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Saturday, October 19, 2019


If you're gonna fight monsters, you've gotta know your shit. These kids do in no uncertain terms.

If you're a horror fan  of a certain vintage, like me, you were likely raised on a slew of classic horror movies that introduced you to monsters from all over the world, many culled from old myths and legends and a good number cribbed from literature. That early immersion served as our earliest lesson on the scary shit that's out there, even if we knew that the monsters themselves were pretend, but the wisdom imparted to us from such cinematic fare served as cautionary tales, and we sure as shit learned from it. By the time I was seven, I could tell you with authority a myriad of ways to counter or outright defeat any baleful critter you could name, and I know for a fact that I was not the only kid in my neighborhood to possess such an understanding of the eldritch mysteries. Back then we called ourselves "monster kids," and we did so with considerable pride, for we we the weird and the strange, and we wore that label with honor, while also bearing more than a little bit of identification with the monstrous. We were often bookish, imaginative, kinda quiet and reserved, our parents usually didn't understand us or our interests, and we took Halloween as something more than merely an excuse to put on shitty Ben Cooper costumes obtained at the local five-and-dime and got from door to door grubbing for bite-sized sweets. To us Halloween was a day in which to celebrate the dark things that lurk in the collective human imagination, and many of us have been able to retain that "kid wonder" and the love of all things eerie as grownups. 

That said, one flavor that often rankled  was that of the monster flick that was crafted specifically with the "kiddie" audience in mind, or at least what film studios often erroneously believed kids wanted to see in monster movies in which children were the protagonists. We all know of the specifically irritating kids found in Japanese kaiju flicks — a type so common and annoying that they have come to derisively be referred to as "Kennys" in some circles — and even western-made films that attempted to fuse kids into the monster/horror genre usually ended up as cloying exercises in nausea where there was no threat of danger and the monsters were either greatly neutered or were simply old man Jenkins in a rubber mask. I called bullshit on that when I was a kid myself and I call bullshit on it now, which is why I'm citing 1987's THE MONSTER SQUAD as the prime example of how to do a "kids meet monsters" movie right.

They came, they saw, they kicked ass.

When a group of the usual monstrous suspects — Count Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein's monster, in other words the heavy-hitters from the classic Universal lineup (minus the Invisible Man) — is displaced through time and space to the present day Baton Rouge, Louisiana of the late-1980's, with Dracula (Duncan Regher) intent on leading the gang on a quest to obtain an amulet that the destruction of which will lead to the world being overtaken by the forces of darkness and evil. Unfortunately for the monsters, the area is home to the Monster Squad, a club of pre-teens who are obsessed with monster lore (in the exact way I described during this essay's into), and once the horror legends begin their rampage the kids put their knowledge to good use as they take the fight to the creatures. But these are no neutered SCOOBY-DOO "monsters," oh, hell naw. The monsters in this story are straight-up out to wreak murderous havoc, with Dracula at his most menacing since Christopher Lee hung up his cape. Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan), nearly always a misunderstood and sympathetic guy, is swayed to the side of the good guys when he's charmed and brought into the fold by the adorable Phoebe (Ashley Bank), a girl of about kindergarten age who also loves monsters but is initially denied entry into the club by the gang's leader, Sean (Andre Gower), because what boy wants his tagalong little sister hanging around and messing up his time with his like-minded bros? As the local authorities prove useless against the incursion by the forces of evil, the Monster Squad, aided by a number of older kids and "Scary German Guy" — the requisite old man in the neighborhood whom every kid fears (for no good reason) — face off against the creatures and do a jb that would make Professor Van Helsing, the Ghostbusters, and the Frog Brothers bow their heads in absolute respect.

Emerging at the ass-end of the 1980's slasher boom, THE MONSTER SQUAD was a film I ignored because I thought it looked and felt like THE GOONIES, a hit film from two years earlier that I absolutely loathed for being the kind of "kiddie" adventure that I never liked, only with the added presumed insult of dragging some of my favorite monsters down into that sort of pablum. Knowing better now, I greatly regret not supporting the film when it came out, as it is not only everything that THE GOONIES failed at, but it holds its own as a legit non-R-rated horror outing that happens to have kids as the protagonists. But don't let its starring of kids fool you, oh no. THE MONSTER SQUAD was crafted with an active brain in its head and one that understood what kids were actually like during that era, and the kids are portrayed in an incredibly believable manner. There's bad language of the kind that one heard every day in the schoolyard, rude behavior, and some bits that will likely fly over the heads of kids in the audience but that will delight (and in some cases unsettle) adult viewers. It's also genuinely scary and surprisingly dark, violent, and gory for a film aimed at a young audience, but I can't really go into detail without blowing some seriously great bits of business.  All I will say is that Dracula is a real rat bastard in this, especially from a kid's POV, the Frankenstein monster's arc will tug at your heartstrings (as it should), Phoebe is absolutely adorable but is in no way cloying (and figures majorly into the climax), and the absolute pitch-blackest moment in the whole film involves reminding us in no uncertain terms that there are far worst monsters in the real world than vampires and werewolves and suchlike. (If you've seen the film, you know exactly the reveal that I'm alluding to.)

The complete and utter excellence of Scary German Guy (Leonoardo Cimino).

Speaking as a now-grown (and ever-aging) monster kid, there's a hell of a lot to love about THE MONSTER SQUAD, and it's gratifying to see it finally achieving its rightful place as a true gem rather than just being a forgotten  footnote fro the 1980's horror landscape. I recommend this one for kids of seven at the very youngest, as the film provides moments of scares/gore/violence that most little ones might not be ready for yet — though let me tell you that I would have eaten this film up if I'd seen it during my formative years, believe you me, so carefully consider what your own wee monster kid/s can handle and proceed from there — and I will always respect films for kids that do not talk down to them and that treat their budding imaginations and intelligence as the precious things they are. Seriously, watch this 10-out-of-10 immediately and also note that it features a fantastic visual updating of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, whose original 1954 design and realization is one of the all-time masterpieces of monster cinema that still holds up today, so  that's not a compliment I bandy about lightly. Anyway, in shirt, THE MONSTER SQUAD is an often-overlooked study in genre perfection.

The 1987 iteration of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In a word, WOW.

Poster from the theatrical release.

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