We’re hugely honoured to have Canadian film critic, television and radio personality and author Richard Crouse join us as part of Biff Bam Pop’s 31 Days Of Horror. Richard, whose great new book Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils was just released by ECW Press this month, was kind enough to contribute the following piece on a beloved piece of horror movie making. Take it away, Richard!
Like many baby boomers reared on the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Fred Dekker is a huge fan of the classic Universal horror movies. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy and The Wolf Man inspire nightmares in most, but for Dekker they simply fire his imagination.
“As a kid,” said the San Francisco born filmmaker, “I loved the Universal monster films of the ’30s and ’40s so obviously, getting the chance to play in their fictional universe was a dream come true.”
The result of Dekker’s reverie was the creation of The Monster Squad, a 1987 teenage horror comedy that owes a big nod to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with a side order of The Goonies thrown in for good measure.
When Count Dracula recruits a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) driving a stake through his plans.
The Monster Squad, a geeky group who wear T-shirts that say “Stephen King Rules” and spend their days obsessing over monster magazines and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’ have come into possession of the diary of famed Dracula hunter Abraham Van Helsing, a document that holds the secret to stopping the Count’s army of darkness and thwarting his evil plan.
With the help of the local “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino) who translates the book into English they get the skinny on the amulet. According to the book it is composed of concentrated good, but for one day every century it is vulnerable and can be destroyed.
If they can find the amulet and use it in conjunction with an incantation from the diary they can create a swirling vortex which will suck the monsters away from Earth, condemning them to a metaphysical jail and saving the world from their reign of wickedness. If the monsters get to the amulet first, evil will win.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Monster Squad is that the monsters don’t look exactly the way you remember them from the old Universal movies. That’s because this homage to those landmark films wasn’t made by Universal, who still own the copyrights to the likenesses of those famous fiends. To get around that hurdle special effects wizard Stan Winston, whose creature creations have been seen in everything from Edward Scissorhands to Jurassic Park and Aliens, took the original copyrighted designs and tweaked them just enough to avoid lawsuits.
“One of the things we had to be very careful of was that although we were doing a movie that was a take-off on the Universal classics, we had to be careful none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters,” Winston told Rue Morgue in 2007. “There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing specific about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.”
You’ll notice Dracula still has a cape, but no widow’s peak; Frankenstein’s head is shaped differently and the neck bolts are gone, while The Wolf Man looks like his hair was blown dry and teased by a hairdresser with one too many Red Bulls under his belt. The changes are minimalist, but spookily effective. The success of the make-up designs is further enhanced by strong creature performances by the actors, particularly Tom Noonan as Frankenstein’s Monster, who brings a vulnerability to this familiar character.
“I think Tom Noonan brought just the right amount of conviction and gentleness and sadness to Frankenstein’s Monster,” says Dekker, “and Duncan Regehr was a terrific Dracula. He had just the right combination of nobility and evil and animal rage and all the stuff that are the hallmarks of that character.”
In contrast to the supernatural showings of the older actors, the kids of The Monster Squad turn in nice, natural performances.
“It was really important to me that we had real kids and not movie kids,” Dekker says. “You know, the kind you see in commercials who are too pretty and mug and overact? We didn’t want that. We wanted them to be believable, and to seem like they were really friends. Luckily, they turned out to become a very tight-knit group.”
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, Dracula calls a little girl “a bitch” and a preteen uses the word “chickenshit,” no doubt courtesy of Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
Dekker adds that he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“When Monster Squad was released, we found that kids didn’t go see it because their parents wouldn’t let them. Mostly because they thought it was going to be too scary, and parents didn’t see it because they thought it was a kid’s film,” he says. “In fact it took another several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
The movie’s box office take, or lack of it, condemned the film to obscurity, but it didn’t disappear altogether. Substandard video releases of the movie helped built a small cult audience for the flick, but fans had to wait twenty years for a deluxe DVD treatment. In 2007 Lionsgate released a sparkling two-disc set with lots of extras and deleted scenes. “The remastered print is so incredible that there are many shots that I hadn’t seen since I saw them through the lens of my Panaflex,” says Dekker.
Thanks to Richard Crouse for contributing to Biff Bam Pop. You can find him online at RichardCrouse.ca and on Twitter at @richardcrouse. His new book, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils is available now at Amazon.ca, ECWPress.com and Indigo.ca.