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The Monster Squad (1987)
Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad is an endearing love letter to the movies of the 1930s and 1940s — albeit with a decidedly 1980s mentality. Instead of being confined to Victorian graveyards and decrepit old tombs in far corners of the globe, the classic monsters now stalk modern city streets and even take trips in airplanes. Adding the Little Rascals' comedic spirit to the mix with a group of underage heroes, the end result is a fun and memorable monster romp that will satisfy both children and adults in a big way.
The plot is simple and suitably absurd - Dracula reunites himself with the Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman, even tossing in the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon for good measure, to find Van Helsing's diary and a magic amulet that can be used to plunge the world into eternal darkness at midnight. However, the diary makes it into the hands of a boy and his monster-fan friends who form a "squad" to fight back and use the diary's passages to foil Dracula's plan and send the monsters into limbo for all eternity.
Shane Black and Fred Dekker's script is charmingly funny and delivers on pure entertainment value. The dialogue between the children occasionally takes you back to the days when you would curiously wonder if Wolfman could drive a car, or even if he had 'nards', and it is tough not to smile at the naive innocence of it all. The monsters are treated with respect and written faithfully to their cinematic sources, sometimes even going so far as to answer those long unanswered questions you've spent a lifetime wondering about - such as, if only silver killls a werewolf, what would happen if you blew him up with explosives? What if you unwrapped the Mummy? These are certainly thoughts that plagued this writer's brain as a youth and it left me feeling that these writers weren't another pair of cash-in happy, Hollywood charlatans exploiting a genre, but real fans who had spent (perhaps too much) time with their characters and appreciated them on the same level as fans like myself.
However, in stark contrast to the good-natured fun, there are occasional and abruptly poignant moments of very real-life seriousness that are both surprising and welcome touches to an otherwise fantastic tale. For instance, in one scene where the children have been speaking with "Scary German Guy" (played superbly by Leonardo Cimino), one of the them makes a parting comment to him that he "sure knows a lot about monsters." The German gentleman smiles awkwardly and replies "yes - I suppose I do..." As he shuts the door, still smiling to the departing children, we see a very distinct mark on the old man's wrist - a mark that clearly let's us in on the fact that he was a catalogued victim of the holocaust during WWII. It is a subtle, shocking and memorable moment that speaks volumes about the character without having to say a single word.
There are also hints of divorce/broken homes and bullying that are briefly glimpsed throughout the film - we see Monster Squad leader Sean's parents argue incessantly and Squad member Horace being harrassed at school because of his weight problem. While our characters may be facing fantastic monsters in this story, some of them are also facing some disturbingly real monsters outside of the story that bring it closer to home and add depth and dimension to the characters in a way not often explored in such a film.
Andre Bower portrays the Monster Squad's young ringleader, Sean Crenshaw, displaying a youthful charisma as well as wisdom and courage beyond his years. As mentioned above, the character's domestic life appears to be in a shambles as his parent's declining relationship unwinds, but Bower plays him as unfaltering in this painful situation and full of inner-strength. Bower's performance is strong and focused as well as confident, likeable and at times comically entertaining, making him a perfect head for the group of young monster fighters.
While the rest of the children all do reasonably good jobs at their roles (especially considering their young ages), the only other real stand-out amongst them is Ashley Bank as Phoebe, the youngest member of the Squad. She is often hilarious, adorable in every scene and her developing connection with the child-like Frankenstein monster feels palpable and real, instead of the somewhat played out cliche it represents in Frankenstein films (ie; Boris Karloff's touching encounter with young Maria in the original Frankenstein, in spite of its far more tragic ending; his more mysterious and virtually unseen friendship with Peter von Frankenstein in the the later Son of Frankenstein, etc.). During the film's climax, as Phoebe and the monster are separated, their cries to one another are believably bittersweet and emotional and a definite highlight in the film.
Duncan Regehr's Dracula is a little piece of everything from cinematic history - sometimes carrying the aristocratic dignity that Bela Lugosi brought to the character, sometimes the romantically diabolic approach of Frank Langella and even the savage ferocity of vintage Christopher Lee. It is a surprising combination that he plays quite well, easily making Dracula appear to be the fiercest and most threatening monster of them all. He walks with a confidently unbreakable stride and swats humans away as though they are mere insects to him. His attitude and expression in all reflect a character that doesn't just think he's better than you - he knows he is.
The Frankenstein monster is played by Tom Noonan in one of the most memorable portrayals of the character since Bride of Frankenstein more than fifty years earlier. Seeing his interpretation reminds you of just how great the monster can be in the right hands. The monster had often been used more as an imposing prop than a character in many films, and Noonan's portrayal effectively points out what a genuinely bad mistake that is. Seeing the monster with emotions and insecurities (there is a great scene where one of the children hands the monster a halloween costume of himself, causing him to be self-conscious about looking "scary") makes him far more interesting than the brutish, zombie-like automaton he had been since the 1940s.
As the Wolfman's human persona (credited as "desperate man"), Jonathan Gries infuses his performance with more exuberant paranoia and panic than even Lon Chaney, Jr. himself had dealt as Larry Talbot. Gries is given only a handful of scenes to work with and his over the top performance usually comes across more as camp than drama. Nonetheless, it fits with the tongue-in-cheek feel of the movie and never goes far enough as to disrespect the character outright. Besides, it's always a little fun to watch someone else going completely nuts.
Fred Dekker's direction gives The Monster Squad a look and feel that is one part b-movie epic, one part classic horror film homage. We are shown everything from wide-scope looks at contemporary cityscapes with monsters lumbering through them to moving camera work that harkens back to the style of classic-era directors like Karl Freund, all skillfully planned and masterfully executed by a man who knows his business. In the film's opening scenes, we see a very Hammer-esque Castle Dracula exterior shot and then descend into a dungeon full of caskets that brings to mind a similar scene in Tod Browning's Dracula. The scene is beautifully and expertly shot, as is much of the movie, with the visual storytelling doing as much to keep things going as the plot and characters. No other director could have done this film more justice than Dekker himself, who frames and carries it along like a master. This is easily the highlight of Dekker's directorial career.
Of course, no overview of this film would be complete without a mention of the outstanding creature designs by the late, great Stan Winston. Since this film was not made by Universal, the filmmakers had to redesign all of the monster's classic appearances to avoid stepping on their lawsuit-happy toes and called in Winston to provide some fresh takes on them. Doing just that, Winston gives us the classic monsters in a way that they have not been seen before, yet they are still instantly recognizable. The frightening humanoid-animal look of the Wolfman and the expertly redesigned, "fishier: Gillman are the best in the bunch, each a radical change that keeps the vital soul of the character intact. In short, the monsters in this film are yet another testament to the artistry of one of the best effects men in the business.
For fans of monster films new or old, The Monster Squad is simply a must see. Though we have been given enough retellings of these characters to choke a hemisphere's worth of horses, it is not often that we get something that truly recalls those classic monster characters in the way we remember them and this film does. In stark contrast to the films of today, this movie is not another soulless rip-off of a previous film or series by someone who has no understanding of the source material, but rather a well crafted homage that was obviously made by people who understand, respect and love the characters and films as much as the genre fans that keep them alive. If you don't mind some laughs with your horror and want to see how your old Universal favorites can be translated into more modern times (translated well, that is), you owe it to yourself to see this movie.