Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Monster Squad (1987) (Movie Review)

      Everyone knows who to call when it comes to a ghost infestation, but who do you call if there’s monsters and ghouls on the loose? Well, that’s where the monster squad comes in to save the day. If you were to walk up to a random person and ask what they think of 1987’s “The Monster Squad”, they’d probably have no idea what you’re talking about. However, if you were to go online and ask about it, you’d probably receive several responses that it’s one of the absolute greatest Halloween classics of our generation. Initially “The Monster Squad” bombed, and received mixed reviews, buts it’s gained new life over the years as a cult classic. I regrettably didn’t see this film until after I graduated from high school, so I don’t have any nostalgic ties to this film. Truthfully, I think I would have liked this movie more if it was something I grew up with when I was still an impressionable youth, but still, I’m always open for something new to add to my personal Halloween collection. Upon my first viewing, the film certainly made me feel like a kid again, but it didn’t exactly knock my socks off either. Then the following year, I fond myself wanting to see it again, and gradually I found myself liking it more with repeat viewings. While it’s never achieved as high a status as some of my other favorite Halloween specials I watch yearly, this has still become a favorite, and makes the season feel a bit more complete. For me, this has become the Halloween film to kick off the season, and set the stage for all the other October material I love. So, to kick off the Halloween season of 2018, let’s take a look back at this fan favorite, explore why it’s gained such a devoted following, and determine if it really earns its status as one of the great new Halloween classics. 

    The movie begins with a terrific opening title card sequence that hint at both the frights and hummer that will characterize this film. There's a scrolling text that starts very serious in tone, yet closes on a joke, and it hooks me in every time I watch this.  
The spooky scenery is excellent, and the monster effects are just a delightful blend of cheesy and awesome. In the opening prologue, we see Van Helsing and a team of monster hunters attempt to banish Dracula and his creatures into a magical void, in which evil can never escape from. The plan fails, and Dracula escapes, which segues into our present-day story. A group of boys all living together in a small suburban neighborhood are all obsessed with classic monsters, and have started their own little club. One of the boys comes into possession of a diary that belonged to Van Helsing, and other oddities begin to occur. Turns out that Dracula has resurfaced and has brought all the classic monsters with him, including The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Brides of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Their seeking a mystical amulet which was also in Van Helsing’s position, and can grant them the means to secure their grip on the human world. With all these creatures running around, the boy’s band together to utilize their knowledge of monsters as a means to fight them back and save their home town. It’s a cliched premise to say the least, but I’ve always loved the concept of a small group of kids going off on a small-scale adventure to fight the battles that grownups can’t. It’s something that immediately puts me in a child’s perspective, and even a group of kids forming a club around their favorite pass-time entertainment is something I can relate too.  

      The boys are your typical token tropes that made up 80’s kid’s films, except this time, there all self-aware of their own tropes, and that makes it fun. The fat kid literally is referred to as “fat kid”, the overly stoic leader is just the over enthusiastic leader, and the cool guy is just, well … the cool kid. Although “cool kid” stands out for being noticeably older, yet acts no differently from the others. There’s also the one-off little sister who wants to join the club but isn’t allowed, which is also something I can relate too. These are also very immature kids, who talk trashy, swear, peak in on attractive girls, and even the one oldest kid smokes, like it’s a perfectly casual thing to do. This will effect viewers differently, but for me, it made this group feel more realistic, because I remember being with groups of kids (mostly between the ages of 10 and 13) and nothing staid G rated when the parents weren’t around. 
They also have some very quotable lines, with the most famous quote dropping after they fight off the wolf-man, and one of the kids states that “Wolf Mans got nards”. Perhaps the main appeal of the film is that it earns its PG-13 ratting, but it still feels like a family film. It still has cute moments, and funny quirks that kids love, despite some fowl content. Think of “The Goonies”, but with scary and immature material on display. There’s even a random Holocaust reference in this movie, so I honestly don’t know who this film is made for. Some of the content can get very adult, yet most of the film is conveyed in this childish presentation. Its all very middle of the road, but I can see how young adults can look back on this with fond memories of getting away with something immature. Now speaking personally, I got in trouble when my parents caught me watching Disney’s “Hocus Pocus”, so I’d have never gotten away with watching this film. 

     Now while this movie is obviously a product of late 80’s family films, it’s also a loving tribute to the classic movie monsters. In my opinion, this is my favorite movie to feature all these classic monsters in one place. They're all in color, perfectly recognizable, and they look modernized, but they still maintain a classy, old school look. Most movies these days try to make their designs so modern that they lose their identity in the process. 
These are also very kid-friendly looking monsters, as the Mummy looks like he came right out of a “Goosebumps” episode, The Wolf Man almost looks like a badger, and Dracula’s costume looks like it came from Walmart. The Creature from the Black Lagoon has the best updated design by far, looks incredible, and is honestly scarier than the original design. I think the scariest monsters featured in the film are Dracula’s Brides, as there always approaching slowly from a distance. Personally, I’ve always been frightened of something dangerous visibly approaching from far away. So, seeing these three brides with their bloody teeth, pale white eyes and long clothing slowly approach from down a long hallway or open road is genuinely unnerving. Also, I love the actor playing Dracula, as he’s completely over the top, yet surprisingly menacing in a very simple yet effective way. Just seeing this guy pick up a little girl by the face was actually kind of unsettling. 

