**/**** Image B- Sound B+ Extras A
starring André Gower, Duncan Regehr, Stephen Macht, Tom Noonan
screenplay by Shane Black & Fred Dekker
directed by Fred Dekker
by Bill Chambers Since I caught myself mouthing a portion of the dialogue while revisiting it for the first time in almost two decades, I think it's fair to say I internalized The Monster Squad through multiple viewings in my misspent youth. Still, as that Tri-Star horse sprouted wings, I realized I had no tactile memory of the film, no real recollection of what it felt like--and the answer is: it feels like eighty minutes, give or take. It's pabulum, albeit pabulum with a pedigree. The latest nostalgia trap to get a nerd baptism (an AICN-sponsored reunion screening at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse is more or less single-handedly responsible for the picture's splashy DVD release), it's at least better than the movie to which it's most often compared, the Steven Spielberg-produced The Goonies, if only because it's a good half-hour shorter and, by extension, comparatively unpretentious. Beneath its own Spielbergian façade, The Monster Squad works like those old horror hosts used to by sanctioning the classic monsters for a younger generation, whereas The Goonies aims only to erect a shrine to itself.
Though Shane Black and director Fred Dekker's script is nonsensical and lazy, The Monster Squad is, in truth, more lucid than the various Son of Draculas and Ghost of Frankensteins that engorge the Universal catalogue and probably shouldn't be dismissed for its narrative contrivances alone. Nevertheless, they come at a premium: This isn't something like the great The Last American Virgin from five years previous, where you can chalk up its alien disregard for linearity to the fashion of the day (revisiting Top Gun recently, I was alarmed to discover that no two scenes flowed together). Nor is it an exercise in dream logic, à la Blade Runner. The Monster Squad isn't an abstraction, in other words--it's just dumb. Juvenile, really. Following a Transylvania-set prologue that establishes a quadruple MacGuffin (an amulet, a diary, a virgin, a Richard Edlund vortex), the film inexplicably reintroduces Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and Frankenstein (Tom Noonan) as crated cargo in transit over present-day Pasadena. (I think Pasadena.) Upon de-planing in one of those elusive patches of California swamp, Drac retrieves his pimp'd ride from God knows where and corrals Frank, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Gillman (a.k.a. the Creature from the Black Lagoon), the lot of them eventually congregating at the Pasadena branch of Castle Dracula.
Now, at some point during all of this, Dracula went looking for Van Helsing's journal, discovered it was in the possession of monster aficionado Sean Crenshaw (André Gower), and, offscreen, called Sean's mother posing as the inquisitive "Dr. Acula." I call shenanigans! For a movie so aesthetically on the ball (it's elegantly lensed in 'scope by Bradford May, while Albert Brenner's production design, producer Peter Hyams's second-unit work, and Stan Winston's makeups are all first-rate), it's a shame the screenplay is not the least bit industrious. Accurately or not, it reflects a rather low estimation of a cross-section of viewers that doesn't mesh with the spirit in which these 'monster kid home movies' are usually made. Neither do the many casually-tossed homophobic slurs, ranking with an equation of Dracula, et al to the very real horrors of the Holocaust among The Monster Squad's greatest errors in judgment.
The filmmakers' defense for the former--echoed time and again on said DVD--is that kids were not PC in the '80s, and indeed they weren't: yours truly was called and called others "fag" a dozen times a day back then. It was all so fucking gay. But I wasn't a de facto role model whose ignorance would be preserved in amber. While it may make for a fascinating and ultimately valuable historical snapshot, the incursion of such verisimilitudes not only taints the movie's status as a gateway drug (I'm hesitant to show The Monster Squad to my younger relatives, irrespective of its potential to scare them), but also demolishes the protective allegorical barriers put up by the genre. The only recourse for a picture this childishly plotted is to take place inside a bubble.
