31 Days to Scare ~ The Monster Squad (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small town is disrupted with the arrival of Dracula to retrieve an amulet controlling the balance between good and evil.

Stars: André Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Tom Noonan, Duncan Regehr, Ryan Lambert, Stephen Macht, Mary Ellen Trainor, Jack Gwillim, Jon Gries, Stan Shaw, Leonardo Cimino

Director: Fred Dekker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Few films bring up such rich retro memories for me than 1987’s The Monster Squad.  I can still see it now.  I’m nervously biting my lip standing next to my dad at Home Video, our local rental haunt.  He’s holding the box for a movie he and my mom are checking out and I’m clutching the cardboard case (stuffed with a perfectly fitted Styrofoam rectangle) for The Monster Squad. I’m 10, it’s PG-13…I’m anxious.  I’d already asked about getting this and my dad agreed…but would he change his mind?  Will I get to take this home and see what looks like a rad flick filled with monsters, cool kids, and, best of all, Dracula?  Or will I be denied at the last minute and wind up empty-handed?  My dad turns to me, looks at the VHS and says to the clerk, “And my son is joining The Monster Squad.”  Score.

Aside from being a great memory of my dad and I, this evokes the kind of excitement that came with physically going to a store and renting movies which has become a lost art.  Being able to browse just the boxes of numerous movies without access to IMDb.com or watching the trailers on YouTube was the chance to create your own narrative as to what you thought the movie was going to be about.  With The Monster Squad, what you see on the box is definitely what you get.

Taking place in a small town that suggests mid-America (actually filmed on the back lot of Universal Studios…look for the Back to the Future clock tower in certain scenes), The Monster Squad doesn’t waste an iota of its short running time.  After an establishing prologue in Transylvania where we are introduced to a powerful amulet that Van Helsing desperately wants to use to send monsters into a black hole, we jump forward a hundred years to meet Sean (André Gower) and Patrick (Robby Kiger).  Typical high school teens, they just want to be able to talk monsters and not worry about silly things like school and chores.

At the same time, a plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s monster is hijacked by Count Dracula and winds up in the pond behind Sean and Patrick’s clubhouse.  When Count Dracula uses his power to resuscitate Frankenstein it also awakens The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman.  Dracula is after the same amulet we see at the beginning of the film which he hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.  The only problem is that he needs Van Helsing’s diary to locate the stone and unlucky for Sean, his mom just picked it up for him at a garage sale.  It’s up to Sean and his gang to vanquish the evil without getting picked off in the process.  So begins a battle between monsters and teens.

Co-screenwriter Shane Black would go on to become one of the highest paid scribes in the business (he wrote Lethal Weapon and was behind the recent reboot of The Predator) and his writing partner Fred Dekker sat behind the camera.  You can tell the two of them had a ball writing this and, though a lower-budgeted film, they make the whole thing look like a high class affair.  It has a ton of fun inside jokes that any classic monster fan will eat up and since most of the special effects are practical and not shoddy computer generated (thank you, Stan Winston), it has aged gracefully.  Admittedly, while the film has stood the test of time visually, it does have a few cringe inducing homophobic phrases that are hard to excuse away even in the most charitable sense.

I love that during the Halloween season instead of pulling the film back from free steaming services someone has allowed The Monster Squad to be readily available to any and all that want to revisit their childhood memories or introduce their kids to the fun.  Though nowhere near a hit when it was first released, it has rightfully gained a cult status over the last three decades.  It’s a bit scary for younger kids but instead of a few off-color potty mouth moments and the aforementioned regressive dialogue it’s fairly family friendly.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A greedy woman makes the mistake of murdering her husband while an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit is on the loose.

Stars: Mary Ellen Trainor, Larry Drake, Marshall Bell, Lindsey Whitney Barry, John Kassir

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 22 mins

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While it gradually dissipated in quality over the course of its seven season run, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt opened with a first season that was chock full of scary tales helmed by some of Hollywood’s top directors.  The second episode was a Christmas-themed yarn (ironically broadcast in the dead of summer in 1989) directed by future Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and while my memories were fonder of it when I was a child, it’s a nice little 22 minute lark you can fit in during the holidays between another viewing of Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The credits are barely done before a cheating wife (the late, great, Mary Ellen Trainor, then married to Zemeckis) offs her husband (Marshall Bell) in their remote home on a cold winter’s night.  With her daughter upstairs anxiously awaiting the arrival of St. Nick, she attempts to dispose of the body in an outdoor well but fails to heed the warning on the radio warning of a madman (Larry Drake) in a Santa suit on the loose.  It’s no spoiler to say that mother and daughter get visited by Kris Kringle…but not the one they were expecting.

Watching this again recently, I was struck by some bad acting and pacing problems that I didn’t register when I was younger.  It’s not as taut as it could have been…and that makes sense considering this tale was filmed before with better results.  In 1972, this story was part an anthology in the theatrical release of Tales from the Crypt and in that version it was a full 10 minutes shorter.  The extra time here feels like padding and though it’s barely a half hour it starts to feel long before the halfway point.  Even with that said, there’s something manically delightful about this contained piece of business from an A-List director eager to try his hand out again on the small screen.