Monday, September 03, 2007

The Monster Squad – review

Director: Fred Dekker

Release Date: 1987

Contains spoilers

I remember the buzz that flew around the net when this was recently released on region 1 DVD in a 20th anniversary edition. It seemed, very much to me, that a lot of this buzz came from folk fondly remembering their younger days. All well and good but this wasn’t a film I had seen until I watched it for this review and so I did not have the (possibly advantage or disadvantage of) rose-tinted glasses.

What we essentially get is a monster mash type film that uses kids in a Goonies sort of way – indeed the film owes a huge debt to the earlier film.

One hundred years before the film, so a text tells us as the film begins, in Transylvania Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) – who has been turned from Dutch to German – battled Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and the forces of evil, he blew it. We then see how he blew it.

This past scene is wonderfully realised, starting with armadillos in a crypt, which is a nod directly to the 1931 Dracula. We see a bat, and whilst the film does have crap bat syndrome this particular one is done quite well. We see a wing and a hand morph out of it and then Dracula is there.

Van Helsing, with a prerequisite group of revolting peasants, storms the castle. They blow the gate with dynamite and gain entrance. Inside there is a vampire bride, eating a possum for some reason – obviously it was a rare Transylvanian possum. {EDIT} As noted by a commentator below this is also a nod to Browning's Dracula, something I missed. She drops the possum but her posturing does not last long as Van Helsing shoots her with an arrow through the heart. In the room is an amulet.

Now the amulet is the focus of the film and, although it is later that we discover why, we may as well look at it now. The balance between good and evil is in a constant state of flux, except once every 100 years when it is in perfect balance. The amulet contains the essence of good and at midnight, on the day of balance, it can be destroyed and thus give evil the upper hand. There is a ritual, one that must be recited by a virgin girl, which can open a portal to limbo so as to take the amulet forever out of evil’s reach.

Van Helsing has a girl read the ritual but something goes wrong, he and many other things are sucked into limbo but as for the amulet it survives.

Cut forward 100 years and the plot and premises become shaky. There is a club for monster fans that consist of a bunch of kids; Sean (Andre Gower), Patrick (Robby Kiger), Eugene (Michael Faustino) and Horace (Brent Chalem) – who is also known as fat kid. Let us stop there and look at fat kid’s name – how stupid to have the character called that? Honestly, the bullies would have found a more cutting name and why would his friends call him it as well, it is so clichéd. Anyway school bad boy Rudy (Ryan Lambert) joins the group and hanging around is Phoebe (Ashley Bank), Sean’s kid sister.

Sean’s mom (Mary Ellen Trainor) has found an old book, belonging to Van Helsing, and given it to Sean. It is written in German so they have to get local source of children’s fables, Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino), to translate it. Through this, plus the fact that a certain Mr Alucard wants the book and Sean’s dad (Stephen Macht) is a cop who is investigating both a missing mummy (Michael MacKay) and a guy who claims to be a werewolf (Carl Thibault), the kids soon realise what is going on.

Here is the problem, the storyline chops forward and this jumping is aided and abetted by gaping plot holes. How, for instance, does Dracula know that Sean has the diary? How did the amulet end up in a small American town? (Okay, with that, it is mentioned that Van Helsing’s disciples hid the amulet, but how and why there?) The list goes on but the main focus of the film is obviously the monsters so let us look at them.

We can gloss over Gillman (Tom Woodruff Jr) – or as he should have been called, the Creature from the Black Lagoon – and the Mummy as they are glossed over by the film itself. The Gillman steals a twinky and is shot by fat kid. The Mummy sneaks into Eugene’s bedroom, for no adequately explored reason, and then suffers a Scooby-Doo like unravelling. That’s about it folks.

Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan) gets a lot more screen time. He is revived by Dracula and calls the vampire ‘master’, who in turn calls him ‘old friend’. He is sent to retrieve the diary and yet ends up on the kid’s side. Why? Probably due to Phoebe in a scene very reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein, but the question isn’t really answered.

Much more rounded is the Wolfman, tortured as a human and devoted slave of Dracula in wolf form, this is a great monster in the film. The transformation scene, though sparse, works well and there is a neat bit when he is blown up by dynamite and the bits start twitching and reforming – only a silver bullet can kill him. The best line in the film involves the Wolfman, at a point when he has the kids cornered and the suggestion is made to kick him in the groin, he doubles up on impact. “Wolfman’s got nards!” the suitably impressed fat kid exclaims.

Now for the vampires... We get more vampire brides in the finale of the film – a group of girls that Dracula had in a cupboard turned into Universal like vampettes. That said they don’t do too much, they posture until staked by Rudy but they look the part. We also discover that the use of garlic holds up in this movie when Dracula is burnt by having a piece of pizza pushed against his cheek.

Dracula himself is played thoroughly evil, which is good. This culminates in him holding Phoebe, a five year old, up by the chin, bearing fangs and calling her a bitch. He can transform into a bat, and drives a ghostly hearse that has a silver skull hood ornament. I’ve mentioned the fact that he uses the pseudonym Alucard, which is something even a 12 year old can crack as a code!

He can turn into a bat and here was a problem moment. Sean’s dad shoots Dracula to no effect – well we would expect that – but later shoots the bat and sends it hurtling through a window. They find him and he is in half bat form and seems, temporarily, injured. If the bullets had no effect in human form why did they seem to effect in bat form?

The acting is passable, but nothing really stands out but the humour does work, in patches. The problem is there are too many monsters, so some are glossed over, and too many plot leaps in a rather short (82 minutes long) film and this is annoying for an adult viewer.

That said, this is a kids' film and it has pre-teens fighting monsters and winning – that will always go down well with the age group equivalent. Some nice special effects help the film and the plot isn’t as patchy as some. 4 out of 10 seems fair to me (taking into account the target audience), though those still wearing rose tinted glasses might disagree.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Why do you recognize the armadillos from Browning's Dracula, but not the possum?

Also, you are the fifteen-thousandth person to say this film owes "debt" to The Goonies when the director is on record as saying he didn't even SEE The Goonies until after he made the film.

Anonymous said...


Your review complains that the movie has "too many monsters". Wait a minute. It's called THE MONSTER SQUAD! How many frickin' monsters is it supposed to have? Is there a quota?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi thanks for your comment and for shouting.

I obviously missed the possum in Browning's Dracula - I apologise for my error.

Dekker might be on the record saying that (I've not read/heard that), but the fact is that the film does owe a hugh debt to the structure of the Goonies and one wonders whether Shane Black, who wrote the script with Dekker, had seen it.

There are too many monsters because the film is so short and thus some of them seem unused - namely Gillman and the Mummy, one wonders at their presence in the film for that reason - it is however a personal thought by the person reviewing the film, I am sorry that offends you.

The T said...

You need rose-tinted glasses man... Haha. This movie is all fun and plot holes shouldn't apply! Also, for a kid movie, the Dracula is so much better than many more adult movies!

Again: you give this movie a 4, yet Queen of the Damned...... I better not continue. I'll always have that in my mind when you give low scores to any movie lol

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, I agree with your Dracula assessment... so he then feels that much more evil in a kid's film.

Re QotD - I guess its one were we will agree to disagree, but this movie makes the point for me... I find QotD, repleat in its MTVness, superior as a film to this and the scores, and differences, feel right to me. Personal taste I guess.