The Monster Squad – 1987
“It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.” — Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
“Wolfman’s got nards.” — Horace, The Monster Squad
In ye olden days, van Helsing and his friends tried to destroy Dracula (Duncan Regher) but their plan failed. Now it’s the 1980s and Dracula is trying to conquer the world again.
He reckons without a bunch of kids who have a monster fanclub. They are looked down on by their principal and bullied by the older brother from the Wonder Years (Jason Hervey). However, they win the respect of the coolest kid in school, Rudy (Ryan Lambert), who looks like he just stepped out of a kid’s version of The Wild One. He’s made to complete a quiz on how to kill monsters and is allowed to join the club. The leader of the monster club, Sean (Andre Gower) happens to come into possession of van Helsing’s journal.
Dracula arrives by plane, while weirdness happening in the city. A valuable mummy goes missing. A man goes to the police demanding to be locked up before the moon rises. He pulls a gun on a cop and is shot dead but reawakens as a werewolf in the back of an ambulance. Drac, Wolfman and the Mummy meet at the swamp, where the Gillman raises the crate containing Frankenstein’s Monster from the waters. Dracula sends the Monster to find the journal and kill the kids.
The Monster Squad realises something is up. Sean, the squad leader, decides he has to translate van Helsing’s journal, which is in German. He and his friends go to see the one person they are scared of – the creepy old German guy down the street. He turns out not to be scary at all, and gives the kids pie. He translates the book, which tells of a talisman that can be used to defeat the monsters. The old man (Leonardo Cimino) tells them that he knows a lot about monsters, and the camera closes in on a concentration camp tattoo on his wrist.
Meanwhile, Sean’s little sister, Phoebe (Ashley Bank) meets the Monster (Tom Noonan) by the water’s edge. She befriends it and brings it home. Sean and the others also befriend the Monster, who moves into their treehouse.
Dracula finds the amulet while the kids make wooden stakes and silver bullets. As you do. Since van Helsing’s spell requires a virgin (presumably a female virgin, but no one seems to question this) to cast it, there’s a not particularly funny scene where two members of the squad question a teenage girl about her sex life. It’s kind of gross.
The Squad go to Dracula’s hideout, and the Monster is seemingly killed when Dracula blows up part of the roof. The kids are chased by the vampire brides, but find the amulet. Dracula tries to take it back, but is repelled by a slice of garlic pizza (!). The German guy helps them escape but they are attacked by the Mummy. By tying his bandage to an arrow and shooting it into a tree, Rudy causes the Mummy to unravel.
The teenage girl (Lisa Fuller, credited as ‘Patrick’s sister) has to read the spell to activate the amulet or whatever in the town square. The monsters attack and basically all hell breaks loose. The Wolfman is blown up with dynamite but reforms. Patrick’s sister completes the spell, but nothing happens. Turns out she wasn’t a virgin after all. Hilarious.
Rudy shoots the Wolfman with a silver bullet. German guy helps Phoebe read the spell while Horace kills the Gillman with a discarded police shotgun. Dracula attacks, throwing cops around like ragdolls. He is about to kill Phoebe when the Monster turns up and throes him onto a convenient stake. The spell is completed and the amulet opens a portal to limbo and all the monsters are thrown in. Dracula almost pulls Sean into the portal, but van Helsing comes out of said portal and drags the vampire away. Then the Monster gets sucked in too, which kind of sucks, but he seems content as he waves goodbye to Phoebe.
Then the National Guard turns up and the Monster Squad claims credit for their victory, the end.
There’s a lot to like about this movie. The monster design by Stan Winston alone is worth the price of admission. Even thirty years later, the creatures don’t look dated at all. The Monster manages to look grotesque but also likeable – there’s a lovely scene when the kids show him a Frankenstein Halloween mask and he becomes upset at how scary he looks. Dracula looks like… well, Dracula. The Werewolf is pretty decent, but the Mummy looks awesome, and the Gill Man looks super badass.
