Monday, September 14, 2015

A graveyard smash


Amongst the finest kid's adventures of my childhood.  (That, sadly, I didn't get to see when I actually was a child, probably because it was too scary for my parents to reckon with, which is to say, "there's between one and two parts that are mildly startling"—yet they let me watch Temple?  Whatever, dude.)

Directed by Fred Dekker
Written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker
With Andre Gower (Sean), Brent Chalem (Horace), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), Robby Kriger (Patrick), Michael Faustino (Eugene), Ashley Bank (Phoebe), Duncan Regehr (Count Dracula), Tom Noonan (Frankenstein's Monster), Jon Gries/Carl Thibault (The Desperate Man/The Wolfman), Michael MacKay (The Mummy), Tom Woodruff Jr. (The Gill-Man), Stephen Macht (Del), Stan Shaw (Det. Sapir), and Leonard Cimino (Scary German Guy)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Sometimes a movie comes along that totally captures a moment in filmmaking history, and if that moment is 1987, then that movie is The Monster Squad.  Though a decided flop in its own time, as the years have gone by it has become all the more precious, for it's not just a substantial entertainment in its own right—it's nothing less than a document of a vanished era.  In the cold, white light of our utopian Future, everything about it becomes all the more fascinating, both the good and the bad—because we can recognize, easily, that many of the things that make it special are also the things that make it worse.  Raw and sometimes even sleazy, Squad's likely the least kid-friendly of the whole 1980s' kid's adventure movement—a movement defined by being rawer and sleazier than half the movies made for adults are today.  Yes, we might still let Ashley Bank's angelic little darling brand her brother and his pals "chickenshit"; adorable child swearing has proven durable.  But when the tables turn, I really doubt we'd let a vampire call the same girl a bitch—and certainly not in Duncan Regehr's paralyzing snarl, the kind that makes you forget, for a wonderful moment, that even back then nobody was really going to let the villain twist off a moppet's head.

We'd probably balk, too, at the sexualized blackmail of a high school girl, setting up Squad's most hackneyed joke; just like we wouldn't be expected to root for her blackmailer's brand of sub-De Palmian voyeur-heroism.  From the bracing sound of those other-f-bombs being dropped upon a character's head in the kind of gnarly bullying scene that hasn't been played light since the turn of the century, to that same boy's triumph based upon his mastery of gun violence, if you tried to remake Monster Squad today (and some idiots did), something like half the plot would need to be sliced out before you could shoot the first frame.  Meanwhile, the only movie since 1987 to turn this heavily upon a teenaged boy's penchant for archery was We Need to Talk About Kevin.

You did your best, Tilda!

This isn't even the exhaustive list of Squad's sins against the modern moral consensus.  I'll leave it up to you to decide which of those make Monster Squad more awesome, and which make it unfit to enter the stronger loving world.  But to some degree, you can't take out any of those elements and retain the integrity of the whole; you've got to take the sour with the sweet.  It's fortunate, then, that the sweet so easily dominates.  If only for the blitheness of its idiocy, Squad is a largely good-natured wallow in the abjectly juvenile.  For this time traveler, that's enough.

Turning to the blithe idiots themselves, we first have writer-director Frank Dekker.  He'd made a name for himself already in horror-comedy with 1986's The Night of the Creeps.  (Ravenous horror scholar Brennan Klein says you should watch it.  I believed him before.  I double-dog believe him now.)  For Squad, Dekker teamed up with Shane Black, a new writer in Hollywood (he had but one other screenplay in circulation at the time, a minor trifle called Lethal Weapon).  Together, they cranked out a script embodying one of the most endearingly goofy high concepts of its whole goofy decade: what if the Universal Monsters came back, but the only ones who could stop them were a handful of 80s kids?

 (Some Universal Monsters are a bit more threatening than others.)

