age, and it influenced my interests in B-level movie, underrated films, and appreciating how great a movie can be when the director is allowed to be fully creative on all levels. I am happy that it is getting the recognition that it deserves, for it is really one of the best movies of the 1980s ever made, as well as one of the best kids’ movies ever.

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