The Monster Squad (1987)

The Monster Squad. What a curious film this is.

I’m not sure what to make of it.

Let’s start at the beginning: in the late 1920s, Universal Studios started making primitive genre movies (horror, science fiction and suspense). Though there were many such movies made over the next 30 years, the most well-known of them all featured Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster.

Those four were the most famous of all the “Universal Monsters” (with the Creature From The Black Lagoon becoming recognised as the fifth monster, despite not being released until 1957), most of them spawning multiple sequels, and even crossovers, possibly even creating the concept of a movie franchise.

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The Universal Monsters have seen remakes (along with appearances in other media over the years) and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a movie was released featuring them all. Yes, this is like the Alien Versus Predator (or Freddy Versus Jason) of the original horror genre.

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Only it came out in 1987, 30 years since the last Universal Monster movie, and featured a group of prepubescent kids, which is almost certainly not the target audience, if the jokes are anything to go by (more on this later).

So who is it aimed at? A question that the film itself never gets round to really answering and possibly why it wasn’t very successful at the time…

Anyway, the plot is that there is a magic macguffin of pure goodness that is indestructible except for a very small window of time which opens once every 100 years.

There is a magic ritual (because of course there is) that uses the macguffin to create a portal to limbo and Van Helsing tried to use it to send Dracula there a hundred years ago (spoiler: he failed).

Dracula apparently finds this ritual such a threat that he decides to track down the macguffin to destroy it (although this is never explicitly stated).

So he and the other classic Universal Monsters team up to find the macguffin and then presumably destroy it at the stroke of midnight. Fortunately, a group of meddling kids are on hand to stop them.

The meddling kids aren’t Mystery Inc (that would have been way more cool) but are in fact the titular Monster Squad. They are a small group of kids who share a love of monsters, having apparently seen loads of old movies.

The school tough kid decides to join the Monster Squad (you can tell he’s tough because he smokes and wears a leather jacket) because the treehouse looks right into a girl’s bedroom so he can watch her in her bra and panties… I just… who is this damned film aimed at?

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“Yes that is Frankenstein’s monster in the middle of a bunch of kids. Why do you ask?”

The Monster Squad consists of 3 kids of approximately 11 or 12, a young girl of about 4, a young boy of about 5 or 6 and the tough kid, who is probably about 15? But this film is clearly not aimed at that audience: it’s too adult, too scary and yet, are adults going to be that interested in seeing a bunch of kids fight monsters?

Moving on.

Dracula procures the recumbent Frankenstein’s monster from an old World War 2 bomber flying to America (it’s never explained how he knew it was there or even why it was there or why it was being taken to America) and resurrects him. The Mummy, the Creature From The Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man all turn up too.

Meanwhile, one of the kids is given an old book which has the magic ritual in it (which his mother saw in a garage sale and thought it looked like something he would want… that’s right) and he takes it to “Scary German Guy” (the only name he is ever called throughout the movie) because he’s the only one they know who can speak German. He does get a nice line when he reveals he “has some experience with monsters” and you see his concentration camp prisoner number tattoo on his arm.

The monster squad learns all about the ritual and decide that they are only ones who can fight the monsters because none of the adults will believe them (fair). They obtain the macguffin (because of course they do), go to a church because that would make it safe for them to do the ritual but only it is locked (because of course it is) and there is a showdown outside.

It all ends with Van Helsing appearing from out of the portal and pulling Dracula into Limbo, while giving the kids the thumbs up.

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So sounds fun, right? Well…

Let me go back to a comment I keep circling: the film doesn’t know who its target audience is and it shows.

On the one hand, it wants to be a family movie, one where the kids can enjoy the kids fighting monsters and the adults can appreciate the monsters they used to watch as kids.

Only the jokes are a little too adult and the monsters are too scary.

For an example of what I mean about the jokes, the ritual requires a female virgin (because of course it does) to recite the words. They only know one girl who knows a bit of German, so they blackmail her into revealing whether she is a virgin or not. She swears that she is but then the ritual doesn’t work and she reveals “Well, there was Tim, but he doesn’t count!”

It’s like in one iteration of the script, the Monster Squad were all a bit older and the whole film was a bit more risqué. Such as the three school girls who are turned into the Brides of Dracula: you almost see in one version they were all boobs and teeth, only they aren’t and are in fact fully clothed throughout. Or when Dracula walks through the crowd of Police Officers and bloodlessly dispatches them.

It seems to me that they decided to lower the age certificate of the film, you know, put clothes on the hot vampire girls, had the monsters be less violent, less bloody, take out some of the older jokes and left in the ones that would go over the kids’ heads.

Plus the script isn’t quite witty enough. Nor are there enough in-jokes about the Universal Monsters, it’s just not enough of an homage to the older movies to be really interesting.

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“Fancy a bit of kipper? Not ‘alf!”

Maybe I am just looking at it through post-Scream eyes but I can’t help feeling they missed a trick: a John Hughes-esque group of monster-movie obsessed teens who used their knowledge of old Hollywood films to fight real monsters.

Only this isn’t that and is far worse for it.

It isn’t even particularly well made. For example, there is a scrawl at the beginning of the film telling the audience that a hundred years ago, Van Helsing tried to use a ritual to banish Dracula to limbo. But he blew it. It then shows us that scene. Why tell us if you are going to show us?

I remember seeing this as a kid and thinking it was cool. But then I was too young to legally watch it but just old enough to realise that I probably shouldn’t be watching it which made it more cool, somehow.

As an adult, it was kind of bland. In the hands of a better director, it could have been really good. Unfortunately, it failed to have the family magic that films like Goonies or Explorers or E.T. had but wasn’t mature enough to appeal to the teen comedy crowd like Adventures in Babysitting.

So it while it was fun to see the Universal Monsters together (and the SFX for the monsters is really top notch), the actual film is a bit of a mess. Which is a shame. Still, 12 year old me thought it was good…

TL:DR “Some classic monsters receive an 80s update but that’s where the magic ends…

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