Over at The ISB Chris has declared it Dracula Week. I can only assume that this is because Chris feels like he needs an excuse to discuss scenes of vampires being kicked in the face by Batman. Because Dracula is, outside of Stoker’s novel, kind of lame. There is, however, one cinematic moment in which the Count very nearly redeems himself. And that’s the time he got taken down, along with all the other monsters that Universal Pictures made movies about, by a group of pre-adolescent boys in The Monster Squad, a feat only slightly less embarrassing for vampires as a whole than that time that the Count got beheaded by an effete British lawyer and his drinking buddies.

Monster Squad is of that last generation of children’s films where children are allowed to act like children do when adults aren’t around, before the genre became horribly sanitized for fear of offending adult sensibilities. The kids in this film curse, smoke and take naked photos of the girl next door. They also, curiously, show an anachronistic fascination with movie monsters of the 1930s and 40s. Even at the time of release, this seemed a bit odd to me. I was only marginally older than these kids were supposed to be, and boys my age who were interested in horror, to a one, thought that vampires and mummies and the like were horribly childish and lame. No, it was the slasher villain-heroes who fascinated them, figures like Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees. I’d be surprised if more than one in a hundred even knew what a Gill Man was supposed to be. (As for myself, my loyalties to werewolves as the supreme avatars of horror films were formed even then, making me the exception that proved the rule.) If anything, the fascination with old school monsters, despite a mocking discussion of a “Groundhog Day” series of slasher films two characters indulge in, strikes me as screenwriters Frank Dekker and Shane Black talking about boys when they were that age, and moving them forward in time to a contemporary setting. The late 60s/early 70s feels like a more natural point for a group of proto-geeks to be masters of black and white horror film trivia.

Still, there is plenty that the film gets right about kids. As I said, the behavior rings true, as does the frustration with adults, who veer between patronizing and self-involved neglect in their treatment of children. The squabbling nature, casual cruelty and one upmanship of adolescent boys, particularly friends, is also captured accurately. Part of that, though, is the period in which it was made. The legacy of The Goonies hangs heavy over this film, with the Frankenstein Monster taking Sloth’s role as the retarded child-like adult who bonds with the children. Even Scary German Guy’s role as the only adult who believes the children about the monsters planning to take over the world, because he himself is an outsider as well, feels like it’s lifted from other films of the era. The odd emphasis that is placed on indicating to the audience that Scary German Guy is a holocaust survivor, and the he believes the children because “he knows about monsters” is an uncomfortably shocking reminder of real world horrors into what is otherwise a fairly straight-forward “scary but not too scary” movie for kids too young to buy a ticket to an R rated movie.

But enough of quibbles. At the end of the day, while the film is fun, it’s nowhere near good enough to worry about such matters. At it’s heart, this is about why kids love monsters and being scared. Because it’s fun, primarily. Because it’s a way to annoy your parents is another. Because it’s a way for kids who are slightly out of step with their school or peers to find something to be good at is in there as well. None of that is explicit or presented in a moralistic fashion, though, it’s just threaded through the film. It’s recognizable at a level that connects with the audience without being overt, which is a good tack to take, since the primary audience would be children, who aren’t the most analytical viewers but can still sense when they’re being talked down to.

There’s a bit of nerd pandering going on as well. Again, outside of any questions of quality, seeing five monster movie icons gathered together is pretty damn cool. True, they get their asses handed to them by a bunch of pre-teen boys, but that’s the kind of wish fulfillment that good kid’s movies try to provide anyway. Why else would the token fat kid get to give some comeuppance to a pair of bullies if there wasn’t some fantasy element at play? And the monsters even, mostly, ring true. The Wolfman is tortured by his dual nature. Dracula is crafty and menacing, but ultimately undone by his own arrogance and failure to understand that he doesn’t fit into the modern world. Frankenstein’s Monster is misunderstood…and Gill Man and the Mummy don’t really do much but add atmosphere to a couple of scenes. But, really, a Mummy is just a very particular zombie and Gill Man, while I’m sure he has fans, is too specific to one film franchise to really merit much consideration. Again, not important, it was just intended to be monster equivalent of a team-up.
And in any case, the only thing most men of my generation care about is that this is the film that established, once and for all, that lycanthropes have testicles.

2 Responses to “Spooky Month Review: The Monster Squad”
  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I agree with you about Dracula’s general lameness, for the most part – although I disagree with you about Stoker’s Dracula. I have to admit, I read Stoker’s novel long after I had been immersed in Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb of Dracula, and next to Marvel’s muscular interpretation the pansy-ass, emaciated and vaguely effeminate* Stoker version can’t help but seem lame. I think even though he is significantly different than most Dracula’s, Marvel’s is by far the coolest and the most interesting. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a Dracula movie or any other appearances by Dracula in other media.

    Of course, Marvel’s Dracula is very much a Marvel character in a way that maybe wouldn’t translate to other media.

    * A trait which was certainly meant to seem evil to Stoker’s audience but just seems unfortunately dated now.

  2. Eli says:

    “Wolf Man’s got nards” has to be one of the greatest lines in all of cinema history. At least, in my head.

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