“Wolfman’s got nards!” – Horace
My thanks go to Mark Jones for picking this as the first movie for Shocktober 2014. What an excellent choice – on the face of it, a family friendly horror movie, kind of The Goonies or The Explorers in a horror setting. Actually, I’d go a bit further than that and flat out state that this is up there with Young Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as one of the best horror comedies I’ve seen. It’s certainly the best Universal Studios horror movie that Universal never made.
It’s shame that it isn’t available to a wider audience here in the UK, because whenever I speak to somebody who has seen the film, their memories of it are always fond, and the first quote to come out of their mouths is that one I’ve used above. But, for whatever reason, The Monster Squad was released quietly on VHS in the early nineties and has never seen a DVD release in this country. It’s a cult classic.
So, what’s it all about?
Once every century, the forces of good and evil are evenly balanced and an indestructible amulet made of concentrated good becomes vulnerable to destruction. If the forces of evil get their hands, paws or claws on this amulet, then evil will reign. A hundred years ago in Transylvania – Van Helsing and a band of his helpers failed in their battle to rid the world of Dracula once and for all as he attempted to gain control of the world by means of a mystic amulet. Now, a century later, the battle will start again, this time in small town America.
The Monster Squad are a bunch or pre to early teen kids, outsiders obsessed with horror and monster movies. (Hey, I can relate instantly.) They have their treehouse where their club meets (oh, how I would’ve loved one of those – but our apple tree would never have supported it.
As the day approaches when the forces of good and evil are balanced, it seems that the un-named small town in America becomes the destination of choice for the classic gang of monsters. Dracula flies over with the Frankenstein monster (conveniently hidden in a large packing case, reminiscent of the beginning of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) the Wolfman tries to get himself arrested while in his human form because, well, he’s the wolfman and doesn’t really want to kill anybody in his feral state. A mummy in the local museum goes for a walk and inexplicably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon shows up in the local lake.
Except of course, these aren’t the original Universal Studios monsters from the classic movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s – those likenesses are strictly protected by copyright and woe betide anybody who might infringe on their cash cow. BUT – effects genius the late Stan Winston created make up effects that were close enough in familiar appearance so we could see exactly what they were, but not so close that the legal department at Universal could slap a cease and desist order.
With the forces of evil gathering, it’s up to the bunch of kids to stop them – and they have Van Helsing’s original diary bought from a second hand store as their guide. The drawback is that it’s written in German and their only hope of getting it translated is to approach an elderly recluse they’ve nicknamed “scary German guy” to help them.
Scary German guy isn’t at all what he seems. He welcomes them into his home and translates the legend of the amulet. As they leave, one of the kids says to him in parting that “You sure know a lot about monsters”. The character (played by Leonard Cimino) replies “I suppose I do” as he closes the door, his sleeve riding up his arm to reveal a Nazi concentration camp inmate tattoo. It’s moments like this that remind us that amid the fantasy there are real monsters in the world. They don’t have fangs, capes, fur or claws – and that might be the scariest thing of all. They look just like us.
Shane Black, whose credits include Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 scripted the movie, so you know we’re in for a treat – and this movie in no way disappoints. Although the monsters are classic in appearance and behaviour, the means of stopping them or at least delaying them are entirely original with a latter day twist, not to mention logical and funny as hell.
Is the Wolfman blocking your escape? You don’t have a silver bullet? Well, it makes perfect sense that a swift kick to the nuts would temporarily stop him in his tracks, as it would any member of the male gender. Dracula threatening you? Well he’s susceptible to garlic – rub that pizza slice you’ve been saving as a snack in his face, that’ll give him a pause for thought. However, the most ingenious means of disposal is reserved for The Mummy.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Mummy that I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I lovingly built and painted the Aurora model kit. (I thought it was the Karloff version, but later came to the opinion that it was more akin to Tom Tyler in The Mummy’s Hand). My previous all time favourite Mummy moment in a film was in Waxworks (anybody remember that?) The Mummy is revived from his centuries long slumber and the first thing he does when he steps out of the sarcophagus is stretch. It seemed so perfectly natural.
So the kids are making their getaway in a pick-up with Scary German Guy driving and the Mummy holding on to the tailgate, trying to clamber in to reach them. In a stroke of genius, a bit of flapping bandage is attached to an arrow with is shot into a tree as they pass, thus unravelling the mummy from his feel up, leaving nothing but decaying bandage, dust and an upper portion of skull. THAT’s how you kill a Mummy, damn it.
Obviously, the amulet is in a scary mansion, and it comes down to the wire whether they can actually save the day and prevent evil from reigning supreme. The crux of the matter is they’re unable to find a virgin to deliver the incantation needed at midnight. One of the kids has an older sister who fails to qualify, so they have to go with the kid sister of another Squad member and this is what got the film slapped with a disasterous “15” certificate on its release in the UK which contributed greatly to its box office failure. (Basically, it tanked because its target audience couldn’t see it.)
The UK censor at the time, the unmissed James Ferman who had previously banned The Exorcist from home video because it was “too intense to be watched alone” lest the public only play the good bits and who banned The Texas Chainsaw Massacre outright in 1974 objected to the word “virgin” being used to describe a six year old. Even in the literal dictionary sense. I can’t fathom that reasoning at all. It just adds to my belief that Ferman had some serious issues of his own.
So with a timely assist from the Frankenstein monster who has befriended the little girl, good wins the day and the monsters are blown to limbo forevermore.
It’s a briskly paced movie at around 82 minutes, but not a single second is wasted. Overall, it’s aimed at a family audience and some of the dialogue between the kids is cringeworthy, but for us monster movie fans, it’s an excellent homage to our favourite monsters and the ONLY way it could have been possibly improved in my opinion is if Joe Dante had directed it.
Next movie up - The Old Dark House (1932)
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