Squad's misfits are not, with one pretty spectacular exception, the stuff of subgenre legend; but after a fashion this makes their particular underdog story (because aren't they all?) all the more emblematic of its times.  Arriving upon our band of elementary school losers, we discover that their sole reason for living is the embrace of horror in all its forms, from the most degenerate contemporaneous slasher sequelae right down to the genre's early Sound Era roots.  Leading the pack is Sean, proudly announcing his opinion that "STEPHEN KING RULES" with his t-shirt.  He's the biggest aficionado of the group, and arguably the smartest (after all, he's not just an connoisseur of old films, but a reader).  His home life is a mess, but the script quite wisely never makes too much of this.  (Indeed, it's more inconvenience than existential crisis for Sean, bringing a low-key verisimilitude into this movie about supernatural monsters.)  Filling this would-be squad's ranks are Horace, a weenie, but you shall know his name; Eugene, an even younger kid, his childish innocence shading into something like a developmental disorder, but to cutely humorous effect; and Patrick, an extra dialogue partner and set of hands.  Rounding out our heroes are Phoebe, Sean's little sister, and Rudy, the troubled junior high kid who wants to join Sean's exorbitantly lame monster club because he's realized, through the tingling of his stalker-sense, that their clubhouse overlooks the window to a girl's bedroom.

But a certain Mr. Alucard has made his way to this southern California suburb, merrily murdering along the way.  You see, by brazen screenwriting convenience, Sean has acquired the diary of Abraham Van Helsing, and this weighty tome contains the formula for a magical ritual, which—along with the ritual's associated artifact, the hokiest magical amulet in film history—is the only thing that can stop Dracula from achieving absolute power.  The plot now turns upon three things: Dracula's need to get this book back; upon the heroes' need to find a virgin to incant the spell that can destroy Dracula; and upon the heroes' need for a translator, given the fact that the book is written, naturally enough, in German.  But Dracula's not even the kids' only problem.  The Count is soon joined by his oldest friend, Frankenstein's monster, and by the other monsters of Hollywood myth: the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and, finally, the Invisible Man himself, although that last one spends pretty much the whole movie just standing around in the background, doing practically nothing.

And the fact that this frankly obligatory joke is not in the movie is the biggest single reason you won't be seeing a 10/10 at the end of this review.  Shame on you, Fred Dekker and Shane Black.  Shame!

Stratagems, mayhem, and montages ensue, and at this point we really can't ignore any longer that Squad descends rapidly into a raging vortex of batshit.  On a plot level, Dekker and Black's script is affrontively messy, and Dekker's direction—sometimes as unfocused as his kid heroes—doesn't help.  The Frankenstein monster's path through the story is a confused and confusing one, his instantaneous movie-reference turn to good simply taken as read, while we keep expecting the other, nonexistent shoe to drop.  Note also Sean's neighbor, known only as the Scary German Guy; he turns out to be a helpful mentor to the Squad, but even "1987!" isn't much of an excuse for the tasteless historical reference that gets mic-dropped into these proceedings.  Naturally, it's not even worth getting into visual errors, like the inability to remember how many brides Dracula has (it's three, Fred) or the fucked-up blocking that kind of takes a dump on Frankenstein's otherwise awesome electric rebirth.  And there's the hole in the very heart of the plot: while Van Helsing's diary is certainly in German, the spell within it requires merely the phonetic recitation of the words; and the last time I checked German is not written in another alphabet.

The baffling thing is that Dekker's knack for cinematic storytelling remains obvious, even if it only intermittently shows up on the screen.  Squad offers treasures, like Stan Winston's superb updating of the Universal Monsters (especially our old friend, the Gill-Man), or the fantastic tension of being trapped in the center of a house with a legion of fiends at every turn.  The film's signature image is a genuinely amazing lateral tracking shot in the climax, generously underscoring the immense danger Dracula represents—overriding the fact that we've watched him swan around for the whole picture, doing ridiculously un-vampiric things, like throwing sticks of dynamite into treehouses and driving his stupid Draculamobile.  Ultimately, we might have to admit that Squad's tonal shifts are jarring on purpose: it really is a tiny little bit of a real horror film, after all; and the unique appeal of the kid's adventure genre was the palpable sense of danger and darkness they trafficked in.  Like the best of them, Squad lets laughs punctuate the tension, rather than letting the tension exist merely as an excuse for the laughs.

