Alongside teen comedies and boneheaded action films from the eighties, there's also a devoted following of that decade's self-mocking horror films - the product of filmmakers enamored by the classic Universal monsters from the thirties and forties, and what's increasingly regarded as the most impressionable monster movie of all: Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein (1948), which gathered the Wolfman, Dracula, and the Mummy into one big goofball romp with the studio's popular comedy team.
Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985) was aimed at an older demographic weaned on local late night movie showings, with cheesy hosts or hostesses dressed as pseudo-vampires or some affable cross-mix, whereas in The Monster Squad, writers Fred Dekker and Shane Black wanted to update the Abbott & Costello opus with the camaraderie of the Little Rascals, a beloved collection of street kids who solved mysteries, built their own go-carts, and pulled explosive pranks on each other when not convening at their local plywood and driftwood clubhouse in the grubby, dusty suburbs of Los Angeles.
Monster Squad does follow the Rascals logic, albeit on a smaller scale: there are bullies, weird neighbours (scary German Guy), nicknames (Fat Kid), annoying younger siblings, and a world where cheap entertainment is easy to be had, even in the suburbs; unlike Poltergeist, which is set in the newly built, secular monster home suburbs of California, the Monster Squad kids still live in older fifties and late sixties homes where you could sit on the roof at night, and watch a distant drive-in movie using binoculars, and listen to the soundtrack with your portable AM radio tuned into the drive-in's speaker channel.
(Throughout the eighties in major U.S. cities, you could also tune into any TV station using a portable radio; if not to listen to TV, than to add an extra speaker in an era where stereo TVs cost about $2,000.)
It's that patented Rascals view in which any problem can be solved with simple deduction, and that's pretty much how the kids manage to stop Dracula and his newly revived monsters the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon from opening some vortex that'll bring badness into the world.
Like the Abbott & Costello films (which added the Invisible Man and Boris Karloff in separate installments), actual plot logic wasn't really important, and Dekker and Black's script skirts over a lot of plot holes in the final act to ensure the end battle happens with all characters in the town center something not dissimilar from Joe Dante's own nostalgia trips, although his tributes are derived from bug-eyed monster movies and suburban life infiltrated by seething, slimy, furry, prickly, or robotic evil, and reflect his own (and slightly older) generational standing. (Dante's humour is also tied to cartoons, giving his films a strong sense of absurdity, and moments grounded in classic Warner cartoon logic.)
Monster Squad also bears the smart-ass dialogue and cop elements that would form the core of Shane Black's second feature film script, Lethal Weapon, including marital bickering between the cop husband and annoyed wife/mother, and lowbrow insults traded between detectives at the crime scene defining aspects of the buddy copy genre.
Exactly what's made Dekker's film a fondly remembered classic is hard to quantify: the monsters, the camaraderie of the kids in the treehouse, or the nutty humour that aimed local, and low, Wolfman's nards and all. In both commentary tracks for the DVD, Dekker acknowledges the fantastical elements made popular by Steven Spielberg, yet Spielberg's own characters in the films he wrote, directed, or produced, existed in a world with sappy emotions, and desexualized, if not formal behaviour; besides the kids, even Frankenstein gets some latent jollies when he looks at the picture he mistakenly took of a panty-clad girl from the kid's Peeping Tom camera setup.
(A curious irony is how Black's second script, Lethal Weapon, would be directed by Richard Donner, who had just made The Goonies (1985) - a film executive produced by Spielberg, and often cited as the antecedent to Monster Squad.)
What the DVD's producers don't heavily delve into is the film as a unique reflection of its era, particularly when films aimed at kids were loaded with all kinds pop culture self-references, adult (if not teen) humour, and kids playing kids quite different from the vacuum that existed during the seventies: you had drive-in exploitation fodder, bland Disney fantasies or comedies with pet seals or super-sneakers, and George Lucas' operatic Star Wars saga, but small-scale entertainment aimed at savvy kids weaned on old movies and comedy shorts were arguably non-existent.
That void of pre-existing movies on TV, cable TV, and home video may be why the Monster Squad fan base is pretty substantive, and Dekker cites several fans at conventions who expressed how his film got them to look back at the older films and get hooked on the classics, and form their own deep interest in the horror genre.
That's noteworthy, because it'll be interesting to see whether Van Helsing (2004), Stephen Sommers' own personal tribute to the classic Universal triumvirate Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein will earn the affection and nostalgia of genre fans in 20 years, or remain marginalized as a loud, bumbling ode to beloved characters trapped in an overblown mess made by an over-excited director incapable of comprehending restraint, and the value of subtlety.
For Monster Squad fans, this 2-disc set from Maple/Lionsgate is a must-have because it was produced by people who clearly love this film. Available for the first time in its original gorgeous 2.35:1 scope ratio, there's also a crisp 5.1 soundtrack which exploits the fine sound design, and Bruce Broughton's superb, grand orchestral score.
Of the 2 commentaries, the second track featuring Dekker and cinematographer Bradford May is the best, as it delves into the technical details, goes deeper into the film's production history, and Dekker discusses his interesting relationship with executive producer Peter Hyams, who also shot some second unit footage.
Those fond of the cast will perhaps prefer the first commentary track with Dekker and selective cast members who more or less recall moments during filming, practical jokes, and the usual statements of cold nights, long days, etc. It's an amiable track, but a bit fluffy when compared to the multi-part featurettes that manage to cover most of the details in both commentary tracks.
An amusing follow-up to the director/cast commentary, however, is the separately archived 'Frankenstein interview' from 1986, which punctuates comments from the actors recalling how Tom Noonan stayed in character as Frankenstein during the entire shoot; no idle chatter beyond moans is what the kids had to settle for between takes and camera setups, and the interviewer goes along with Noonan as he pretends to be the actor who's been playing Frankenstein since 1931!
Within the commentarries, there's some repetition of facts, but the featurettes put faces to the voices, and go through the film's entire production stages, using lots of interviews, stills, and outtakes. The special effects and monster makeup are given due attention, since the creations had to evoke the spirit of the Universal monsters without replicating the original designs and run into copyright infringement.
The Deleted Scenes gallery also contains some scene extensions and material shorn from the final edit, including more material reflecting the marital discord between Sean's parents. (Dekker's commentray track with May also mentions additional deleted material that existed in the script, or was filmed but later dropped.)
There's also some material on what everyone's done since the film, though the most mysterious remains Dekker, whose film directing career began with Night of the Creeps, was followed by The Monster Squad, and ended abruptly with Robocop 3. (Rue Morgue's recent tribute issue to the film features a lengthy interview with Dekker, who admits the failure of the problematic Robocop sequel put him in a kind of directorial stasis that's still ongoing as of this writing, though he's recently popped up on the scene as writer and producer on TV's Enterprise.)
The last goodies in this excellent set are original storyboards set to the soundtrack of the kids' final battle with the monsters; a lengthy stills gallery (production photos and ad campaign art, set to Broughton's sometimes Goldsmithian finale music); theatrical trailer (using a blend of pop music and Jerry Goldsmith's Omen theme), and a TV spot.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan