In 10 Words or Less
20 years later, the squad finally gets its due
Loves: The Monster Squad, Team-Up Flicks, '80s movies
Likes: Kids Adventures, Stan Winston effects
Back when I reviewed the '80s teen classic License to Drive, I shared the story of my last day at college, when myself and the good doctor, Matthew J. McCue, decided to recapture our youth and rent the Corey-filled License and the eminently-quotable, but criminally under-appreciated The Monster Squad (on VHS!). As the last thing I experienced before entering "the real world," these films hold a special place in my heart.
But sentimentality will only go so far when it comes to enjoying an old film or TV show (a fact cruelly learned in reviewing "He-Man".) Fortunately for The Monster Squad, there's much more than nostalgia going for it, as the story of a band of horror film fans battling the classic movie monsters is an fun piece of filmmaking that's also solid '80s nostalgia and an exciting action flick.
Blending a couple of genres, including adventure, comedy and horror, the film is a great example of one of my favorite story concepts: the team-up. Bring together a disparate group of people with a common goal or enemy and see if they can overcome their differences to use their unique talents to overcome the odds. Whether it's Revenge of the Nerds, The Goonies or Ocean's 11, the results tend to be, at the least, interesting, and usually pretty damn good (perhaps because you have to be a good writer to juggle multiple characters.)
Such is the case here, as young Sean (Andre Gower) and his friends, a bunch of grade-school fright fans, discover that Dracula, aided by Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster and Gillman (similar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon,) has arrived in town, looking to take over the world by obtaining an amulet that would give him ultimate power. Since the kids, including the unfortunately-nicknamed Fat Kid and Fonzie-lite Rudy, can't get anyone to take their warnings seriously, they have to go it alone, finding their only ally in the neighborhood's scary German guy. That's pretty much the whole story, but it's more than enough to fill out the quick moving 82 minutes.
Sure, the plot's a bit silly at points, driven by some insane coincidences, but the film has a definite sense of fun and action, and it never takes itself too seriously, balancing the menace of the monsters and the enthusiasm of the children. On the other hand, it shows respect for the concepts at the film's core, including the mythology of the monsters, and even shows a bit of depth in spots. A somewhat subtle subplot about Sean's parents' marital trouble is rather unique for a film like this, while I'll never forget when I first realized what Scary German Guy's line about monsters really meant.
While the movie looks great, thanks to a solid filmmaking effort from director Fred Dekker and company, it's the writing, from Dekker and Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, and the acting by a truly great cast of child actors, led by Gower, who is everything you'd want from the leader of the Monster Squad. For a perfect example of how good these kids are, check out Patrick (Robby Kiger) when things start to heat up. It's rare to see a child actor play panicked so well. Even Ashley Bank, who plays Sean's little sister Phoebe, is good, avoiding the cutesy crap that could have negatively affected the film. The writing actually picks up speed as the plot advances, and ends up delivering some of the most bad-ass one-liner moments in action comedy history, as each of the Squad's members gets their moment in the sun.
One of the things that struck me most in revisiting the film is how it would be impossible to make today, as it's way more adult than would be allowed in a movie ostensibly aimed at kids. The language used by the children and the behavior of the kids, including some naughtiness involving Patrick's teenage sister, would raise more than a few eyebrows. But because Fat Kid gets tortured at school, being called a "faggot," and Sean curses in front of his mom and takes it back, the movie has a sense of reality to it that helps counteract the dated clothing and brand logos that otherwise date the film. Anybody today can sit down with The Monster Squad and it will feel like a fresh, fun time.
Amazingly, after years of rumors and hopes for just a bare bones release, we have been gifted with a two-disc set, packaged in a single-width, two tray keepcase, which comes in a foil-enhanced slipcover. Unfortunately, in what's likely an effort to appeal to more modern sensibilities, the cover art is an amped-up , adventure-first image that's about as far from the original art and logo as humanly possible. But that's why we have custom covers, right?