The child acting is pretty decent. It suffers a bit from a dose of 1980s, and the height of the whole ‘obnoxious=cool’ business. But it’s less grating when it’s kids being obnoxious and not adult cops or navy pilots being shitheads. The plot is pretty decent, even though it relies a lot on one big ‘save-the-day’ MacGuffin.
The film follows Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein‘s useful notion of making Dracula the arch-villain, and balancing this by making one of the monsters a good guy. In that film, it was the Wolfman who helped the boys against Dracula; here it is the Monster. It works. It’s a simple little trick that just gives a whole bunch of extra complexity to the plot.
Making the Monster the good guy is not the only really interesting thing that the film has to say about the Frankenstein mythos. The Monster’s relationship with Phoebe is explicitly set up as a sort of redemption for the character’s accidental killing of the little girl in 1931’s Frankenstein. Phoebe makes her first appearance holding a flower, and she encounters the Monster at the water’s edge. The Monster’s deliberate act of self-sacrifice in in saving the world from Dracula is a nice ending for a character who so often just ends his movies trapped in a burning building.
On the negative side, the film is kind of sexist in a bunch of typically 80s ways. There’s not really any getting around that. It also has his subplot in which one of the Squad –‘Fat Kid’, aka Horace — is bullied and belittled but finds redemption when he saves his terrified tormentors from the monsters. It’s a nice fantasy, but it’s a pity that the moral is ‘not being bullied is something you have to earn through violence’.
But those are side issues. What’s the film about? Well, the slightly weird thing here is that it’s about a subculture that was in decline. The subculture was the ‘Monster Kids’, a fannish group centred around classic horror movies. Now, I’m no expert on the Monster Kids, but they’re a subject that come up again and again in writings on the persistence of the popularity of the Universal Monsters.
In those pre-internet days, the subculture coalesced print around magazines –most notably Famous Monster of Filmland, but also many others, which typicaly included articles and still photos of the classic horror pictures from Lon Chaney Sr’s day onward. My understanding is the subculture peeked in popularity in the 1970s — around about the time the film’s writers (Shane Black and Fred Dekker, who also directed) would have been in school.
By 1987, Famous Monsters had been cancelled (though it was later revived). The conceit of cool, monster-loving kids versus stodgy adults who don’t appreciate Boris Karloff was a serious case of wishful thinking by the time Monster Squad was made. Perhaps this is why Monster Squad never achieved the iconic status of so many 1980s children’s fantasy movies – The Goonies, Gremlins, Neverending Story, Labyrinth and so on, which were more accurately targeted at the children of the era.
There’s a minor (but still frequent) trope in fiction about people with obscure, seemingly trivial skills suddenly being all that stands in the way of disaster. Pixels and Ready Player One are good recent examples — as is the entire genre of survivalist fiction. I suppose this is an offshoot of the genre of ‘competence porn’, in which the pleasure of the story comes from watching someone use their significant, important skills to overcome obstacles. The Martian is a great example of this, as is any part of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul where Mike is on the screen.
Films like Monster Squad (or Pixels, if you’re feeling masochistic) are probably not intended as parody of this genre but they do tend to work that way, showing just how contrived it all is. It’s a very simple thing for a storyteller to take a skillset and, working backwards, come up with problems that can be solved using that skillset, and then use those problems as the basis for a story.
What the ‘trivial competence porn’ trope does is to take skills that have little to no practical significance and make them the basis for plot success. In this case, it’s the Squad’s proud knowledge of monster movie trivia that allows them to save the day. Speaking as someone who prides himself on monster movie trivia, that’s both a pleasing fantasy and utterly ridiculous.
But perhaps this is carping. All in all, Monster Squad is a charming movie in spite of its flaws. It’s fun and lively; scary but not too gory for kids. It steers away from a lot of the worst cliches of the genre, in that the adults aren’t completely useless (though of course they aren’t as cool as the kids.) Not a deep movie, or one that adds a lot to the mythology it borrows from, for ninety minutes of enjoyable silliness you could do a lot worse.