    Speaking of the little girl, she’s a key ingredient to a subplot revolving around Frankenstein’s monster. Dracula dispatches the monster to steal the diary from the kids, and then destroy them, but the little girl wins him over and he becomes a nice monster as a result. 
This is where the film really begins to feel like “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”, right down to a shot of the kids walking off with the monster while silhouetted against a beautiful sunset. Honestly, it’s my favorite aspect of the film, and it’s probably my personal favorite portrayal of the classic monster I’ve ever viewed on film. No joke, seeing Frankenstein bond with the kids just warms the heart, as well as provide some funny moments, and it even leads to some genuinely emotional scenes. I love this one moment when Frankenstein picks up a Halloween-store mask of himself, and is disgusted that his appearance is commonly used to scare people. The most heart-breaking scene of all is when Frankenstein rescues the little girl from Dracula, but at the cost of his own life, forcing the two to say goodbye. The monster even takes the girls teddy bear with him as a memento ... gets me in the feels every time.

      Not to worry, there are some legit funny moments to help balance things out. I especially love this one editing gag in which the film quickly cuts from one shot of the cool kid spiting, to a shot of water hitting a lake. I should also mention the creative talents behind this film, as some of the finest from the late 80’s all came together for this project. The script was written by Shane Black who was also the writer of “Lethal Weapon”, which subsequently came out that same year. Peter Hyams, who had previously worked on “2010: The Year we made Contact” served as producer for “The Monster Squad”. Then, rounding up the group was director Fred Dekker, who was fresh off the high of directing another 80’s horror comedy called “Night of the Creeps”. While all three of these talents were just right for this kind of project, this dose lead me into my biggest issue with the whole movie. There’s something about the script that just doesn’t feel complete to me. Like, there should have been key scenes in certain places to properly progress the film, but they were never written into the screen play.

     For example, when the kids first learn of the real monsters, they come up with their heroic team name, vow to stop the creatures from terrorizing their town, and they put their hands together for that one big group shot … and every time I just can’t help but feel that a key ingredient is lacking. Personally, I feel this scene would have been far more impactful if the kids actually had a frightening run-in with maybe one, or several of the monsters beforehand. Then maybe after a narrow escape they regroup in their tree house, and then we get that triumphant group coming together moment. This problem happens again with a montage scene involving our young heroes making their own weapons to combat the monsters, but again, it’s hard to get excited when they still haven’t had any spooky encounters beforehand. 
Actually, aside from Frankenstein and one throw-away joke with the mummy hiding in a little boy’s closet, the team never encounter any of the monsters until the third act, and by then it’s almost too late. It also annoyed me to know end that Dracula was fully aware of the kids and their club, despite never encountering any of them throughout the film, at least until the finale. Heck, the kids at least have a scene in which they learn of the monsters, but Dracula never once had a moment of discovering who his modern-day opponents were. There’s a scene when Dracula destroys their club house, while comedically stating “meeting adjured”, and once again I feel that Dracula doesn’t know enough about the kids to make that kind of joke. There’s also an odd continuity error when a police officer fires several rounds right at Dracula, but nothing hurts him in the slightest. Then just a minute later, Dracula transforms into a bat, the cop shoots him again with the same gun, and somehow Dracula becomes a bloody, beaten mess. What’s up with that, is he only immune to bullets when in human form? Maybe I’m being too nit-picky, but there’s moments like that through the whole film in which I just feel like something is either missing or just out of place.

     Thankfully, the film finds it’s footing again once we get to the third act. The creature battles on display are among some of the absolute best to feature these iconic monsters. We have Dracula taking on a police force without breaking a sweat, and he also uses dynamite as his main choice of weapon, which is pretty surreal. There’s also a car chase involving the Mummy, and for a brief moment we get the satisfaction of seeing Frankenstein battle Dracula, something that rarely happens in live-action. We also have the fat kid gunning down a monster with a shot gun, and that alone makes this one of the greatest Halloween family films I’ve ever seen. My favorite moment of all is when our hero’s strap a stick of dynamite to the Wolf Man, launch him out a window, and he explodes while in mid-air! It’s the most amazing feat of action I’ve ever seen in a family film. Plus, I’ve always wondered what would happen if you were to blowup a werewolf. Well, according to this film they just put themselves right back together, which is awesome. I remember seeing this film around the same time I watched 2004’s “Van Hellsing” for the first time, and I was amazed that this late 80’s family film had better monster action then a big budget summer blockbuster with high-profile actors. We then wrap things up with a cheesy monster squad theme song, which is so 80's, I can't help but adore it on some level.   

       When all is said and done, you can put me in the category of viewers who call this a Halloween classic, and watch it every October. I can’t say I love this film quiet as much as other Halloween films I actually grew up with, and I wouldn’t even call it on-par with some of the newer Halloween films from this millennium like “Coraline” or “ParaNorman”. Still, I have a great deal of fondness reserved for this film, as it dose take me back to a time when I was just a kid, and dreamed of going of exciting adventures during the Halloween season. It’s also really cool to just see all the classic Universal monsters together in one live-action film. As far as I know, this was the first time they all appeared in one live action movie together, and in color. Now of course there’s those bumps in the script that bother me, but the film at least succeeds in getting me in the mood for the October season, and sometimes, that’s all I really need. I also can’t recommend this movie for everyone, as there’s plenty who could get turned off by the films immature content in what’s supposed to be a family film. Truthfully, I never saw this as a movie for little kids, I feel it’s more for young adults who want to relive those good-old childhood days, while still getting adult material out of the experience. That in a nut-shell is why “The Monster Squad” has such a devoted fan base, it’s a film that gives you the best of both age spectrum's. It’s your childhood and adulthood bottled in one highly entertaining Halloween package, and I see no shame in liking the movie for that.

I give 1987’s “The Monster Squad” ... 4 stars out of 5.   

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