Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
      ( 4/21/2009 04:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  


"IT'S THE WHOLE DEATH THING I'M NOT CRAZY ABOUT." Recently picked up a cheap copy of the two-disc "20th Anniversary Edition" of Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad (1987), a flick I hadn't previously seen, though I very much enjoyed Dekker's directorial debut, Night of the Creeps. An entertaining kids' horror comedy described by the writer/director as an attempt at blending "Our Gang comedies with Universal monster movies," Squad was an unfortunate box office flop when it first was released. Co-written by fledgling scripter Shane Black (who later blended the Three Stooges with cop actioner in Lethal Weapon), the movie also owes much to Richard Donner's The Goonies, though to my eyes, it's not as loudly abrasive as that 1985 Spielberg production. Mary Ellen Trainor shows up as a mom in both flicks, though.

Squad concerns itself with a group of monster-mad kids in a small California town attacked by creatures. The quintet of beasties (Drac, Frankenstein's monster, Wolfman, Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon) is led by a caped Dracula (Duncan Regher), who has come to the New World to retrieve an amulet that he wishes to destroy so he can overturn the balance between good and evil. Though we're not exactly shown how the movie's creatures united, that's not important. What matters is this: Monsters May Take Over the World! And there's nuthin' but a group of 12-year-old misfits (plus one five-year-old girl) to stop 'em!

Black & Dekker's screenplay at times shticks too closely to kid flick clich├ęs -- Squad leader Sean's (Andre Gower) parents are struggling with their marriage; Fat Kid Horace (Brent Chalem) is the movie's comic grouser, though he comes through in a pinch more than once -- but is refreshingly economical in its storytelling. The film clocks in at 82-minutes, no small thing when you consider how bloated so many comedies are these days. A few of its plot points are more than a little rickety: most moviegoers will, I suspect, wonder how a 12-year-old is able to manufacture working silver bullets in shop class, though the bit that truly strained my credulity came earlier in the flick.

In it, Sean has come into possession of noted vampire slayer Van Helsing's diary. Dracula wants said book, so he phones Sean's mother who takes down a message that a "Mr. Alucard" called about buying the book. Suspicious, our boy writes the name down on a piece of paper, fiddles with the letters and realizes that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards. Half a mo', we think. We know that Sean's a classic monster movie buff: shouldn't he have recognized that obvious alias from Lon Chaney Jr.'s turn as the vamp in Son of Dracula?

The heart of the movie belongs to character actor Tom (Manhunter) Noonan as the Frankenstein monster. The creature bonds with Sean's five-year-old sister Phoebe (Ashley Banks) and, much like John Matuszak's Sloth in The Goonies, performs a crowd-pleasing rescue in the movie's climactic showdown. The scene where the two meet is ironically framed by Dekker like the monster-and-child moment from James Whale's Frankenstein, though we never really worry for her safety with Noonan's creature. When Regher's sadistic Drac grabs the girl and holds her pudgy little face in his hands, that's a whole other matter.

Phoebe's moment of peril is arguably the PG-13 picture's one true suspenseful scene. Though the rest of the squad has scenes of personal danger, only the youngest viewers'll most likely take 'em seriously. A lotta faceless town cops get trashed in the movie's finale and a few anonymous small town damsels are transformed into vampiresses, but the Squad itself emerges relatively unscathed. Can't say the same thing for the Wolfman, though, who gets kicked in "the nards," prompting the movie's big inappropriate laff line.

Lionsgate's two-disc anniversary edition contains the by-now-inevitable director and actor commentary, plus an extended feature looking back at the making of Monster Squad. Though relatively low-budget, the film does boast fx and makeup work by two big names (Richard Edlund and Stan Winston, respectively); Winston, in particular, does an ace job suggesting without duplicating Universal's copyrighted monster images. A few action moments look like they'd have benefited from at least one more shooting, but like I say it all moves so quickly that you barely notice. And when Fat Kid Horace wounds the Big D. by slapping a garlicky slice of pizza on his face, you know you're watching horror kid flick history being made.

For that alone, Monster Squad deserves to be rescued from the discount bins.

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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