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I told you before, Wolfman cannot drive a car.

Movie

The Monster Squad
(1987)

 

My reluctant response to The Monster Squad at the time of its release was that it wasn’t quite as clever or funny as I wanted it to be. The promise of The Goonies meets Ghostbusters with (effectively) the Universal horror monster roster only sporadically delivered on its potential (not that The Goonies and Ghostbusters are as funny as they want to be either, but you get the idea). I still think that’s the case, albeit now recognising the additional pleasures of nascent Shane Black stylings and obsessions, and the dedication of Fred Dekker in creating an aesthetic that sits comfortably with the pictures its riffing on and homaging.

The trouble with The Monster Squad is that it always felt like a movie whose affection and winkery were neither as effective nor sustained as the arena Joe Dante was inhabiting during the same period. It possesses all the pieces to make a great movie but is less than the sum of its parts. Of course, anything said against The Monster Squad is regarded as blasphemy by those of a certain age, as it is with The Goonies. And admittedly, Squad is the better movie of the two (Dekker joked at the time “At least our kids yell less than The Goonies. That makes The Monster Squad better right there’). Mention of The Goonies does draw attention to one of Squad’s deficiencies, though.

While Dekker was right to proclaim the relative lack of screaming kids as a virtue, The Goonies resoundingly eclipses The Monster Squad in the quality of its young cast. Only “My name is” Horace (Brent Chalem, who sadly died from pneumonia in 1997) nand the diminutive Phoebe (Ashley Bank), with her disarming friendship with Tom Noonan’s Frankenstein’s Monster, stand out. And Horace can’t boast a scene as defining as his Goonies-equivalent Chunk’s confessional, nor is Chalem’s performance up there with Jeff Cohen’s.

The monsters are also an issue. Stan Winston’s creature designs are all-round marvellous, but aside from Frank’s reluctant antagonist, who switches sides just as soon as he can, there’s little personality to the creature gallery. Gillman (Tom Woodruff Jr, later inside the Xenomorph throughout the ’90s) does little aside from leaping out of manhole covers.

The Mummy is beautifully visualised, but only really counts for a couple of sight gags (one in which he appears in Eugene’s – Michael Faustino – bedroom closet, for no appreciable reason, the other the truly inspired bandage unravelling).

There’s a little more to Wolfman (Carl Thibault) by virtue of seeing him pre-transformation, his warnings to the police (disregarded as prank calls), and his final “Thank you” after too-cool-for-school-so-why’s-he-hanging-with-this-lot Rudy (Ryan Lambert) shoots him with a silver bullet. Nevertheless, his main claim to fame is also an effects one; blown to pieces, he reassembles and returns to the fray.

EmilyNow, he’s the one that fights Godzilla, right?
SeanDracula, mum.
EmilyThen which is the really tall one?
SeanThat’s Godzilla.

And then there’s Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr, in a role Liam Neeson failed to win). He looks the part. Again, there’s a marvellously conceived set piece, in which he cuts a swathe through a rank of police officers (in one shot). And his delivery of “Give me the amulet, you BITCH!” is an effective counterpoint to Ripley’s challenge of the Alien queen the previous year. But there’s little accompanying personality.

Dekker, in his wisdom, wanted to ditch the previous urbane charm and ladies’ man attraction (“I saw him as just an animal”). But, if you do that, what are you left with? His scheme to destroy the amulet is fairly straightforward – “It’s clearly a nefarious plan. I just have no idea what it really is” suggested Decker self-effacingly on the commentary –although it’s unclear why he really needs his monster buddies, or how and when he found the time to call Sean’s (Andre Gower) mum Emily (Joel Silver regular Mary Ellen Trainor), enquiring about Van Halen’s diary and leaving his credentials as Mr Alucard (very Ed Wood, and suggestive of a sense of humour Regehr doesn’t bring).

That might have been a nice scene to see, as Dekker and Black missed a trick in not giving him more substance. Perhaps related, the studio hacked out thirteen minutes, according to the director, because they didn’t want it to run more than ninety minutes. Which eighty certainly isn’t. While I don’t find the picture too rushed, it doesn’t really feel comfortably or confidently paced either; it just kind of presents itself, lacking peaks and troughs and markers, and then it’s over.

Dracula does at least make sure to call his compatriots “My friend” at any opportunity. There’s also his rather curious instruction to Frank: “If they do not co-operate, kill them” (why not give the order to kill them anyway? It’s the sort of thing he’d do).

SeanMarriage Counsellor – again? I thought you quit smoking.
DelSean. I love you dearly, but do me a favour. Put your basic lid on it.

Ironically, it’s the peripheral characters who make the most impact. Or perhaps not, as Shane Black has always been a dab hand at portraying domestic strife. Sean’s family unit is falling apart at the seams, not yet at Joseph Hallenbeck levels, but enough that Emily has a suitcase packed and hubby Detective Del Crenshaw (Stephen Macht) would rather answer calls about a werewolf than attend their marriage guidance counselling. Macht is particularly good in the weary cop role – you’d think he’d been playing them his entire career – and he forces Gower to raises his game in any scene they have together (notably on the roof, watching Groundhog Day Part 12). The same is true with Gower and Trainor.

HoraceMan, you sure know a lot about monsters.
Scary German GuyNow that you mention it, I suppose I do.

Some aspects of the picture have since proved controversial. I’m not sure why it’s been suggested the Auschwitz past of Scary German (the instantly recognisable Leonard Cimino, who can boast DuneHudson Hawk and Waterworld amongst his appearances) might have been missed by younger viewers. I guess they might not have grasped the reference to his tattoo, foregrounded though it is.

