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Non-Review Review: The Monster Squad

The Monster Squad is an affectionate celebration of the monster movies of yesteryear, written from the point of view of a generation that grew up with the Universal Horror monsters. When Dracula conspires with his monstrous brethren to conquer the world, it’s up to a gang of plucky kids and their knowledge of horror movie tropes and clichés to stop the lord of the vampires from swaying the balance of good and evil once and for all. It’s an understandably cheesy celebration of those old monster movies, one that benefits from never taking itself or its subject matter to seriously. However, there’s a deep and abiding affection to be found in The Monster Squad, a polite and endearing salute to the iconic monsters of the thirties (through the fifties) from a generation that has its own scary subjects to worry about.

Staying under wraps…

By the time that The Monster Squad reached screens, the Universal Monsters it affectionately features had been off-screen for about twenty years – barring the classic Hammer Horror revival, of course. The golden days in cinema for Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster or the Wolf-Man were long gone. Those particular monsters had long-since been replaced by the boogie men of a new generation. Sean, the protagonist of The Monster Squad, has observed this trend.

He doesn’t beg his father to go see the new version of the Invisible Man or the Mummy. Instead, he wants to attend a serial killer sequel called Groundhog Day, Part XII, an illustration of how little patience the producers seem to have for mindless slashers. Even his father is familiar enough with the tired routine of such films that he can predict the plot. “Sean, he always returns from the grave,” his father assures him, almost worn out by the mundane nature of it all. Even Sean concedes it’s hardly the most original or most brilliant movie, but he still wants to see “a scary movie.”Any scary movie, he seems to suggest.

A view to a gill…

Why are we so fascinated by scary movies? The Monster Squad seems to suggest an answer. Horror movies, it suggests, are appealing because they fictionalise the great fears and insecurities we have, allowing us to deal with these fantastic constructs rather than our real concerns. Sean is motivated to form the eponymous group when he overhears his mother and father fighting angrily.The film is fairly explicit about the connection.

The group consult their German neighbour about a diary written in his native tongue. “You sure know a lot about monsters,” one of the kids remarks. “Now that you mention it,” the German concedes, “I suppose that I do.” As he closes the door, we see what he means. A familiar number tattooed on his forearm. This neighbour knows real monsters, far more tangible than a bloodsucker in a cape or a monster assembled from body parts.

“My Amazon order finally arrived…”

That’s not to suggest that The Monster Squad is ever too serious or too heavy. It does, after all, feature the almost obligatory 80’s teen movie pop music montage (set to “Walk Until You Talk”). Confronted by the Mummy, the group deal with the monster in a less than glamorous fashion – the creature is undone in a manner that almost recalls a Looney Tunes short. Despite a hokey, and yet strangely affectionate, finale, the movie even has a rap theme song that recaps the plot for anybody a bit confused.

And yet, despite that, the film is never cruel in dealing with its subjects and genres, as hokey and cheesy as they might be. It just acknowledges that it’s all a little bit silly. Then again, some of the best things are. There’s a very clear love of these films evident in the script, with the characters arguing whether or not Wolf Man can drive a car, or trying to figure out a second way to kill the monster. “C’mon,” one remarks during the group’s solemn induction right, “it’s a monster test, it’s important, okay?” The test even includes the wonderful “Is Frankenstein the name of the monster or the guy who made him?”

Man or monster?

And yet, despite its sense of humour and its indulging of film geek love for these old shuffling monsters, there’s also a very strange and very human heart at the centre of the film. Thoughtfully, the movie even finds a way to justify calling the monster “Frankenstein”, not just because it is the name of his “father.” After the creature makes a valiant effort to save the kids, Sean observes, “Don’t call him a monster.” It seems like a fair enough reason to me.

As played, superbly, by Tom Noonan, the monster is handled really well. It’s clear that the film holds a special affection for James Whale’s Frankenstein, even making sure to introduce the monster to Sean’s sister in a way that evokes the movie’s most famous scene. (Even Dracula seems to know the story well enough to acknowledge that the monster… might have some troubledealing with kids.) I also like the obvious use of lifts in Noonan’s shoes, an affectionate callback to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature.

