The Monster Squad

Originally published at Forces of Geek

The featherweight plot of 1987’s The Monster Squad involves a gaggle of suburban kids who fend off an invasion from Dracula and his coterie of creature-feature staples. Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy… even the Creature from the Black Lagoon puts in an appearance. Hey, why not? It’s that kind of film. It’s also a rip-roaring good time.

The titular squad is headed up by Sean (Andre Gower), an imaginative and personable kid who broadcasts his extracurricular interests with his “STEPHEN KING RULES” T-shirt and holds monster-centric club meetings in his tree house. Notable among Sean’s acolytes are his toddler sister Phoebe (adorable Ashley Bank) and local bad-boy Rudy (Ryan Lambert), who chain-smokes and dresses like he’s auditioning to play Danny Zuko in a local production of Grease; naturally, the other kids regard him with a mixture of fear and awe (Phoebe: “I heard he killed his dad!”).

From his first appearance, in which he vanquishes wannabe bully Jason Hervey with little more than a well-timed arched brow, Rudy pretty much owns the film. If The Monster Squad can be boiled down to a single iconic moment, it’d have to be Rudy, armed with a bow and arrow, cigarette dangling from his lips, striding forward to deal with the latest supernatural menace while snarling, “I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?” Rudy, my friend, you are the goddamn club.

Comparisons to The Goonies, the decade’s other enduring action-adventure film geared toward the preteen set, are tough to avoid. If we’re choosing sides—though I see no reason why we should—I’d have to align myself with Team Goonies, just due to its broader scope and shameless sentimentality (Mikey’s “This is our time!” speech was the most soaring rallying cry for young filmgoers since The Outsiders proclaimed, “Let’s do it for Johnny!”). The Goonies’ bucolic coastal Oregon setting also trumps the generic suburban Everytown of The Monster Squad, which never quite shrugs off the nondescript trappings of the Culver Studios backlot. Still, The Monster Squad possesses a charm of its own.

A hundred years ago in Transylvania, vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing botches an ancient ritual that would rid the world of evil. In the present, after Sean ends up in possession of Van Helsing’s diary (his mom picked it up at a local yard sale), Dracula and his accomplices come after him to prevent him from completing the ritual. Sean and his friends team up with an elderly German neighbor (Leonardo Cimono) to stop the monsters and vanquish evil. Sparkly mystical amulets, virgins, and swirling portals to limbo are all somehow involved.

(At one point, the German neighbor remarks that he knows a thing or two about monsters, and the camera catches a fleeting glimpse of numbers tattooed on his arm. Placing a concentration camp survivor in an irreverent kiddie flick about monsters could be the height of offensiveness, but the moment is handled with enough subtlety to pull it off.)

For what it sets out to accomplish, The Monster Squad succeeds on almost all fronts. There’s not much to gripe about the nifty creature effects, which were provided by legendary visual effects whiz Stan Winston. Duncan Regehr makes an appropriately sinister Dracula, while Tom Noonan does his best to give Frankenstein’s monster a soul.

The endlessly quotable script, which was co-written by Shane Black and director Fred Dekker, snaps and pops with wisecracks. Sure, it drifts into blatant obnoxiousness more than once, especially if one’s tolerance for fart jokes veers toward the lower end of the spectrum, but after all, it’s a film for kids. Kids, I hear, enjoy a good fart joke every now and again. Not all the dialogue stands the test of time: The antigay slurs that slide so blithely out of adolescent mouths provoke an immediate, forceful negative reaction. Don’t these kids know better than that? Not in 1987, they didn’t.

Shane Black went on to write the scripts for a number of blockbusters, including the Lethal Weapon series. This is no surprise: Between the snappy banter and the big explosions and the startling body count, The Monster Squad sometimes plays like Fisher-Price’s My First Lethal Weapon Film. This holds particularly true during the anarchic climax, in which the kids trade quips while taking on the monsters, armed to the teeth with stakes, shotguns and handguns (loaded with silver bullets, natch).

The breakneck pace only falters when the film stops down to examine the unraveling marriage between Sean’s cop father Del (Stephen Macht) and his mother, Emily. After backing out of a marriage counseling session to tend to a police emergency, Del exchanges this bit of dialogue with his wife:

Del: Look, it’s important.
Emily: I’m important.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

This is well-trampled ground. The script has the right idea: Anchor the fantastical action with real-world problems to give the plot a little extra resonance. However, The Monster Squad’s target audience (fart jokes, remember) isn’t going to feel terribly invested in Del’s attempts to balance work and family. It’s Sean’s movie, and the conflicts need to zoom in on him, not on his parents. If they’d tweaked the script—if the friction had come from Sean’s reaction to his parents’ squabbling—it could’ve been stronger. To go back to the Goonies example, the main real-world problem might’ve been an adult one—the beloved Goon Docks were jeopardized by greedy developers—but the focus was on the way this affected Mikey and his young friends, not how it affected their parents.

(Maybe it’s unfair to draw parallels between the two films—after all, nobody ever claimed The Monster Squad aspired to be The Goonies, and they’re worlds apart in tone and content. Still, it’s a safe guess the producers deliberately courted such comparisons when they cast Goonies matriarch Mary Ellen Trainor as Sean’s mom Emily, thus establishing a connection where none would’ve otherwise existed.)

Pre-Monster Squad, young star Gower was already a television veteran. Along with guest appearances on shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider, he starred as George C. Scott’s son on the early FOX series Mr. President, back in the days when FOX was still the wonky and disreputable kid brother to the bigger networks. Lambert, meanwhile, was a regular on Kids Incorporated, a weekly exercise in delirious 1980s kitsch and child-actor humiliation disguised as a tween variety show. Sadly, the series has never been released on DVD; for those whose virgin eyeballs are as yet unsullied by the sight of preteen Lambert and a barely-pubescent Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas wearing Day-Glo outfits and chirping their way through soulless, irony-free covers of “Tainted Love” and “You Belong to the City,” get thee to YouTube, posthaste.

While the cast has moved on, The Monster Squad endures. In 2006, at a special revival screening in Austin arranged by the website Ain’t It Cool News, director Dekker and stars Gower, Lambert and Bank were feted with a heroes’ welcome. This little monster movie has earned a big slice of audience goodwill.


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