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.

Movie Review ~ Wonderstruck

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: We’re all about honesty at The MN Movie Man so I’ll admit that I was a little sleepy when I caught an early preview of Wonderstuck a few weeks back. Seen on a double screening day, I struggled greatly not only keeping up with its ping-pong-y plot but just staying awake for the new film from well-liked director Todd Haynes. Based on Brian Selznick’s thick tome that’s a hybrid of novel and picture book (much like his previous hit Hugo which found its own way to screens a few years back), Selznick also wrote the screenplay and one wonders what Haynes would have done (or could have done) had he run the whole show.

Taking place in two time periods that eventually collide in unexpected ways, Wonderstuck spends a good hour just to get moving and another half hour after that to provoke the kind of wonderment I think the filmmakers were going for. For those first sixty minutes I was largely at sea with the two tales. One features a motherless boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) in the ‘70s who loses his hearing in a freak accident before running away to find his unknown father. The other trails deaf-mute Rose (the exceptional Millicent Simmonds) as she embarks on a quest to track down her favorite Hollywood actress (Julianne Moore, Still Alice) making a return to the New York stage following the advent of talkies in the late ‘20s.

Ben’s story is displayed in the vibrant, pulsating with color world of the ‘70s while Rose’s is presented in somber black and white silence. No matter how good or bad his movies are, the one thing you can absolutely say about a Todd Haynes film is that the production design will be flawless and that’s certainly the case here. Production designer Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) recreates two totally different eras of NYC with a master’s touch. I totally marveled at the depth of detail evoked by each period…if this isn’t an Oscar front-runner already, it surely will be as more people in the know see it.

How the stories eventually come together is a mystery that isn’t as easy to solve as you may first realize. The disparate time periods would suggest a different solution than Selznick arrives at but by the time we get to our destination the film has overstayed its welcome every so slightly and explained more than it showed how it all came to be.  It does help that the performances across the board are delivered with a strong sense of conviction.  Fegley’s frustration at his loss of hearing, the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), and the needle in NY haystack he’s out to find is crushingly felt as is Simmonds wish for independence despite the limitations others perceive her as having.  Moore, as usual, makes a strong showing in dual roles that are polar opposites of each other.

To its credit, the final fifteen minutes are exceptionally moving and send you out of theater better than when you arrived…but at the same time I wish the film had found another fifteen minutes to excise. It wants to be a family art-house prestige picture but can’t get out of its own way to find a stronger rhythm that will hold the attention of young and old alike. That’s all well and good for the previous films that Haynes has directed like Carol or Far From Heaven, these films had the benefit of playing to an adult audience looking for a sophistication. If Wonderstruck is able to find that family audience, I think that’s wonderful and I hope it happens. However, parents should take this one in first to determine if their kids are up for something challenging.