The best Universal monster movie not made by Universal. The Monster Squad (1987)
As the years went past and cinematic tastes changed, Universal’s Monsters found a new home as beloved perennial TV favourites, gathering new generations of fans year after year and breaking out into popular culture through Saturday morning cartoons and reinterpretations. As the cinema reinvented and reinterpreted the creations, Universal’s pantheon continued to be the benchmark they were measured against but even as cinematic horror tastes turned darker, more violent and more gruesome, there was a loyal following just waiting for their beloved monsters to return.
Dracula’s back, and he’s brought The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and the Gill-Man with him. Seeking an amulet which will give him the power to rule the world, Dracula travels to America 100 years after Van Helsing failed to use the very same amulet to trap the vampire in purgatory. The only thing standing in his way is a gang of kids and their scary movie fan club: The Monster Squad.
The film opens with a prologue of Van Helsing trying to defeat Dracula once and for all using a magical amulet and an incantation which must be read by a virgin. It’s a beautifully staged sequence and it’s a delightful touch to have armadillos scuttling around as a nod to one of the quirks of 1931’s “Dracula”. In fact, one of best things about “The Monster Squad” is its affection and respect for the classic Universal horrors. The creature designs – by Stan Winston – for The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Gill-Man are beautifully realised and respectfully updated. Frankenstein’s Monster is taken back to Jack Pierce’s original design too, rejecting the Herman Munster mega brow of later incarnations.
The knowing and witty script from writer/ director Fred Dekker and co-writer Shane Black (who I assume agonised over a way to somehow set the story at Christmas before giving up) is peppered with references and nods to the original films but still finds a way to make the monsters’ machinations feel modern and contemporary. Their characters are lifted straight from the source movies, especially Frankenstein’s Monster’s emotional arc and The Wolf Man’s desperation when not in wolf form. Admittedly, the film has fewer ideas on how to use The Mummy effectively and, apart from retrieving Frankenstein’s crate from the swap, The Gill Man is largely absent until a cameo appearance in the finale.
Overdue for a real renaissance and rediscovery in this, its 30th Anniversary year, “The Monster Squad” is rich in the eighties Spielberg/ Stephen King vibe that’s so in vogue at the moment while retaining everything that made the originals so beloved. Even the special effects work makes the effort to homage the 1930s and 1940s albeit it with modern 1980s film techniques.
The performances are just what you need for this kind of horror comedy romp, with the kids covering off the roster of usual suspects: nerdy, overweight, cool etc. and there’s even an adorably precocious little sister, played by Ashley Bank, who’s reminiscent of Drew Barrymore’s performance in “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial”. It’s a good job the kids are well versed in monster lore too because of course, the adults ignore the mounting monstrous evidence around them and the bickering parents are oblivious to their kids’ warnings too. Thankfully, there’s the always reliable Leonardo Cimino, as ‘Scary German Guy’ to give the fiendish phantasmagoria some gravitas and a poignant reminder of what true monstrosity is. Although the film tries to keep the horror elements at the right level, the tone does veer a little too dark and violent at times to really be considered family fare in the way, say, “The Goonies” was. It’s the unevenness of its tone which goes a long way to explaining its initial box office failure and the development of a cult following once it was rediscovered by young (and young at heart) adults who embraced it as the coolest monster movie their twelve-year-old selves never saw.
By today’s standards, it may seem tame but in its amped-up Saturday Morning cartooniness and sincere affection for its subject matter, it’s probably the best Universal monster movie not made by Universal. It’s also a film which might just benefit from the same treatment given to “Logan” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” because in black and white it could look like a long lost classic.