Thursday, October 10, 2013

Silver Screen Stories: Monster Squad

This Halloween train keeps on rolling! Continuing with last week's "Monster" theme, this week we look at one of the single coolest and most underrated (as well as largely unknown) 80s cult classics there is. 

Seriously, Who Ya Gonna Call?

The 80s was a great decade for a lot of different film genres. There are so many great animated films, comedies, action flicks, martial arts films, science fiction, fantasy, you name it. Straight up horror films had, in my opinion at least for the most part, become a lesser entity than they had been from the 20s-60s. They became more about gore and shock value than about telling good stories and providing genuine chills. There were of course exceptions to the rule, as there almost always are, especially when someone like John Carpenter was concerned. Another such player who didn't get the chance in Hollywood that he deserved, but he absolutely delivered on content, was a man named Fred Dekker. I'm going to write a separate piece about him, his works and his tragically short career at another date. But it bears saying that he was living proof that at least in the entertainment industry, the cream does not always rise to the top, as it deserves to.

Dekker worked on several projects before Monster Squad, but this film is where he really came into his own and honed his craft. Released in the summer of 1987, two years after the world was gifted with Richard Donner's "The Goonies", Monster Squad has a very similar feel to it. In fact, while certainly not a ripoff, you could honestly describe this movie to people as "The Goonies with monsters in it". The story (which was co-written by Dekker and Shane Black)  focuses around four kids: Sean, monster obsessed pre-teen, Patrick, Sean's skate-boarding best friend, Horace aka "Fat Kid", the awkard nerd of the group, and Rudy, slightly older, black wearing, cigarette-smoking "cool guy". These four fill out the main membership of their own exclusive little club, known as "The Monster Squad", along with it's junior member Eugene (and his dog Pete), as well as eventually Sean's little sister Phoebe. The aim of their group, of course, is to both obsess over monsters, but also to discover whether real monsters exist. And thankfully for the plot, it turns out they do.

Say Cheese! And yes, The Wolfman does indeed have nards.

The main set-up is this: Dracula was somehow being shipped, along with Frankenstein's Monster via airplane, and then arranges to get dumped into the local swamp outside of the small American everytown where the Squad happens to live. Dracula is on a quest to revive the Monster, and gathers around him other monsters, such as a mummy from a local museum, a gill-man from the swamp, and a local tormented werewolf, to aid in his cause. His ultimate goal is to capture this mystic red amulet that is the embodiment of good, but once every hundred years, when good and evil are in balance, it can also become pure evil and give Dracula ultimate power. Dracula also turns three local high-school girls into his three vampiric consorts (referencing the original Dracula tale) to do his bidding. In the prologue to the film, it shows Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and his followers finding Dracula's lair in Europe, 100 years prior, and attempting to use the amulet to open a portal to cast the fiend into Limbo forever. Instead, shit went wrong and Dracula managed to escape, while Van Helsing and many of his followers were sucked into Limbo instead. His remaining followers took the gem and tried to hide it in America, in a mansion that just so happens to be on the outskirts of the Squad's town as well.

The kind of monster you can bring home to mom.

After Dracula successfully revives the Monster, he sets about his plans. But in the meantime, ol' "Frank" has other ideas, as he is not an inherently evil creature, so he escapes and wanders off into town. As you can see above, he is discovered by little Phoebe, who then uses her new friendship with him to gain her own long-sought entry into her brothers' "boys only" monster club. In the interim, Sean's mother, knowing he's obsessed with monsters, finds him (miraculously) a copy of Van Helsing's private notes, which he is thrilled about, until he finds out they are written in German. The Squad decides to take the book to this old man who they all call "Scary German Guy" (because he is old and German and lives alone in a creepy old house), to see if he'll help them decipher it. In spite of them being terrified that "Scary German Guy" will kill them, it turns out he's a sweet, lonely old man who knows a thing or two about monsters, as he is a Holocaust survivor. He can indeed read Van Helsing's notes, and tells the boys about the amulet and how to stop the monsters that are even now invading their little burg.

These kids wrote the book on Cool.

And so, without spoiling too much, that is the plot in a nutshell. It all leads up to an epic showdown, and has a lot of great action-filled (and funny) moments along the way. Dekker showed an adeptness at blending elements of horror, action and comedy in his previous works, and especially so here. I would say, hands down, this film is his masterpiece, and the fact that it went so unrecognized in it's theatrical run is a crime to cinema. But sadly that happens a lot in the film world, so many great movies missing the success they so richly deserved, while often other crappy films see big success. Thankfully, even though I myself never got to see this until I was an adult (yet another awesome thing I missed out on as a child), this movie did find a cult following when it hit home video, and has maintained at least a respectable cult status ever since, even though not nearly enough people know about it to this day.

The film also features some other good roles, such as Leonardo Cimino as "Scary German Guy", Stephen Macht as Detective Del Crenshaw, Sean and Phoebe's father, and Mary Ellen Wright, who plays their mother (she actually had already played the main character's mother in The Goonies as well, and later had a cameo as a mother once again in Ghostbusters 2). It even has an appearance by Jason Hervey, famous for playing Wayne Arnold from "The Wonder Years", who here portrays E.J., the local bully who pesters poor "Fat Kid" Horace. All in all, it is a great film, with a good, well-paced story, likable characters, a great set-up, great special effects for it's budget, and some really snappy dialogue. Again, if this film had been better known, it seriously produced what should have been some of the most memorable film quotes from the 80s. As for the Monsters themselves, they were incredibly well done. Not wanting to directly rip off (and thus get sued) the Universal monsters they're paying homage to, the filmmakers came up with fresh, unique looks and takes (for the most part) on these famous creatures, and some really fantastic character actors bring them to life in truly memorable fashion. If you haven't seen this film, then you really, really need to. Either rent it, or better yet, do what I did and find yourself a copy of the 2 disc special edition, as the second disc has some really awesome behind the scenes stuff, and even a reunion interview with the cast.

Sadly, one of the Monster Squad couldn't be at that interview, as Brent Chalem, who played Horace, passed away at the tender age of 22 in 1997. So not to end on a downer note, but I think I'll end this piece by honoring his memory, and the great job he did in his role, without which the movie wouldn't quite have been the same. He didn't have a major film career (neither did any of the kids really), but he (and they) did make one genuinely great, classic film, and that's more than a lot of actors ever accomplish. So go see it, and find out for yourself! See you next time, and Happy Haunting!

Don't call him "Fat Kid", his name...was Horace. Brent Chalem (1975-1997), RIP.


  1. Remake is inbound possibly:

    1. That would make me super sad. Most remakes are terrible, and all of them are unnecessary.

  2. I loooove the Monster Squad. I was lucky to see it when it opened at the local drive in. I have so many great movies about this movie and it was also a perennial rental at the video store. I got to watch it a few years back at a midnight screening and the actor that played Sean was there to introduce the movie. Sadly the audience was not real familiar with it and must have been expecting a cheesy eighties movie so people were yelling jokes and making fun of it throughout. The audience aside, it was cool to see it on the screen again. This year I had the pleasure of showing it to my daughter for the first time and was reminded how much kids on eighties movies cursed. Awesome movie and I love your review!

    1. Thanks for reading! This is why I do this blog, because I love sharing my thoughts, feelings and memories about things I love (and sometimes hate) with others. Especially because it helps me find people who feel the same.


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