I’ll never forget riding a train long ago wearing my “Monster Squad” baseball cap and having a grown man stop me and yell, “Hey! You’re too young to know that movie!”
Yes, he was joking (I’m pretty sure), but for anyone who doubts my credentials here, André Gower, a.k.a. Sean Crenshaw, the leader of “The Monster Squad,” once said I’m… well, I’ll let you read it…
That. Is. Badass.
— andré gower (@andregower) September 29, 2019
Clearly, I’m qualified.
The Monster Squad (1987) falls under that odd category of “hidden film people love.” Out of the many stories I’ve encountered of people who’ve seen this movie, the ones I recall describe seeing it after its theatrical release. Maybe they caught it on TV by chance. Maybe they rented it from a video store. Maybe a friend or family member showed it to them on TV, VHS, DVD, or even on the big screen at a special screening.
I’ve definitely done my part since my own discovery of the film through my interest in Svengoolie and resulting interest in the Universal Monsters. I’ve pulled out my DVD to show friends and family, I’ve brought friends to screenings, I lent my DVD to my friend, Dean, who texted me while he watched it for the first time to call out things he enjoyed, I watched it virtually with another friend when the COVID-19 pandemic kept us apart, and, of course, here I am writing about it…for the second time.
The story of The Monster Squad is overwhelmingly one of misfit Monster Kids who discover the film either on their own or via fellow misfit Monster Kids and take it upon themselves to continue the tradition and induct others into the club… That sounds familiar…
What is it about this misfit monster film that gets misfit Monster Kids eager to join the Monster Squad? Grab your stakes, silver bullets, and some dynamite, just to be safe, because it’s time to chow down on some garlic-covered pizza and hunt for the amulet that is…The Monster Squad!
The protagonists in this movie are a group of kids who are big monster movie fans. They know all about the Universal monster movies, they know everything about every monster, they’ve bonded specifically over their enthusiasm for these monsters, and they’ve caught some flack for this shared interest, whether from parents, peers, principals, or older brothers who don’t listen to reason that they should let girls into the club…
Before the monsters show up in 1987, the humor’s already present. Some of it comes from the fact that this movie revolves around kids, so we get to see kids interacting with the world around them. (As a warning for those who haven’t seen the movie before: a few lines and moments, some of which were originally intended to be “humorous,” haven’t aged particularly well.) They deal with teachers and principals, they gossip, they deal with bullies (who are also kids), they compare knowledge of monster movies, and they deal with parents. The kids have a sense of humor, and so, the movie does.
When the kids aren’t making intentional jokes, the humor comes from how seriously they take monsters and monster movies and how much the world around them misunderstands them and their interest in monsters.
When the monsters do show up, the kids retain their personalities, ensuring that whatever humor they intentionally or unintentionally brought to the film beforehand sticks around.
But…if kids are throwing around fart jokes and “I know you are, but what am I?”, how can monsters get a word in edgewise?
The horror stems from the monstrous (pun intended) antagonists (with one not-so-mean, green exception we’ll discuss later). The monsters are recognizable visually to both monster fans and people who’ve only seen them on dollar store Halloween decorations. (This is a testament to Stan Winston, who was able to redesign them to be just askew enough to avoid copyright infringement on Universal Studios when Universal wouldn’t license the monsters’ likenesses.)
Past the visuals, the monsters also behave recognizably like themselves. Although the Mummy (Michael Reid MacKay) would be recognizable regardless, he has a leg he drags and one arm that doesn’t seem to work, like the Mummy from the Universal Studios films of the 1940s. (As any Monster Club member would know, the Mummy in the original 1932 film spends very little time bandaged.) The Gillman (Tom Woodruff, Jr.) kills a cop by crushing his head, which was often the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s attack of choice in his films. Wolfman (Carl Thibault) may not be Larry Talbot, but he is a person (Jonathan Gries) who resents and fears his lupine side and who, while in human form, works to minimize the harm he’ll do under the influence of the full moon and Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr), including yelling at people that he’s a werewolf and there’s something supernatural at hand (which, of course, is always a surefire way to get people to believe you).
This brings us to the Count himself. As in other “monster mash” movies, such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula takes the lead in the group of monsters. He’s the one with the plan, with his ultimate goal to extend his power throughout the world (which is also reminiscent of his goal in most of his own movies), using the Frankenstein monster as his “muscle” and…the same “secret identity” he’s used countless times.
