The Monster Squad (1987)
You know, the video rental store was a glorious thing growing up in the 1980s and 90s. It was better than any other place around. Especially in the 80s, I believe I discovered more great films from VHS rentals and cable television than actually going to the theatre. While the vast majority of my horror movie fandom was sparked off in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of The Monster Squad since it came to home video. It was always a rare treat either renting it or finding it airing on television some afternoon. This was a greatly fun and frightening movie.
In the late nineteenth century, legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) led a siege upon the castle of Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) with an amulet of concentrated good in an attempt to cast all monsters into Limbo. They blew it. One hundred years later, his diary comes into the possession of Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) who leads a group of pre-teens who idolize classic movie monsters. They call themselves The Monster Squad. Sean and his friends workup the courage to visit the “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino), who turns out to be a kindly gentleman, to translate the German text in Van Helsing’s diary. They learn of the amulet and its power, and that they only have a few days before it becomes vulnerable to destruction. However, danger approaches as Dracula reawakens joined by the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to help the Count take control of the amulet and plunge the world into darkness. Now, the Monster Squad are the only ones who can stand in his way, and save the world from his impending reign of evil.
I find it immensely pleasing that Fred Dekker, director and co-writer, created a film that fully delivers on high quality horror while still incorporating adventurous fun. There is such a deep, rich respect for these icons of classic horror that it shows through in every frame of film. The entire film is given fine dramatic integrity. Nothing is ever farcical. It follows in the style of a film like The Goonies which has very fleshed out, dimensional, and relatable young characters put into very dangerous and exciting scenarios. There’s a fine balance between the serious story and the charming fun. The characters nor actors ever treat their situation as ridiculous. They hold up the dramatic weight of the story very well. The film never descends into cheap silliness like I imagine a modern remake would. It sets everything up as a very honest threat that our heroes take with earnestness, but the film is still able to inject smart humor at just the right moments. It is a brilliant mix and balance that is not easy to pull off.
The entire child cast is absolutely excellent. André Gower leads the group with a lot of conviction and emotional determination. He naturally fits the role of a confident, inspiring leader as Sean. I love that Sean feels he has sort of inherited the mantle of Abraham Van Helsing. He is inspired by Van Helsing’s journal, and wants to fulfill that failed mission. Ryan Lambert does a great job as Rudy, the older, tougher, cooler kid of the group. His leather jacket rebel style attitude adds a nice sense of edginess and credibility to the team. Rudy’s also given a fine action hero moment when he starts slinging arrows in the climax. You’ve also got to love how Horace is used in the film paying off some smart and hilarious jokes. He’s the one that gets picked on at school, but ultimately, gets his hard edged action hero moment by the end. This entire youthful cast is as solid as it gets. They endear themselves to an audience, and all have their own qualities that make them distinct amongst the group. They all bring something fun and unique to the cast’s dynamics.
Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor turn in very solid and well-rounded performances as Sean & Pheobe’s parents. While the strained marriage aspect wasn’t all that necessary, it added to the emotional dimension of these characters, and it resonated well where it needed to. The relationship between Sean and his father is very strongly handled with subtle moments that go a long way. Macht and Gower have a very heartfelt bond that penetrates the screen, and builds a depth with Sean that an audience can connect with. It surely solidifies Sean’s stature as the lead protagonist.
The film’s Dracula is brilliantly portrayed by Duncan Regehr. His is seriously one of my favorite interpretations of Count Dracula. He has such an intimidating and theatrical presence which saturates the screen. The cold blooded, violent aspects of his performance are very chilling. He has absolutely no hesitation to kill, and you never doubt how genuinely threatening or dangerous he is. However, he can also demonstrate a passionate desire at times when on the hunt. The film doesn’t give him a lot of scenes to establish much character, but you can feel this is a fleshed out villain from this rich performance alone. I have seen Regehr in a few other roles, and he has brought this same level of passion to them as well. As Dracula, he never ceases to be terrifying and compelling. He is an immensely strong lead villain that I think should never be forgotten in the annals of great Dracula portrayals.