Now, you must be wondering when I'll call it a rip-off of The Goonies.  Well, I won't.  Despite its near-universal currency as the critical lens through which to view Monster Squad, even by those who like it even more than The Goonies, it's a misplaced comparison, because Monster Squad is a rip-off of Joe Dante's Explorers, and in extraordinarily direct ways.  Most fundamentally of all, both films center themselves around the awkward pre-adolescence of troubled nerds finding solace and meaning in ancient genre films, predating their own lives by decades.  Switch "science-fiction" to "horror," and you have Monster Squad already half-written.  I expect this is a fair description of Dekker and Black's process.

Of course, one of the most loveable things about both films is that neither tries to hide the nostalgia of the adults writing them, and when I say a movie ripped off Explorers, that's hardly a complaint.  Indeed, it's awful nice to see that ripping off my beloved Explorers did not begin with 2014's milquetoast attempt to renew the kid's adventure genre, Earth to Echo; it's nice also to be shown that it could be done with gusto instead.  Not that Squad rises totally to its level of quality: Explorers kept its cast small, its focus tight, its mystery unbearably tantalizing, and its gestures toward realistically shitheeled kids sweet.  But if Explorers is effortlessly charming, Squad—and this is surely Squad's most distinguishing feature—is simply so invigoratingly crass.

And that's where Squad jumps right into the top tier, or at least the top of the middle tier, skipping over non-essentials like "reasons for things to happen" and "good taste."  Humor might be subjective, but who would hesitate to call Squad the funniest kid's adventure film of them all?  It's so catastrophically hilarious that for the first time in—I don't know, maybe years—I literally, physically fell off my couch laughing while watching a movie, and have kept laughing every time I thought about it for days and days, much to my allegedly more mature girlfriend's great chagrin.  Squad is routinely very, very funny—and that's good, because it is also a movie that is willing to absolutely break itself to pay off its set-ups.  (Though Roberto Benigni would steal its denouement and get an Oscar for it, so what do I know?)

I won't provide a list of its great gags; I need refer to only one, anyway.  I doubt the radiant brilliance of Squad's best moment can even be spoiled.  Naturally, I had seen it written down beforehand.  That's what proves its perfect, supple beauty.  Each syllable of it is delivered ecstatically by Brent Chalem, with as much attention to the timing of the line, and the prosody of its sounds, as to the meaning and emotion of these fateful words.  It is not the accomplishment of just two screenwriters, nor even one very game young actor.  It is the culmination of our species' greatest gift.  In 1987, after two million years of struggle, we achieved the apex of human speech.  We can leave it to the 1s and 0s of our robot successors now.  On humanity's grave, it shall read, simply:

Wolfman's got nards.

And we'll sleep, knowing we did right by God.

Score: 8/10


  1. Thanks for the shout-out! You're right, Night of the Creeps is a must-see. And I haven't seen Monster Squad yet (it's one of the biggest patches on my horror history), but I'm definitely raring to go now. It was just dumped on Netflix, so I have no excuse. Of course, that means that the day I decide to watch it, it will have mysteriously vanished.

    1. Argh, I know that pain. I was going through all those 70s paranoid thrillers, and, zap, no more Parallax View. SORRY CHARLIE.

  2. I finally watched Monster Squad and it's just as unpolished/superb as you said! And they DID forget to kill the third Bride of Dracula, didn't they? What a strange film.

  3. The truly uncanny thing about Monster Squad is how it feels like it was specifically engineered to be seen by nostalgic adults 30 years later. These days when I think of the Monster Squad I don't associate it so easily with The Goonies or Fright Night (the latter being the one I've most seen people bring up in conversation whenever I mention this movie - "oh do you mean Fright Night?"), I actually think its most direct cinematic relative might be It (2017).

    I think the mistake back in the day was to actually market it as a kids movie. It really is a little too hardcore for family viewing and teen/adult horror fans weren't going to rush out to see a kiddie flick. But lean into the horror a tad more (and maybe get a Kurt Russell type name to play the dad if you could afford it at all) and you might've had a hit on your hands.

    1. Oh, for sure. It's weird how it can be genuinely severe but frequently back off on it--just go for horror.

      "Horror for nostalgic adults 30 years later" is my cue to recommend, as I always must, the very underseen 2018 film Summer of 84.

    2. I'll check it out! It probably got overlooked because it sounds like the name of a season of American Horror Story or something like that.