The Film: 'The Monster Squad' (1987), Dir. Fred Dekker
Starring: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Stephen Macht, Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: I've been burnt by 1980s movies far too many times. Nostalgia is a powerful beast, blinding even the most intelligent movie-watchers into thinking that absolute junk from their childhood is worth my time. There are smart, wonderful people out there who actually think 'The Goonies' is a good movie. 'The Monster Squad' has always felt like one of those movies. Honestly, I'm only writing about it because a bunch of people at a party made fun of me because I hadn't seen it. I am doing this to protect my honor.
Sure, the result isn't nearly as insulting to the Universal horror legacy as, say, 'Van Helsing,' but it does these iconic figures no favors. If anything, it feels like an attempt to remake these characters for an generation raised on 'Star Wars' toys and cartoons about cars turning into robots. You take one look at Frankenstein's monster in 'The Monster Squad' and you don't see Boris Karloff's legacy, but an action figure waiting to happen. There is no real threat to these monsters, even during the first half of the film when they're apparently the "villains."
The film is well-made enough, even if it's somewhat dated in that typical '80s "you can see the latex but your really don't care because the worst practical effect usually has something to admire" kind of way. Still, 'The Monster Squad' excels as a pure example of everything that was wrong with the decade, possibly the most embarrassing decade in cinematic history. Lousy kid actors, an absolute lack of subtlety and loud antics in place of an interesting story. It's days like these that make me want to take nostalgia behind the shed and put it down.
Post-Viewing Reaction (After I've watched the film): No decade has aged worse than the 1980s. The fashion, the music, the attitudes, they all reflect a world that feels so completely and totally foreign, a time when bad taste decided to become good taste for little while. Every decade produces films that exist in their time but still age gracefully, acting as great stories as well as effective time capsules. Certainly, the '80s had their fair share of films that feel timeless and still work today, but that percentage is...well, it's on the low side.
'The Monster Squad' is shackled to a very unappealing decade and has to deal with the consequences. Kids who talk in stupid slang, really, really awful synthesizer music and make-up and effects that are getting a C- on the test of time. Unlike 'Back to the Future,' which made its time period a vital aspect of the movie, or 'Ghostbusters,' which just ignored it, 'The Monster Squad' feels confined to its time, trapped, a relic perhaps worth of study to the curious and a fountain of nostalgia for those who were there at the right time and place.
It's still an okay, perfectly watchable movie, albeit a tremendously flawed one. It's quaint and cute when it should be adventurous and daring and without the aid of nostalgia-fueled rose tinted glasses, it never manages to rise above just being passable kid's entertainment. The threat the monsters present is vague at best and the stakes are sloppily defined, meaning that the danger never feels real. Dracula, the Wolfman, the mummy and the rest of the monsters are so inept and silly that it's hard to take them seriously, which would be fine if the film delivered on whimsy and humor, but it does not. The monsters never seem truly ready to kill these kids and the kids never seem that afraid of the monsters in their midst. Conflict is resolved in frustrating, perfunctory manner. For example, when our protagonists are cornered, how do they escape? Simple: they wait for the floor to accidentally fall out from under their feet. How do they find the ancient amulet they're searching for? Simple: they fall through the floor and it's right there, unguarded.
The movie is not built around a good story worth telling, but rather a lot of really cool ideas that feel like their were dreamed up after a late night of reading Fangoria and watching Universal monster movies on cable. These cool ideas and the handful of wonderful moments they inspire make the film noteworthy for any classic horror fans, but the result is slight. It's a loving tribute when it should have been a full-out revival. It's like director Fred Dekker decided to make a wish fulfillment film strictly for 12-year old monster movie buffs and simply left if at that. Granted, if I was 12 years old, 'The Monster Squad' would be the Best Movie Ever, so perhaps it's just a simple matter of not being the proper audience for this thing.
The plot isn't the abysmal mess I was expecting (nary an evil real estate developer to be found!), but I wish the young team of monster hunters were more clearly defined. You got Hero Kid, Hero's Sidekick Kid, Cool Kid, Fat Kid, Little Boy Kid and Little Girl Kid. Everything you know about their personalities can be summed up right there. I loved how the team expanded as more characters fell in with their cause, but the elderly pie-loving German man is so much fun that he only underlines how thinly sketched most of the cast really is.
Thankfully, the movie gets the monsters right. Sort of. Although they lack the necessary menace, the monsters look and act like their classic Universal incarnations, with Tom Noonan's Frankenstein and Duncan Regehr's Dracula effortlessly stealing the show with the appropriate amount of scenery chewing. Regehr, all dolled up in Bela's finest, makes up for his character's thin writing by perfectly embodying pop culture's collective memory of the Dracula character. Noonan does a more than adequate Karloff impression, nailing the character's walk and speech. He somehow makes the reanimated corpse sweet and adorable, which doesn't do 'The Monster Squad' any favors in the "horror movie" department but it does allow for a torn-straight-from-'ET' moment where he and a little girl play dress-up.
And yes, the dress-up gag occurs during a montage. Because this is the 1980s.
Perhaps comparing 'The Monster Squad' to the classics from which it borrows its characters is unfair. Perhaps it's also unfair to call 'The Monster Squad' a horror film, since it's never particularly scary and never particularly gory. Perhaps it's just a solid kid's film, the kind of thing a young horror fan watches after catching the original monster films and wanting more. It may be sloppy and not particularly captivating, but it's charming enough.
And it's still better than 'The Goonies.' I still can't believe you people like 'The Goonies.'
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