I know the amazing talent of Tom Noonan from Manhunter, and as Frankenstein’s Monster, he continues to amaze. The touching, tragic humanity he pours into this role is heartbreaking. He can truly capture an audience’s heart as he does with the Monster Squad kids themselves. Noonan deserves special recognition for his work here. I also love the portrayal of the Wolfman by Jonathan Gries. He’s a guy frightened to death of what the full moon turns him into so much he goes crazy on the police to force them to lock him up. However, as the wolf, he is Dracula’s willing ally who is entirely ferocious and terrifying. The transformation effects from man into werewolf are some of the best ever committed to film. You definitely get the sense of a violent metamorphosis into this vicious beast, and that is no surprise consider the brilliance behind these effects.
All of the monsters are magnificently brought to life by Stan Winston Studios. In the same year he brought us the iconic Predator, Winston brings that same level of realistic, textured detail to the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man. There are even impressive moments of seeing Dracula in mid-bat transformation. This is a benchmark of quality realizing these classic icons of horror with stellar modern practical effects work, and giving them a very tangible and textured quality. Stan created the absolute highest standards for creature effects that continue to be shining standard bearers to this day, and likely for all cinematic time. It’s tragic to see a movie like Van Helsing, which contained many of the same classic horror monsters and had more than ten times the budget of The Monster Squad, indulged in horrendous looking computer generated effects. It goes to show that a bigger budget doesn’t always equal a technically superior film. Talent is what counts, and Stan Winston clearly provided that and injected a vast amount of quality with these iconic movie monsters. He did them justice, and paid great respect to their legacies, as did Fred Dekker.
Considering all the amazing known talents behind this film, it’s no surprise how damn good it is. Fred Dekker co-wrote the screenplay with the excellent Shane Black who has written Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed). The film was also executive produced by Peter Hyams, a great director and amazing cinematographer on films such as 2010, Running Scared, Timecop, Sudden Death, and End of Days. It’s just enough talent to keep the quality at a high level in every aspect of the film. The Monster Squad is genuinely very frightening because of that talent and quality standards. Plenty of imposing atmosphere with beautiful cinematography that showcases integrity and great production values make for a highly effective and fun horror movie. This might’ve only had an estimated budget of $12 million, but it sure doesn’t look like it. This looks big budget all the way.
If there’s any negative mark to leverage against the film it would be the brisk 82 minute runtime. The positive side of that is it moves at a very consistent, steady pace. There are no lulls in the film. It just keeps rolling forward, and flows exceptionally well. Still, that 82 minutes hits you pretty hard making you wish there was a little more going on in that second act because you’re into the third act of the movie before you know it. As I said, not much time is devoted to developing Dracula, and that’s certainly one area where they could’ve added in more content. They quickly touch on an existing strong friendship between him and Frankenstein’s Monster, and that’s something which would’ve been interesting to see developed so to create more of an arc for Frank. See him go from this brutish pawn of the villain to an ally of the heroes would be ripe for an extended setup and pay-off.
The Monster Squad seems to be a cult classic movie, and it’s sad and surprising that something of such high quality and solid entertainment value bombed hard at the box office. Considering it opened two weeks after the vastly successful and more broadly appealing The Lost Boys, one could see it not having as much impact at the box office as Tri Star Pictures likely desired. Still, making less than $4 million at the domestic box office is very harsh even for 1987’s standards. Thankfully, time has been kind to this film, and it eventually got the treatment it deserved on DVD and Blu ray with a features loaded two-disc set that would satisfy any fan. If you’ve never seen this movie, I give it an extremely solid recommendation. You get a fine dose of adventure and fun with some solid, serious horror elements. It is a PG-13 rated movie, but that is only because it lacks any serious gore or pervasive language. It has plenty of suspense and unsettling moments that are greatly handled to where the rating is inconsequential. It’s an exceptionally fun ride that shows deep respect to the icons of horror it showcases.
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This entry was posted on 10.09.2012 by Nick Michalak. It was filed under Horror Movies, Movie Reviews and was tagged with action, adventure, children, classic, comedy, creatures, dracula, duncan regher, film, frankenstein, frankenstein's monster, fred dekker, fun, gill-man, horror, icons, movie, mummy, peter hyams, review, shane black, stan winston studios, the monster squad, tom noonan, vampire, wolfman.