The question is whether it was really appropriate to the material, as it’s rather dropped in out of nowhere and might have been more meaningful were it meant to contrast with serious monsters, rather than cartoon ones (The Keep-like). That said, it’s a fairly unobtrusive reference, and one might be more concerned about X-Men‘s wholesale appropriation of the theme for giddy entertainment thrills (Magneto going berserk in Auschwitz and hunting Nazis is wicked cool). So yeah, on balance, Scary German guy is bitchin’. Probably.

SeanHe had to wear them, so you couldn’t see his wolf dork.

Then there are the homophobic taunts (“fag”, “homo”), used both by and aimed at the kids. Dekker has defended the languages as reflecting the reality of ’80s school kids, which is true enough, but if authenticity was uppermost in his and Black’s minds, why be so guarded with other words? Kids of the era weren’t going around talking about “dorks” and “nards”, except maybe as a direct result of The Monster Squad.

What seems more likely is that, as with the domestic scene, the homophobic invective is a brashly youthful Black touch, one that can also be readily found in the likes of Lethal Weapon and Last Boy Scout (although, both Gibson and Willis used such language in other, non-Black vehicles during that period). Generally speaking, and this is how I felt at the time, the cruder or crasser material (“If we pull this off, I’m gonna shit”; “See you later, band-aid breath”) is less effective than the bursts of surrealism (“How’d that dog get up here anyway?” as a paw is extended during the pact scene).

Mr MetzgerScience is real. Monsters are not.
SeanWe don’t know that, sir.

The language may also reflect the divide the picture is trying to cross, in terms of appeal. How likely is it that a group of ’80s teenagers should venerate classic-era monster movies? Is that why Sean is given a Stephen King Rules t-shirt, to redress the balance somewhat? As Anne Bilson observed in her Film Yearbook Vol. 7 review “It is debatable as to whether the age group at which it is aimed will be familiar with the classic creature features from which the monsters are borrowed”.

SeanI told you before, Wolfman cannot drive a car.
HoraceHe could if he had to.

That’s likely the kind of thinking that held Universal in check when they envisaged their Dark Universe, updating both period and design and tropes so much that any reflection of their influences was buried. Here, Universal wouldn’t licence the classic likenesses, so Winston had to make each at least a little different. And while Black and Dekker may not quite take things to Dante levels, they are clearly revelling in the opportunity to reference lore to humorous effect (“More a clever comic parody than a jokey pastiche” said Nigel Floyd in Time Out).

I particularly liked the Squad (they would surely have been Club if not for the early ’80s Monster Club) debating the second way to kill a werewolf when Rudy draws a blank (“Old age?“), attacking Dracula with a slice of garlic pizza, fleeing to a church (“Perfect, monsters hate religious stuff“), Dracula blowing up their tree house (just because: Dracula’s unlikely to ever do that again in any medium) and the ’50s sci-fi arrival of the military at the end (“Dear Army Guys. Come Quick. There are monsters. Eugene“), just as the danger has passed.

The problems encountered with Patrick’s bimbo sister (Lisa Fuller) sending the monsters to limbo (“You’re not a virgin, are you?“) could be seen coming a mile off, but it’s curious none of the boys even had the conversation about one of them speaking the incantation (at no point is gender prescribed). Also thrown in is a very meta Hardy Boys reference (Black again, having been an avid fan: “Haven’t you read the Hardy Boys? You pull some levers down and a door opens“).

PhoebeDon’t go. Don’t go away.

The vortex, of course, sucks in poor Frankenstein’s monster too (“Bo-gus“), and the scenes with Frank are some of the few where the picture elicits any pathos. That’s equally down to Noonan (who, being method, never let the kids see him without makeup) and Bank, whose responses appear completely genuine. The big vortex climax was done better on a shoestring by Evil Dead II that same year, although that was played for laughs, whereas here Frank’s farewell is genuinely sad.

DelThe problem is, 2,000-year-old dead guys do not get up and walk away by themselves.

The Monster Squad cost $12m but took only $3.8m, failing even to make the Top Ten on its opening weekend (Black commented “…it wasn’t just that it wasn’t a hit – it was a huge failure. No one saw it. I don’t know how on earth it caught on years later”, which suggests an odd disconnect with how home video worked back then, being as it was the fertile afterlife of many a flop). Dekker opined that it pretty much did for his directorial career, Robocop 3 being the final nail in the coffin. He found Peter Hyams, who was producer, a continual source of interference during the production, but it at least looks great thanks to Bradford May’s cinematography (mostly a TV lenser, ironically).

If Hyams had wanted to interfere, he ought to have ejected the obligatory ’80s montage sequence (to Rock to you Drop). Rob Cohen was also a producer, and for a while was attached to direct a Platinum Dunes remake that thankfully came to nothing. A sequel was suggested to Black during an interview, and while the quote received a lot of coverage, he didn’t sound entirely convinced. Probably rightly so. Although, if the It sequel does well, anything might happen.

The Monster Squad definitely occupies Goonies-esque nostalgia status, so impervious to critical thinking. As witnessed by its resurgence following an Alamo Drafthouse cast reunion and screening in 2006 and subsequent DVD release. For those who saw it at the right time, it’s an unqualified classic (Ryan Gosling being one, of whom Black noted “He couldn’t even cite the other movies I’d done. He was just fixated upon that one“).

I’d be more moderate in my praise, less effusive even than Kim Newman, who called it “a wholly charming homage to the great days of Universal and Hammer” in Nightmare Movies. It is charming, but the lack of a truly memorable young cast – probably not helped by the excising of those thirteen minutes – prevent it from being wholly so.

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