It was a time of darkness in Transylvania…
A time when Dr. Abraham Van Helsing… and a small band of freedom fighters… conspired to rid the world of vampires and monsters… and to save mankind from the forces of eternal evil….
They blew it.”
The opening screed says a lot about what type of movie 1987’s The Monster Squad is. It provides a bit of back story, lets you know there are going to be vampires and other monsters (if you somehow missed the title), lets you know what the stakes are… and you also find out that it’s a bit irreverent. Though the movie is unquestionably aimed towards children, it received a PG-13 rating, which may have contributed to its initial lackluster response at the box-office.
The “Monster Squad” of the title is a group of school students who are obsessed with watching, reading, and talking about monsters. As with a lot of 80s kid comedies, there’s not a lot of in-depth characterization among them; Sean (Andre Gower) is the leader, Patrick (Robby Kiger) is his best friend with little to distinguish himself, Eugene (Michael Faustino) is a bit younger than the others and more withdrawn, and Horace (Brent Chalem) is generally called “Fat Kid” even by his friends. After Horace is bailed out of some harassment at school by cigarette-smoking junior high student Rudy (Ryan Lambert), they invite him to join the club as well. He does so, mainly because their clubhouse gives him a good place to spy on Patrick’s sister. Sean’s little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank) wants to join, but they have a strict “no girls” policy. There’s also the obligatory mascot, Pete, a beagle who inexplicably barks like a non-beagle (beagle owners know what I’m talking about when I say that most beagles have their own distinctive bark.) I don’t know if they dubbed over the sound, or if it was just due to how they trained the dog, and I know it’s not a big deal, but it did take me out of it just a bit.
This basic line-up can be found in pretty much any 80s movie clubhouse.
Meanwhile, actual monsters are on the move. It’s been a hundred years since Van Helsing’s attempt to rid the world of monsters, and every hundred years, a mystical amulet that protects the balance between good and evil becomes vulnerable. The amulet is in our heroes’ town, and so Dracula has also come there, and is assembling a team of classic movie monsters, including a reluctant werewolf (reluctant when human, that is), a mummy, Gillman (the Creature from the Black Lagoon), and Frankenstein’s monster. Though some of the visual effects in the movie show their age a bit, the make-up on the monsters is pretty good, and mostly holds up well even by today’s standards.
The core group of classic monsters are all represented here.
There’s not a lot of dialogue for the monsters; mostly the actors just have to move and act scary. Duncan Regehr’s Dracula gets the most lines, and “Frankie” (Tom Noonan) gets a handful of words here and there. Carl Thibault gets a few lines as the Wolfman in human form, but just growls and howls as the werewolf. But that’s all right, we’re not here to listen to proselytizing predators, but to watch a group of kids fight a bunch of monsters while the adults prove themselves utterly useless, having less monster-knowledge than even someone who is deliberately avoiding horror movies should have.
Does this cape make me look fat? That woman keeps calling me Godzilla.
With the help of the one useful adult in the film, who is known only as Scary German Guy (played by Leonardo Cimino), the kids translate Abraham Van Helsing’s diary, learning about the amulet and the ritual they’ll need to perform to banish the monsters. The kids manage to do an admirable job preparing for battle (in fact, it’s somewhat scary how easily Rudy was able to cast silver bullets in metal shop), but the movie never loses sight of the fact that they’re kids, and that they’re going to be afraid of the monsters even as they’re fighting them.
Though werewolves would never recover their dignity after Horace’s discovery that “Wolfman’s got nards!”
As an affectionate parody of the classic monster movies, The Monster Squad pokes fun at the genre staples, but also pays homage to them. The monsters, their personalities (such as they are), and their weaknesses are played fairly straight, and the movie has little shout-outs to classic scenes, such as Dracula’s trio of vampire brides and the Frankenstein monster meeting a little girl by the pond. The film never really tries to be scary (though small kids may get some nightmares), and mostly goes for a tone of light-hearted adventure throughout. Mostly; the movie does occasionally try to add some emotional depth, such as showing the marital strife between Sean’s parents (his mother thinks his cop father spends too much time away from home), and showing that Scary German Guy is a Holocaust survivor, but it’s infrequent, and thankfully so, as it doesn’t do a good job of fitting in with the overall feel of the movie.
It’s a good example of how a lot of 80s films become cult classics over time. It doesn’t have a mind-blowing plot or deep characterization. It wasn’t setting its sights that high. But it’s a fun movie, mildly humorous throughout, and what it does, it does entertainingly. All throughout there’s an open invitation to laugh along with the movie at the genre conventions that it cheerfully follows even as it pokes fun at them. Because this is a film from the 1980s, Hollywood is currently at work on a remake of it; somehow I suspect that the new one will probably be darker, edgier, and lack the charm of the original. It may be an underground hit, and a one-hit wonder for virtually everyone involved, from the director to the actors, but it’s a fun flick for kids and kids-at-heart (which, let’s face it, describes most people who grew up in the 80s.)