In the extra features for a long-awaited DVD, director Fred Dekker blithely admits that the box office underperformance of THE MONSTER SQUAD, his follow-up to NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, derailed his career until ROBOCOP 3 ‘ruined it all over again’. Like Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS, this appealed to ‘monster kids’ rather than the mainstream ‘80s crowds who flocked to THE GOONIES or THE LOST BOYS. Conceived by Dekker, who co-wrote with soon-to-be-hot Shane Black, as ‘the Little Rascals meet the Universal Monsters’, the project was offered to Universal, who passed … and waited nearly two decades to vandalise their own heritage with the charmless VAN HELSING.
In small town America, Young Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower)–whose bedroom and treehouse are packed with horror memorabilia–invites local rebel Rudy (Ryan Lambert) to join his monster club with pals Patrick (CHILDREN OF THE CORN’s Robby Kiger), Eugene (SUBRUBAN COMMANDO’s Michael Faustino) and Horace a.ka. Fat Kid (Brent Chalem) and barely-tolerated younger sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank). The gang are distracted from their usual routine of debating the powers and weaknesses of monsters when Sean’s Mom (SCROOGED’s Mary Ellen Trainor) buys ‘Van Halen’s diary’ in a yard sale and turns it over to Sean, a fan of the original Dr Van Helsing (THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB’s Jack Gwillim).
Then, Dracula (FLYING VIRUS’s Duncan Regehr) shows up in town to convene a gathering of the Frankenstein Monster (MANHUNTER’s Tom Noonan), the Mummy (X2’s Michael MacKay), the Wolf Man (FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2’s Jonathan Gries in human form, Carl Thibault when transformed) and the Gill Man (PUMPKINHEAD’s Tom Woodruff Jr). The monsters need to get the diary and a mystical amulet concealed in an old dark house, then perform a ritual which will allow the forces of darkness to rule. Consulting ‘Scary German guy’ (THE SEVENTH SIGN’s Leonardo Cimino) for help with translation, the Squad realise they need a virgin and official help from Sean’s cop father (GRAVEYARD SHIFT’s Stephen Macht), a defecting ‘Frankenstein’ and perhaps the army to thwart the vampire’s schemes.
Dekker got the Stan Winston studio on board by offering Winston’s crew of grown-up monster kids a chance to take a break from the ‘80s run of rubber morphing beings to play with classic creatures like the Mummy and the Gill Man. Not making the film at Universal forced technicians and designers to come up with fresh versions of the pantheon–and only Noonan, brilliantly cast as the sad and gentle Monster, is short-changed (just this once, it would have been perfect to see the Jack P. Pierce flat-head and neck-electrodes again). Among ‘scenes we’d like to see’ triumphs are the moment when the Mummy gets a bandage snagged and unravels like an old cardigan to become dust and bone, the failure of a ritual because Patrick’s sister (TEEN WITCH’s Lisa Fuller) isn’t actually a virgin (‘there was only Steve, and he doesn’t count’) and a sequence which demonstrates silver bullets really are the only way to kill a werewolf as the Wolf Man survives being blown to pieces while defenestrated.
The skill of the film is the way it leavens its innocent affection for genre movies–best embodied by young Eugene who hand-prints a letter to the ‘army guys’ (getting his dog to lick the envelope) which eventually brings tanks rolling into town after the trouble is over–with a sense of the wider, scarier world going on outside the kids’ bubble, as exemplified by embarrassingly well-written parental arguments and a tiny, kick-in-the-teeth moment as the sad, wise German neighbour admits to the admiring squad that he knows ‘a lot about monsters’ as the camera catches sight of his concentration camp tattoo.
Dekker admits he can’t watch the ‘montage’ sequence, which is scored with a particularly hideous song, since TEAM AMERICA WORLD POLICE demolished that particular ‘80s convention. THE MONSTER SQUAD is of its time in other ways, not all good–it’s got more emotional punch than THE GOONIES or THE LOST BOYS, but some of it is still too hectic. Aside from Noonan’s Monster and Regher’s wry Dracula, the monsters get too little to do as individuals–after some heavy lifting is out of the way, the Gill Man’s job is done and it’s hard to see what use the Mummy is to anybody. Like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, another obvious model, it accords the bogeymen their dignity and lets others handle the laughs–but, intended for kid audiences eventually kept away by a PG-13 rating earned for profanity, it rarely lets them be scary.
The credible, crude, tough-talking kids could only appear in a Larry Clark film these days–but they ring as true as the Stephen King kids of CARRIE or STAND BY ME. The moments that stay with you are all affecting rather than spooky–the little girl showing up at the treehouse hand-in-hand with the actual original Frankenstein Monster and declaring ‘now can I be in the monster club?’ … the mortally wounded Wolf Man thanking the boy who has finally put him out of his misery … Dr Van Helsing looming out of limbo to grab his arch-enemy by the throat and give Sean the monster-hunter’s thumbs-up … the Monster sucked into another dimension while hugging the stuffed animal given to him by his best friend.
Lionsgate’s two-disc ‘20th Anniversary Edition’ presents the film’s homevideo debut in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio–which will likely prove a revelation to those who missed its brief theatrical release and caught up with the picture on VHS or TV. Sub-titles are available in English and Spanish. Naturally, the monster package stretches to many extras, including a five-part ‘Monster Squad Forever’ retrospective which runs longer than the film itself. Given the brevity of THE MONSTER SQUAD, it was easy to assume that it had been pared down in post-production, but Dekker insists this isn’t so–a statement borne out by the slim ‘deleted and extended scenes’ section, which features almost no monster action beyond several takes of the Gill Man dribbling fish which were abandoned when the gag simply didn’t work.
On audio commentaries, Dekker is joined by cast-members Gower, Lambert and Bank and director of photography Bradford May (who would direct the DARKMAN sequels). Both tracks are informative and refreshingly candid, but repeat much information presented more pithily in the documentary, which benefits from interviews with Noonan (who courageously owns up to thinking the five-year-old Bank was ‘kind of a pain’), Regehr, producer Jonathan A. Zimbert and others. An oddity is ‘A Conversation with Frankenstein’, an on-set gag piece where Noonan, in full make-up, improvises his way through a chat with an interviewer digging for dirt on the Monster’s screen career.
First published as a DVD review in Video Watchdog.