Even the pockets of movie-love--a glimpse of Tod Browning armadillos, Frankenstein creeping up behind another little girl at a lake, an Our Gang clubhouse complete with its own Pete the Pup (and there's a minimalistic werewolf transformation that deserves a place in the canon for pulling off in one seamless edit what took Lon Chaney, Jr. multiple dissolves)--are overshadowed by a more cynical pastiche sensibility that repurposes seminal moments from contemporary blockbusters. Sure, I get a bit choked up when Frank and 5-year-old Phoebe (Ashley Bank) are rended asunder, mostly because the filmmakers have shamelessly correlated these unlikely pals with E.T. and Elliot through telltale shots of Frankenstein in drag and the Monster Squad silhouetted against the sunset as they walk hand-in-hand with Frank (to where? Hell if I know), a tableau straight out of E.T.'s Halloween sequence. Somewhere between Pavlov and Kuleshov lies explanation of The Monster Squad's moderate effectiveness, but "moderately effective" is hardly reason enough to have made the damn thing a holy grail of the DVD era.
Lionsgate (Maple in Canada) shepherds The Monster Squad to DVD in a fairly-impressive 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer. This is certainly a definitive presentation when weighed against the film's prior incarnations on home video, but am I looking a gift horse in the mouth by saying it could be better? Although the picture was shot anamorphically, thus inhibiting crisp definition, the pervasive softness here suggests DVNR filtering--a culprit the conspicuous lack of grain would seem to bear out. Furthermore, one infers from the periodic combing that the image has not been flagged for progressive playback. Nevertheless, the colours are fantastic, the contrast is rich, and the source print is pristine. A Dolby Digital 5.1 remix fails to open up the soundstage, but it does broaden the dynamic range of the original stereo track (also on board), particularly with regards to the cheesy Michael Sembello songs. Two feature-length commentaries append the film, the one pairing Dekker with May, the other reuniting Dekker with cast members Gower, Bank, and Ryan Lambert. Despite a ton of crossover (the "Rock Until You Drop" montage is twice mocked with reference to Team America) and May's almost comic obsequiousness, these yakkers offer surprisingly painless reminiscences on a late-blooming phenomenon, with Dekker continually lamenting the interference of producer Hyams and occasionally zeroing in on the movie's rampant stupidity.
Find the bulk of extras on the second platter of this Two-Disc 20th Anniversary Edition, starting with Michael Felsher's 5-part Monster Squad Forever. At 87 minutes in total, it's actually longer than The Monster Squad and frankly more enjoyable--or at the very least more enjoyable than the PR-dictated slush that so often constitutes "bonus" material. Herein, nerdy accountant type Dekker candidly says that The Monster Squad nipped his once-thriving career in the bud (though RoboCop 3 "finished the job"); Bank (cute then, freakin' adorable now) and Method actor Noonan give Rashomon-esque accounts of their time together; and producer/Ted Nugent look-alike Jonathan Zimbert opines, not unreasonably, that the film was poorly marketed. Absent for reasons likely self-explanatory are Hyams, Black, and a few other key personnel, but the piece in no way feels evasive or incomplete. Next, "A Conversation with Frankenstein" (9 mins.) sees Noonan riffing in full costume on his 'comeback' role in The Monster Squad and the various misconceptions people have about Frankenstein; I'd be lying if I said I never cracked a smile. That's it for talking-heads--the rest consists of table scraps such as a thoroughly negligible 8-minute block of "Deleted Scenes" (by the filmmakers' own admission, virtually nothing was cut out), an "Animated Storyboard Sequence" depicting the car chase with the Mummy that James Cameron blatantly cribbed for T2, a stills gallery, and The Monster Squad's theatrical trailer and TV spot. (I fondly recall my shock and awe at hearing "nards" in a commercial.) A 4:3 batch of previews for "The Amazing Screw-On Head", The Invincible Iron Man, and Happily N'Ever After rounds out the set. Originally published: October 18, 2007.