Dracula means business. He explicitly tells the Frankenstein monster to kill the children if they don’t hand over what the Count wants. It’s as if he stepped straight out of one of Universal’s movies from the 1930s or ’40s.
The monsters are at their full power, not holding back on strength, violence, cunning, or even language just because they’re facing children instead of adults.
But…with the monsters at their full potential, and directing that potential toward children, how can the comedy be effective, rather than tasteless?
How They Mix
While the kid heroes of The Monster Squad are well-versed in the monster movies from long before they were born, they’re also fully a part of the world of 1987. They have walkie-talkies, movies they can refer to for knowledge, and woodshop and metal shop classes.
In many movies featuring monsters, whether vampires or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, there’s a “learning curve” for the protagonists, where they have to learn what the monster is, what the monster’s “rules” are, and how to defeat them. Not so with the members of the Monster Squad. There may be debate over whether or not there’s a second way to kill a werewolf, but these kids know all they need to take on some monsters.
It also helps that certain more mature elements are handled with some subtlety. There’s talk about whether or not someone’s a virgin, but even the kid heroes don’t seem to fully know what a “virgin” is. Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino) (who, amusingly, never receives any other name) comments that he supposes he knows a lot about monsters, only to close the door and leave the camera to linger on this shot…
Dracula takes brides (Mary Albee, Brynn Baron, Julie Merrill), as usual, but, blink and you’ll miss it: these brides he locked in the pantry (because what’s the point of being an evil vampire if you’re not sardonic about it?) are wearing school uniforms, meaning they’re still in high school.
Mainly, the humor comes from the clash between these “generations”: the classic monsters against the modern (1980s) world. These kids may be young, but they’ve seen enough movies to be able to handle the monsters from those movies while simultaneously being sardonic, creatively using the modern world to their advantage and bickering like the kids they are. The monsters are in the kids’ world now, and the kids’ influence inevitably bleeds over (pun intended).
The Frankenstein monster goes from a lumbering killer to an awkward, childlike friend, much like he does in his own films when people show him kindness (which again shows the love the filmmakers have for these classic Universal Monsters). The difference here is that he’s in the 1980s, so he gets to learn new words that are “modern,” rather than the traditional “friend” or “fire bad.”
Moreover, despite the Monster Squad taking everything, even the most minute detail, gravely seriously (pun also intended), they’re still kids who’ve never done anything like this before.
To their own admission, they’re in way over their heads, but as the only ones who know and believe what’s going on, they’re the world’s only hope.
This, in my view, seems to add to the film’s impact. In addition to being a fun film about monsters whom everyone’s at least heard of that was made with many loving details that monster movie fans will no doubt enjoy, it also reflects an experience that is, ironically, all too common for those horror and monster movie fans: being the only one. The misfit. And the strange kinship that occurs when you finally find someone else who stayed up to watch Svengoolie on Saturday nights, has seen overlooked films like Dracula’s Daughter (1936), finds special effects fascinating, and can get excited about the strangest horror movie with you without either of you feeling self-conscious about it. It’s you against the world…or against monsters who want an amulet.
The Monster Squad, as a film, has had a similar experience itself. The misfit film that flopped out of theaters snuck around in obscurity until monster movie fans slowly found it and took to it like the Creature takes to Twinkies. As those monster movie fans found each other, they could either bond over The Monster Squad or one could show the other the movie and initiate them into the squad.
While The Monster Squad certainly has a growing and enthusiastic fanbase now, it still flies under the radar in the mainstream. Official merchandise is few and far between and doesn’t come directly from the studio, but from third parties like Fright Rags. Fan-made merchandise abounds. 2018 even brought the documentary Wolfman’s Got Nards, directed by André Gower, all about the film’s impact.
If you have any interest in the Universal Monsters at all, I recommend The Monster Squad. If you’re not a horror fan, I still recommend it as a fun adventure film for all ages…though if the age in question is still in the single digits, you should probably screen the language first.
If you have seen any of the Universal Monster movies, you’ll pick up on so many references and callbacks that’ll further enrich the experience. Given that it’s streaming for free and legally on at least three sites and clocks in at a slim one hour and 23 minutes, you don’t have an excuse to bury this hidden amulet of a film for another hundred years.
Welcome to the squad. I wear my cap with pride.