Looking back at The Monster Squad

Ignored at the box office, 80s comedy horror The Monster Squad has since gained a devoted following. Glen takes a look back at a cult favourite...

As something of a monster-obsessed child growing up, I lapped up any kind of monster-related goodies I could get my hands on, whether it was things like Monster in my Pocket or monster-related movies or books, few things piqued my interest in the way that these little nasties could.

So, when I saw an ex-rental VHS copy of The Monster Squad offered up for sale at a local video store, I pestered my parents to buy it for me and soon discovered what would be one of my favourite and most watched movies as a child. It featured classic monsters and the protagonists were in the same age range as me. Sure, they would have been a little older and live on the other side of the Atlantic, but I identified with them instantly.

The thought process behind the film was reportedly to have been to make a kind of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein for the 80s, by blending elements of comedy with the classic Universal monsters. After the film’s rather intense opening sequence(well, it was pretty intense when I was a kid), we’re thrown into 80s America and meet a group of preteens who are obsessed with monsters and go by the name of The Monster Squad.

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Headed up by Sean (Andre Gower), the squad is completed by Patrick (Robby Kiger), Horace (Brent Chalem), the older cool kid, Rudy (Ryan Lambert), and Sean’s little sister, Phoebe (Ashley Bank). The Squad soon find themselves in the middle of Dracula’s plans to retrieve an amulet so that he can rule the world.

In order to help him, Dracula enlists the help of a few friends in the form of Gill-Man, Wolfman, Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. However, soon he finds that there’s a spanner in the works as the Monster Squadhave in their possession a copy of Van Helsing’s diary and a “Scary German Guy” to translate it for them, so they can put a stop to his dastardly plan.

It’s a simple setup and it’s executed really well, with a great amount of attention to detail and a clear affection for the material that influenced it. I’ll acknowledge that some of the performances, particularly from the younger members of the cast, aren’t the strongest and the occasional joke doesn’t hold up that well, but overall ,this remains a charming and thoroughly entertaining film that should prove to be enjoyable for horror fans as well as providing a great introduction to the genre for younger film fans.

Even though some of the performances aren’t great, Tom Noonan does a wonderful job of channelling Karloff in his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster and Duncan Regehr, in a role that almost went to Liam Neeson, strikes the right balance between menace and camp in his portrayal of Count Dracula.

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A large part of why the film holds up so well today is the quality of the creature design by Stan Winston and his team. Without exception, all of the monsters look incredibly real and it’s clear a lot of attention went into their design. Obviously, having the classic Universal monsters as a starting point helped no end, but the team needed to go to great lengths not to break the studio’s copyright over monster design.

There are nice touches throughout, with the Wolfman resembling Winston and the creature from the black lagoon/Gill-man and the Mummy being played by members of the creature design team. The quality of the design are of little surprise, as Stan Winston was amongst the finest talents in his profession, earning nine Academy Award nominations in his career and winning four. In the year The Monster Squad was released, he won his first Oscar for his work on Aliens.

Another strength of the film is its script by director Fred Dekker and his college friend, Shane Black, that provides a healthy mix of humour and horror that’s paced to near perfection, as there’s never a dull moment in the film’s runtime.

Black would, of course, go on to be one of the hottest screenwriting talents in Hollywood, and at one time, the highest paid, earning a staggering $4m for The Long Kiss Goodnight. Around the time he wrote The Monster Squad with Dekker, he had finished his screenplay for Lethal Weapon, which saw him effectively create one of the finest action franchises of the 80s. And whilst this is a toned down version of his original vision, it’s still one that deserves attention alongside the likes of The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero and the magnificent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Black’s original vision for the opening sequence was scrapped, as it was deemed far too ambitious and would have eaten up the majority of the budget. It would have involved Van Helsing storming Dracula’s castle accompanied by zeppelins and hundreds of men on horseback, which sounds incredibly bold and would have, no doubt, been excellent.

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As good as the film is, though, it failed to recoup its budget upon its cinematic release and, therefore, was considered something of a box office disaster and effectively sunk director Fred Dekker’s career, who, at that point, showed signs of promise on the back of making Night Of The Creeps. He would make another feature film five years after The Monster Squad, with the largely awful Robocop 3 and hasn’t made another feature film since, which, in many ways, is a shame, based on how much promise was shown in his first two features.

The failings of The Monster Squad’s box office performance have been directed at the poor marketing of the film and just looking at the trailers that went out in advance of the film’s release, it’s easy to see why. There’s a strong sense that the marketing department didn’t have a clear view on who the film’s audience was, and seemed to try and sell it as a kind of Ghostbusters-style film, which, quite frankly, it isn’t. Sure, it has horror themes and moments of comedy littered throughout, but I’m sure those involved would admit that it’s nothing like the aforementioned comedy classic.

Still, despite the poor performance at the box office, the film has a sizeable cult following and is slated to be remade. I have mixed feelings about the proposed remake. In a way, it would be great to see someone shoot Black’s original vision for the opening scene, and if it’s marketed well, it could expose more people to the original, as well as the classic monster movies.

On the other hand, however, it’s a Platinum Dunes production and their track record for remakes is far from stellar. Either way, I, along with all of the other fans of this movie, will always have the original to return to.

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For UK fans of the film, I can highly recommend getting a copy of the import Blu-ray. Great work has been done on the print, with both the picture and sound being the best I’ve experienced from the film (although my only other copy was an ex-rental VHS), and it has an excellent array of extras, with two commentary tracks (one technical and one with the cast), deleted scenes and some great documentaries, including an incredibly indepth look in to the making of the film and its legacy.

Plus, there’s the fact that its region-free, and in the absence of a UK release, this is your only way to get hold of the film. Unless you’re able, fittingly, to dig out an old VHS copy from somewhere…

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