A Bomb in the Lasagna: “The Monster Squad (1987)” is 80s Horror Silver

SharkWeekBomb-02Few movie concepts appeal to me quite as immediately as the one behind the 1987 cult classic The Monster Squad does: a club of misfit kids obsessed with horror movies band together to fight classic movie monsters. Throw in a Shane Black script and –much to my delight– a charmingly bad rap theme, and you have the raw ingredients for an 80s horror gem of the sort I tend to feast on all October long. And while The Monster Squad is a perfectly fun watch, it’s one I found a tad underwhelming.

HBO, Tristar Pictures

HBO, Tristar Pictures

As pure horror comedy fun, The Monster Squad is a success. Shane Black’s knack for mixing punchy action with jabs of wit and humor is present throughout, and the coarse humor of the movie is made stranger when delivered by foul-mouthed kids. The dialogue feels natural for the films cadre of dorky kids trying to act tough, even if it means some okay-in-1987 slurs land kind of rough on 2015 ears. The Monster Squad is surprisingly warm, as the writers and director clearly recognize themselves in the film’s horror obsessives*, and treats each test of horror movie knowledge and breathless discussion of how to kill particular monsters with nostalgia and sincerity.

Lean at 87 minutes, Monster Squad‘s brisk pace is both a blessing and a curse. The action moves fast and doesn’t waste time on the convoluted backstory (magical amulets are involved), instead keeping the narrative attention in the present with the kids and the monsters. Monster Squad remains economical with its storytelling throughout, giving just the details needed to establish the eponymous squad, seed some character growth, and move on to the quips and werewolf nard kicking. The problem, however, is that along with the dodgy backstory, the most interesting narrative threads in the movie get skimped. Amidst the battle between preteens and the combined forces of Dracula, the Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Gill-Man is the story of squad leader Sean (Andre Gower) caught between his parents (Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor) as their marriage teeters on divorce. It hints at how a child’s obsessions can be vital lifelines for navigating conflicts out of their control and the wonders fighting Dracula can work on marriage, and generally adds a little more weight to the proceedings. It’s a strong narrative thread, that I wish the the film had the run time to flesh out.

The refusal to follow up on interesting narrative threads, in fact, may be one of my bigger issues with the movie. Aiding the squad is an elderly German man (Leonardo Cimino, referred to in the script and credits as Scary German Guy because names are tough) revealed to be a holocaust survivor. That’s mighty powerful characterization for a movie about fighting monsters, but one that is never addressed again. It feels like the script remembered it was a lighthearted horror comedy and quickly pulled back from that narrative.

HBO, Tristar Pictures This narrative, however, if perfect./

HBO, Tristar Pictures

This narrative, however, is perfect.

On a personal note, I would’ve appreciated more time with The Monster Squad‘s stable of horror icons. Dracula (Duncan Regehr) makes for a menacing and scenery chewing leader, and the Frankenstein’s monster’s (Tom Noonan) friendship with Sean’s little sister (Ashley Bank) is heartwarming and adorable. Along with a twitchy and guilt-ridden Wolf Man (Jon Gries as a man, Carl Thibault as a wolf), the three steal the show, but the mummy and gill-man feel cheated. There are some great practical effects and prosthetics on display, and the gill-man in particular is one of the best looking versions of the character outside of Creature of the Black Lagoon, but he’s sadly never given much to do. It’s okay gill-man, you’re still #1 to me,

HBO, Tristar Pictures

HBO, Tristar Pictures

Though I’m sure the thought will “ruin” the apparently fragile childhoods of some, I think The Monster Squad is primed for a remake. It’s an excellent premise that can be revisited in any number of ways, particularly in a landscape where self-reflexive meta horror is a tried and true genre. The concept of horror fan vs real monsters has been redone and subverted with movies like the excellent ParaNorman, but it’s a concept that, like the best monsters, can never stay dormant forever.

The Monster Squad is a lot like a bowl of Count Chocula*. An enjoyable staple of the Halloween season, but never quite as fulfilling as you’d like.

*But hopefully don’t recognize themselves in designated Coll Guy Rudy (Ryan Lambert), who spends, like, the entire movie watching a girl undress through a camera in the Monster Squad clubhouse.

**Or Boo Berry or Frankenberry if you prefer.

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