The discs feature anamorphic widescreen menus (animated on disc 1, static on disc 2), which offer a choice to play the film, select scenes, and adjust languages on the film, while the special features are mostly on the second platter. Language options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
Available in widescreen in America for the first time (unless you imported the Japanese laserdisc), the film looks as good as it ever has, though a bit less impressive than it looked when broadcast in high definition. The colors don't quite pop as much as they should, but they are solid, and the bright reds on Dracula's cape and Phoebe's jacket don't bleed as they could have. The image is, at times, a bit soft, but I'm willing to chalk it up to the way it was shot, as other shots, in the same scene, are crystal clear. For a film 20 years old, the level of detail is rather high, and there's not nearly the amount of dirt and grain expected, thanks to a quality remastering, while digital artifacts aren't found.
The 5.1 track is simply excellent, presenting the dialogue clearly, along with the many sound effects, while delivering the film's great soundtrack strongly. The score sounds terrific, and the songs, especially during the film's main montage and final credits, are nice. There's not much in terms of a dynamic mix, leaving the side and rear speakers to mainly enhance the music, but for its age, it's a very nice track.
The first two extras are on Disc One, in the form of two audio commentaries. Up first is Dekker, joined by Gower, Bank and Ryan "Rudy" Lambert, and this track is the more retrospective of the two, as they remember the good times they had making the film and talk about how it was all done. The tone is entirely friendly and conversational, and is the right feel for a DVD aimed at a very loyal fanbase, as they'd want to sit with these people and watch the film while chatting about it. It's followed by another commentary by Dekker, this time with Director of Photography Bradford May. This is a more technical track, focused on the "how" of the filmmaking. Here's where some of the complaining comes out about the difficulties in the process, but the conversation isn't at all bitter, as they are just explaining the ins and outs of the business.
A five-part anamorphic widescreen documentary look-back on the film runs longer than the film itself, at 87 minutes, and explores the movie's director, special effects crew, actors, the production and the cult following. Featuring new interviews with Dekker, May, Gower, Bank, Lambert, Duncan "Dracula" Regehr, Tom "Frankenstein's Monster" Noonan, composer Bruce Broughton and several of the special effects crew members, the feature-length featurette isn't the sharpest piece of filmmaking ever, but it does a nice job in encompassing the world of The Monster Squad, touching all the bases, and giving the fans what they'd want, while at the same time, crediting them with the film's continued life.
"A Conversation with Frankenstein," a vintage 1986 interview with Tom Noonan, in character as Frankenstein, is an amusing gag, as he talks about his career, his process and his future in the industry. It's got lots of inside industry jokes and is worth a look for any fan of the character or those who would like to see the celebrity interview lampooned.
A collection of deleted scenes is also here, with text screens that explain them. Most of these scenes are from the storyline about Sean's parents, as the one screen explains most of the footage shot ended up in the movie, but for completists, it's here, along with a set of storyboards from the Mummy chase scene, which are presented matched up with the film's soundtrack for the scene, which is interesting for film buffs.
The extras wrap with some memorabilia, including a nicely-presented stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer (in anamorphic widescreen), a very-'80s TV commercial and some trailers from other Lionsgate releases. Interestingly, there's very little in the film that isn't given away by the trailer.
The Bottom Line
It's a big risk to mix action and comedy, because if you get the balance wrong, the element left is the minority feels out of place and ruins the other part. Mix in kids and horror, and you could possibly end up with a muddled mess. In Dekker and Black's hands, this recipe paid off in a classic adventure film that may not have been a hit when first released, but, like many cult films, it's grown on people and rediscovered on videotape and cable. Now, with this special edition DVD, it has the chance to earn a whole new generation of fans. For the DVD, the film has been cleaned-up, both in audio and video, and fans of the film couldn't ask for more than what this film offers in supplements. If you're a fan of the film, you can't go wrong in picking this movie up, and if you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to check it out, especially considering the low cost.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.