Raising (Van) Hel(sing)…

Noonan does Karloff proud in his portrayal of the monosyllabic monster – generating genuine pathos with a minimum of theatrics, an economy of movement. Duncan Regehr, however, struggles a bit portraying Dracula – although the script’s portrayal of the Count feels sadly one-dimensional. Based on his costume and movements, Regehr’s Dracula is very clearly modelled on Bela Lugosi, but the character lacks the faint hint of tragedy that made Lugosi’s performance so classic.

Dracula very clearly has some small measure of sympathy for his fellow monsters. “It’s been so long… so very long,” he concedes, remorsefully, on pulling Frankenstein’s monster out of storage. He knows that Frankenstein’s creation is less than functional, but the movie makes it clear that Dracula pities his “old friend” and longs to believe that he can be useful. Drugging the Wolf Man’s human host, Regehr gives Dracula a sense of genuine remorse as he keeps the character drugged up during his time as a human. “I do regret the dosage,”he admits.

A howlin’ time…

And yet there seems to be no real depth to his motivations or character. He seems to have a strange fascination with explosives. He even gets a dodgy one-liner after blowing up the squad’s treehouse. (“Meeting adjurned!”) Part of this is undoubtedly down to the fact that his motivation is essentially to help evil defeat good. While it’s appropriate for a movie based around the idea that we like horror for its moral simplicity, it does feel like it short-changes the central antagonist.

The thing that endures about all of the Universal Monsters is the fact that they were all – in some way, shape or form – pitiable. That, despite their violence and their sinister means, we could understand or relate to them in some way. The movie does a good job with the rest of the cast. We pity Tom Noonan’s monster. The guilt-stricken Wolf Man host makes it clear that he is a victim here. Even the inarticulate Mummy evokes some measure of sympathy because it seems relatively helpless as it wanders around aimlessly. The Gill-Man also seems like a creature out of his natural element, even if he’s not developed.

Dust to dust…

Dracula, on the other hand, is pure evil. The movie never really delves too deeply into the affection he seems to have for his fellow monsters, an angle that might have made him just a little bit more sympathetic or nuanced. Instead, as he wanders around in his finest dress wear, he just seems like a simply villain to be vanquished. It’s a shame, given how well the rest of the movie works, but I suppose it was inevitable given the necessities of plotting a movie like this.

There’s something appropriate about the way that Dracula brings the monster out of storage, and it seems quite clever that the creatures are threatened by an eternity in limbo. After all, that is where all forgotten and neglected characters must go, right? It’s funny to think that people are still trying to resurrect these classic monsters over two decades after The Monster Squadcondemned them to limbo – it makes the finalé even more touching than it might otherwise be.

Monster mash-up!

Shane Black’s script is effective and efficient. The Monster Squad is relatively lean, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’ve all seen countless “plucky young kids team up to fight evil” stories. Black’s script is smart enough to appreciate that audiences are familiar with the tropes of those sorts of movies, right to the point where the inevitable chubby kid is actually called “fat kid” by his fellow kid characters.

Fred Dekker’s direction is quite stylish, called to mind a healthy blend of those classic monster movies, but with a very eighties sensibility. I won’t pretend that it always works (montage, baby!), but it’s to Dekker’s credit that it works far more often than it doesn’t. He gets solid performances out of his kid actors, and manages to pitch the movie just right so that it doesn’t descend into self-parody, but not so serious that the fun is lost.

A glowing example of the genre…

The Monster Squad is a fun and affectionate celebration of monsters long past. After all, monster don’t die. They just go to limbo.

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2 Responses

  1. A couple years ago, Dekker was talking about doing a remake (hopefully this time with better makeup effects). Apparently, that never got off the ground. I wonder if an update would work better if they dropped the cheese. I did not know Shane Black wrote the script.

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